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A Visit to Cuba’s Libraries

by Audra Caplan on May 2, 2013

In May I traveled to Cuba on an educational tour comprised of teachers and librarians. We visited libraries, schools, museums, cultural art centers, and special programs offered for children. The experience was truly enlightening and I found out that despite all of the political and cultural differences, our two countries have many things in common.

Cuba is made up of fourteen provinces and 169 municipalities. We spent the majority of time in Havana but also traveled to Cienfuego, Santa Clara, and Trinidad. Havana has fifteen municipalities with a population of eleven million. Although their way of life is spare compared to many of ours, there are no homeless people in Cuba and health care is free with a doctor in every community. Education is available to everyone and mandatory until the ninth grade. Students are eligible for free education through university, medical school, and other professional programs as well as technical schools.

I was most interested in their programs for children ages birth to five because early literacy has been a focus for many of us in public libraries. There are two programs for preschool children:

  1. Daycare is a formal program that has a curriculum for each age group starting with two-year-olds. We saw daycare centers in a number of communities and all had clean, bright spaces. In one, we viewed children participating in a storytime. This program is currently only available for working mothers, especially mothers who are teachers, doctors, or healthcare workers.
  2. Educate Your Child was created because there were not enough daycare centers. This program is for children from birth until age four. The program is organized by the Ministry of Education and the Public Health Department. The community director, local sports federations, and women’s organizations also participate. These programs can be created in any space in the community. The program is a holistic approach to early childhood development and includes emergent literacy skills. Mothers receive education on how to raise the child at the community level. The most important component of the program is that the family and child participate together.

During our stay in Havana we visited the National Library. Established in 1901, the current building was constructed in 1959 and has seventeen floors. The building houses four million books and publications. There is a big push to digitize materials, including prints and posters so the originals are preserved. The first three floors are open to the public and the rest of the building includes offices and closed stacks where runners retrieve materials requested by the public. The reference room includes reference materials and banks of computers. Computers are available to anyone, but Internet access is limited to research. Email and social networking are available in other locations in the community. Because most cable within proximity of Cuba is owned by the US, communication is only available through satellite. Limited bandwith makes Internet response time slow. Reference librarians offer consultation in person, by telephone, and through email. There is a special room on this floor for users with disabilities. It is available for blind, deaf, physically and mentally handicapped users, and for senior citizens. The equipment is modest but the room was packed with people utilizing various adaptive tools. One of the librarians working in this room, Mucha, was blind and had just finished the equivalent of a Master’s degree in library science. Her special project was transcribing recorded material into Braille.

The National Library also includes a floor that has two large rooms that have the typical characteristics of a U.S. public library. All materials circulate. Library cards are issued with proper ID and patrons may take out two items at a time for fifteen days. One room is dedicated to children and youth that includes a “baby library,” a room for elementary age children, and a teen area. The staff works with the communities around the library to develop projects. These include papier mâché workshops, traditional dances, English lessons, and storytelling narration lessons. Each room has a schedule of programs and children have access to all of them. The secondary students’ programs are tailored to their needs. Librarians go to the schools to interview teenagers and they design programs together. The youth librarians did say they have problems getting reading lists from teachers. Evidently this is a universal issue!

The other room houses the adult collections including fiction, nonfiction, and audiovisual materials. Programs include Novel Afternoon, where once each month an author is invited for a discussion.

The National Library director oversees all of the four hundred public libraries in Cuba. There are public libraries in each province including a large library in each municipality. In addition, each community has a small library. This includes branches in remote areas. Each public library provides service for people with disabilities. We visited the Municipal Library in Old Havana on a Saturday afternoon and all of the rooms were filled with students and their parents working on assignments. A good deal of the print material that is available is worn and rebound. According to Yolanda Nunez, the associate director of the National Library, budgets have been cut due to the downturn in the economy. A good deal of material is acquired from the International Book Fair held in Havana. UNESCO also provides resources.

There are libraries in every school. These are open the same hours as the school and in many cases this includes evenings. Classes are required to visit the library one time a week. Librarians also teach students computer skills.

In every province in Cuba there is a university that includes a five-year library program. Upon graduation the student receives a BA degree in librarianship and the science of information. There is no distance learning available. Courses are also offered at the National Library for specialty diplomas in library science.

Toward the end of our stay in Havana we visited an afterschool program called Los Niños, Las Niñas. The building where the program is housed was given to the community by the government but the program is not government funded. All of the adults that work there volunteer their time. The program has approximately fifty children in attendance every afternoon and they have the opportunity to take classes in fine arts, music therapy, choral arts, karate, and dance. The children range from elementary through secondary school age. Our group was treated to performances by a group of elementary age dancers and two high school rappers who had won an international talent contest sponsored by UNESCO. This afternoon visit was one of the highlights of the trip.

We visited many other places on our tour including the Literacy Museum, a medical college, and the Cultural Arts Museum that housed a large literary library.

All of us on the tour were struck by how similar we are to the people of Cuba in so many ways and how much we can learn from each other. For those of us in the library world it would certainly be worthwhile to have a cultural exchange.