Congress theme: “Open access to knowledge - promoting sustainable progress”

Rebuilding libraries is rebuilding the Haitian people

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Everyone remembers the terrible earthquake of January 12th 2010 in Haiti. As a tribute to the Haïti Library community, IFLA express opens its columns to two representatives of the Haitian library community: Françoise Thybulle – Director of the National Library of Haïti and Elisabeth Pierre-Louis – Library Programme Director of FOKAL.

Both of them will participate in Friday’s session: 13 August 13:45 - 15:45 for an update session on Haïti.

The Haitian libraries landscape originally is a mix of different networks. Today, after the earthquake, Patrimonial libraries, University libraries, Private libraries and Association libraries coexist and try to work together.

The National Library of Haiti and the Patrimonial libraries

Of the 3 major patrimonial libraries, one has been totally destroyed, another one needs to be repaired, and the National Library (less touched than the others) is almost ready to reopen. The National Library patrimony is very important because of the wealth of its extensive collection on Haitian cultural heritage.

The complete collections of these libraries have been saved thanks to a team of 37 Haitian librarians that used their hands and their helmeted heads to recover books, archives and files under the rubble. All the material was then safely stored in cardboard boxes in the building of the National Library or in containers. The same action took place for private libraries, and also for valuable private collections of some Haitians people. In the same way UNESCO volunteers focused on the recovery of four major collections of University libraries.

The FOKAL and the Association Libraries

FOKAL supports association libraries that are the prime institutions that give the Haitian people access to their culture. Twelve of the sixteen association libraries have been severely damaged. Eight of them suffered from theft. FOKAL aims at restoring and preserving the original association libraries, but they also want to set up a mobile library program. To do that properly a physical place is needed for the practical organisation. Following this FOKAL wants to set up animation programs to welcome people back in the libraries.

The Direction nationale du Livre

The Ministry of Culture of Haïti has a department called Direction nationale du Livre. Their core mission is to advocate public literacy. It intervenes in schools and also enables the start of a system of “home loan” for 50 people. This system is created to facilitate the circulation of books among the Haitian citizens.

Important needs

The needs and demands of the student community are very important. Despite the earthquake, the government maintained the planning of the exam sessions as an untold “life still goes on” challenge. Plenty of students live in the Port au Prince refugees camps and have nothing to work with: no tables, no seats, no Internet access. In order to help them, the National Library installed picnic and camping tables within the courtyard, but it’s not enough yet. Apart from that, the people are really in demand of reading materials. But association libraries could hardly open their doors because of the risks of their damaged buildings to collapse. So the need of a new cultural centre and library is very important.

Another way to fulfill the need is the creation of animation programs in order to cheer up the life of the people in the refugee camps. Animation programs have been launched by enthusiastic librarians of local communities, and are a really big success, especially for the children. The idea is also to bring people outside of the refugee camps. Libraries can play a key role in accomplishing this goal.

Access to knowledge and the importance of books and reading

Providing access to knowledge in combination with the traditional Haitian hunger for reading is a strong incentive to the future of the Haitian people. In Haiti, a book symbolises your possibilities for getting out of your condition of deep poverty. Thus knowledge and books are intimately bound into Haitian people’s grassroots mind.

Access to knowledge is a critical issue. Before the earthquake, Haiti counted 20 public libraries. The earthquake damaged four of those 20 libraries. There is also the concern of spreading the knowledge through the population. The lack of public schools leads to gender inequality in the Haitian society, especially in rural areas.

Culture through libraries: hope for the future

Despite the fact that 40% of the people are illiterate, Haitians are aware of their glorious past and the wealth of their culture. It is running through the Haitian veins.

The support that has been brought by the library community, and especially through IFLA, has been very important and welcomed. Phone calls and emails were proof of professional solidarity in the first days after the disaster. They encouraged us to stand up and to go further.

The important role and the permanent follow-up of IFLA, through its different programs make visible the effects of the international solidarity, but also show the Haitian colleagues that they are not alone!

Nevertheless eight months after the disaster the traumatisms remain intense and the Haitian library community still needs the full support of its foreign peers. With the support and close relations of the Caribbean library community and the support of the global community of librarians that IFLA represents, Haiti is going to pursue its library rebuilding work and its knowledge distribution.

To date Haiti only has 10 professional librarians, and 100 paraprofessional librarians, for 9 million people. Their energy and their passion for life, mixed with training programmes undertaken through IFLA, would allow to improve the situation.

As Françoise Thybulle said: 'Our challenge is to give to the people a sense for new life. Rebuilding libraries is rebuilding the Haitian people. And to make this possible, we need you!'