Havana Welcomes Book Donations from Lehman College

July 16, 2009 | News

Casa de las Americas

A group of American and Cuban librarians are showing that goodwill and a shared sense of purpose can prevail over international politics. Working with a consortium of North American libraries, Lehman College Chief Librarian Kenneth Schlesinger has launched the Cuba Book Project, which aims to restock the shelves of Cuba’s libraries. While Castro’s government has said there is no censorship of books in Cuba, the lack of access to new literature, especially from overseas, has limited the choices of Cuban readers. The Cuba Book Project will help by sending donated book to the Caribbean island”bypassing the longstanding U.S. embargo with Cuba by exporting books from the University of Alberta in Canada.

Praising the effort, CUNY University Librarian Curtis Kendrick says: “Librarians have always been at the forefront of open access to information. The Cuba Book Project will crack the door to greater engagement with Cuba a little wider.” Adds Schlesinger: “I’m interested in getting Lehman on the ground floor of promoting free exchange of research, culture and ideas.”

Two of Havana’s major cultural centers will receive the donations from Lehman and other participating libraries: Casa de las Americas, an organization that promotes Latin American arts and culture, and the Jose Marti National Library, Cuba’s equivalent of the Library of Congress. With links to about 400 Cuban public libraries, the National Library will redistribute these books around the country. In addition, several hundred independent libraries that have come under fire from Castro may stand to benefit. Awaiting the first shipment of books, Jose Miguel Sardinas, the librarian at the Center of Literary Research at Casa de las Americas, says: “Thank you so much for your efforts in supporting the Library, which will prove very important to us.”

The Cuba Book Project grew out of a weeklong trip to Havana by Schlesinger and a group of librarians this past February. They visited Havana’s International Book Fair, a conference for writers, publishers and readers from around the world, and met with representatives at the Union of Writers and Artists and other cultural institutions. But the feeling of connection between Cubans and Americans was strongest on common professional ground. After the group toured the National Library’s sophisticated facilities for the disabled, Schlesinger had a lively exchange with Deputy Director Olga Gomez Cortes about potential future cooperation between U.S. and Cuban libraries. “There were also a lot of questions about Obama and baseball,” he says.

At the Casa de las Americas, which houses a 90,000 book collection of Latin American history and culture, the Cuban librarians asked their North American colleagues for book contributions that would broaden their holdings of Caribbean and Latin American literature. Seeing that even the biggest Cuban libraries suffered a constant lack of funds, Schlesinger decided to set up a network for book donations, and with his colleagues from the University of Alberta and Pratt Institute in Baltimore developed guidelines and wrestled with logistics to make an exchange work. “Our intention is to help Casa de las Americas develop a world-class collection,” Schlesinger says.

Schlesinger’s interests have taken him far afield before. In 2005, he traveled to Vietnam on a Fulbright scholarship and advised its academic libraries on strategic planning and international copyright. But Cuba’s appeal to him lies in the role its librarians have played in the struggle for intellectual openness and human rights. In 2003, Cuban courts jailed 75 independent journalists, librarians and human-rights activists under Law 88, which punishes contact with foreign powers. The gay dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas worked in Cuba’s National Library until he fled to the U.S. in 1980, and in 2007 former National Library Chief Librarian Eliades Acosta resigned from the Communist Party in disillusionment.

Before leaving for Cuba in 2009, Schlesinger met with a CUNY official, who asked him to hand-deliver an open letter from prominent U.S. scientists to a Cuban university official. Expressing solidarity with the Cuban people, the letter urged President Obama to lift the embargo to facilitate critical exchange of environmental and plant sciences research. Given the sensitivity of this communication, it was necessary to protect the identities of the individuals involved, suggesting that there is still a long way to go before openness between the two nations becomes a reality. But humanitarian efforts like the Cuba Book Project may be a step in that direction

–Irene Gashurov