Recently, I had the honor of leading a delegation of fourteen librarians and information professionals to a series of information centers in Havana, Cuba. Susan Fifer Canby, VP Emeritus of the National Geographic and Past President of DCSLA, was part of the group, and she filed this report.

By Susan Fifer Canby

“I have to work within my reality.”

This is the way the Cuban National Library Director Dr. Eduardo Torres Cuevas described managing libraries in Cuba.

Cindy Romaine, SLA President and Mary Nell Bryant listen to presentations.

Under the guidance of SLA President Cindy Romaine we traveled to Havana to see for ourselves what that reality is. We visited the National Library; a public library now housed in the former US Embassy; a Latin American foundation, Casa de las Americas; the National Center for Medical Science Information; the University of Computer Sciences and Informatics, located on a former Russian military base; a special library of the Ministry of Natural History only accessible up five flights of stairs; and the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity.

In our travels, we met and talked with Cuban leaders and practitioners from the Cuban Library Association, the Cuban Academy of Science, the Society of Scientific and Technological Information, the Institute of Documentation and Scientific and Technical Information, the Cuban Book Institute, and even the library at the barricaded American presence in Havana

Documents waiting for indexing and preservation.

Faced with an impoverished economy, subjected to rationed electricity, and set in a humid physical environment, with limited technical or exchange opportunities, Cuban libraries face daunting challenges.

Libraries have no library management systems, although the University of Informatics is testing Koha,, an open source LMS, for potential use.  Except for the University of Informatics, which is tasked with building the technical foundation of the country as well as developing software, libraries have few computers, and these are antiquated and use outdated versions of MS Office.  There are no photocopiers, and library supplies are limited or not available (no acid-free papers, archival boxes, etc.)

Many Restrictions

Cuban policy restraints, combined with severe shortages of electricity, are made even worse by extremely limited access to the Internet. Librarians are not sharing cataloging, even though institutionally they rely on intranets.  Other than at the American offices, the Internet is available only on a very restricted basis and to select professors and their students, and with narrow bandwidth.  Book acquisitions must come from Mexico or other nations unaffected by the embargoes, and pass through eagle-eyed censors.  Materials that made it to the shelves looked well-used, though sparse and mostly published before 1980.

The environmental Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity

Several of us seek to donate books and other materials, and we are advised libraries cannot accept them, because of Cuban concern over ‘imperialistic’ propaganda.  Librarians putting such books on the shelf (no matter how apolitical) could lose their jobs.  Although there is clearly a desire for library cooperation, the book trade is tightly controlled.  Americans entering Cuba have had even children’s books confiscated, and mail is also restricted.  We nevertheless shared business cards, and hoped for an improvement in government relations.

Our guide Jesus proudly shows a National Geographic Atlas.

Cuban librarians are using intranets to share limited information institutionally. This has enabled some to build reference content, apparently captured for free during brief access to the Internet, by hacking what they can, and bringing back materials when anyone travels outside the country.

An intractable problem exists in the area of materials storage, stemming from the island’s humidity, and acute shortage of electricity and air conditioning. Libraries also face limited resources for maintaining their physical space. We visited several libraries currently being refurbished with help from NGOs or UNESCO.

Despite these adversities, librarians are holding their own.  Librarians graduate from the University of Havana with degrees in library science. Studying for an MLS involves a work-study arrangement, so that students are studying and applying their learning at an institution where they will later work.   The librarians we met were focused on improving access for their users and using metrics to determine where to ramp up services where possible. They understand the need for preservation, and are very interested in collaboration.  We were advised we are the first-ever American colleagues to visit their libraries.

Observations on Culture

Everyone is paid by the state, and we were told that the average salary is $15 a month. Here’s the math: 24 pesos = 1 convertible peso = USD $1.  Cuba has a dual economy: one for tourists (pricey) and one for residents (low cost).

Three delegates including Susan Fifer-Canby cram into a coco cab.

Our group crammed in a little sight-seeing throughout our work-filled days.  We visited El Morro Castle, one of several castles built by the Spaniards during their lengthy occupation, used to store gold on its way from the new world to the old. On arrival, we were introduced to Cuban rum on the bus ride from the airport; we savored rum in Mojitos, rum straight, and rum in Cuba Libres (the drink combining Coke with rum and made famous during the revolution).  Some of us tried smoking the celebrated Cuban cigars, which along with rum and coffee we couldn’t bring home because of the U.S. embargo.

Part of our group visited the bar where Ernest Hemingway wrote “Old Man and the Sea” and toured his animal-head and book-filled home on the outskirts of Havana. We visited an old rum factory. We tested out the new restaurants in people’s homes, called “paladars,” that are emerging as restrictions are loosened for those wanting to become entrepreneurs.

At the paladars, we saw a marked leap in the quality of service and food.  In all public places – hotels, restaurants, and bars, we were treated to live Cuban music.  On the street we sampled sweet coconut cones, wrapped in palm leaves.

The waves are dramatic.

Havana is a set on a dramatic bay with waves crashing over the sea wall. The architecture, once grand, seems mostly rundown colonial and art deco, often dramatically decorated with murals, statues, and artwork exalting Fidel and Che and Viva la Revolution.

Motorized traffic is sparse and consists largely of classic American cars from the 1940s and 1950’s. Tourists are ferried in little clam-shelled coco-cabs, operated by a driver on a motorcycle engine. In their state-run economy, Cubans pay no taxes and have free medical care, education, and housing. The latter is often inadequate and, like food, rationed.

The Director of the National Library, Dr. Torres, proudly told us that a new law on libraries has been issued, clarifying the library code of ethics and supporting shared resources. While we were there another new law allowed Cubans to buy and sell their homes. While the legal system is not yet in place to deal with these changes, we left hoping they’re a harbinger of a new reality and more freedoms to come.

For more photos go to: SLA + Cuba. A longer report will be published in the January/February issue of SLA’s Information Outlook.

The delegates preparing to return to the USA.