Cuba’s National Library and its Nefarious Membership Policy

Daisy Valera

My library card for the National Publc Library

HAVANA TIMES — Surrealist Cuban writer Juan Brea’s collection of essays “La verdad contemporanea” (Contemporary Truth) ends with a series of reflections we could describe as intuitive or extravagant.

“Man is the only animal capable of dying because of drunkenness or a kind gesture. This is what makes him different, not virtuous.”

I transcribed Brea’s book page by page. Published in 1941, it is far better known across the Atlantic than in Cuba, where it has never been reprinted.

This happy ending – having been able to transcribe this work – was made possible by my degree in Radiochemistry.

Havana’s Jose Marti National Library (BNJM) is, in a few words, an imposingly large building which houses around 4 million books, uncomfortable chairs, insipid paintings by Cuban painter Kcho, vigilant old women and a god-awful membership mechanism.

The library reopened its doors to the public in October of last year with a great song and dance. This was hailed (heaven knows why) as a cultural event of the first order which was even acknowledged as such by Cuba’s Minister of the Interior.

Though the institution underwent repairs and restructuring for over 45 months, its membership policy, established in 2000, hasn’t become the slightest bit more flexible.

In order to access the books, you first need to obtain a Library Card – a totally comprehensible requirement.

The catch is that you’re only entitled to this card if you can be included under any of the following categories: researcher, professional or university or specialized art instruction student.

This translates into denying the immense majority of the population access to Cuba’s literary holdings and its historical documents and recordings. An act of exclusion which the BNJM’s flimsy argument doesn’t manage to explain: that the categorization of library users is a common practice in libraries around the world.

Interior of the National Library.

The library’s thirst for categorizing and limiting public access to information isn’t quenched by simply proving that you belong to one of the aforementioned privileged minorities (by showing them your ID, providing them with photos and a copy of your degree), no.

There is a regulation which stipulates that users must limit their search to such books and documents required strictly for their work, research or teaching activity. On the basis of this, the library reserves the right to deny a user access to information that bears no thematic relationship to the area of studies registered in their file. For instance, a biologist may be denied access to documents related to architecture.

There’s more. To access information contained in the valuable historical documents housed by the BNJM, the user must preset a letter of endorsement from his place of work or study. This regulation means that practically no professional in Cuba can access historical documents at the library to do research work if such work hasn’t first been verified by a State institution.

What should we make, then, of that inclusive slogan that called for the creation of a cultured population of avid readers?

Efforts undertaken in Cuba in the 1960s, which resulted in the creation of the National Public Library Network, the School of Library Sciences, the Popular Reading Campaign and the Recovered Libraries Movement, did, in effect, manage to promote the habit of reading among Cubans.

The interest in conserving library materials (something which could be achieved in many different ways) is not a strong enough argument to justify these 13 years in which the BNJM’s information has been held hostage.

The critical state public education is in at all levels and the noticeable drop in university enrolment are facts that call for the elimination of the library’s current restrictions.

Granting everyone access to the country’s libraries is not an exaggerated anachronism belonging to the early days of the revolution, as they would have us believe in these times of reform.

Daisy Valera

Daisy Valera:Soil scientist and blogger. I write from Mexico City, where Havana sometimes becomes so small that it disappears. However in others, the Cuban capital is a city so past and present that it steals your breath.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s National Library and its Nefarious Membership Policy

  • yeah, pretty much was my conclusion when i tried to go to the library just to browse through and see what is availible. they told me i couldn´t without a card. as soon as i got the card i ran into the same problems: you need permision to actually look at the materials. add to that you cannot bring in anything more than paper and pens.
    i read that municipal libraries used to be really good until the special period hit and people started stealing books and even selling them.

  • Jose Marti is turning on his grave! Actually since the Castro brothers took over the Cuban Revolution 54 years ago!

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