Librarian or Overseer?

Maria Matienzo Puerto

Havana Schoolgirl. photo: Caridad

I feel like the Penelope of Greek mythology, weaving and unraveling my life daily in the expectation of change, which I’ve seen escape and return to many people.  I do not cease to suffer the indignation of enlightened despotism.

I don’t know if it’s because of my appearance (dressed in worn-out jeans, a long skirt with an African motif, my hair drawn back in a bun to ward off the heat, and with smooth black skin and coffee-colored eyes), but I think I cause a sort of repulsion in certain people.

Of course after I adopt the air of someone arrogant, intellectual and smug —that’s to say, I flaunt my curriculum vitae— the panorama changes.  However, I always have to take a deep breath and count to infinity to keep the true me from being revealed – me the runaway slave (a black woman with a machete in hand and ready to do anything to defend her rights) who wants to assume my acts.

There are certain types of personalities who are repeated, like in the spiral of the history of a nation.  For example, there were once overseers with certain levels of education who were hired by slave owners to whip the black slaves and thus ensure that sugarcane was cut; or those who served as mercenaries for the Spanish to track down members of the independence army.  Some of these types are still around.

There are so many occupations that lend themselves to such practices that I can’t count them on my fingers, in fact it would take the hands of twenty more people to do that.  But if there’s someone who can embody this type of personality in its full sense, it’s that of a librarian.

I know that anyone who has read my diary entries will say that I have a certain obsession with them; it’s just that when you move among books these are the people you most often come up against.  I know that there are some of them, perhaps many, who as the executors of culture deserve the utmost recognition possible.  This I can’t deny, but that’s not the case with the woman who works here at the UNESCO office in Havana.

I’m thankful that a place like this small library exists here in a country where Internet access is so difficult; what’s more, it offers its services for free.  Even though you can’t call something by its name, but instead you have to be familiar with a different nomenclature (like having to say “information recovery” instead of an “Internet search”); or that after having used the service you have to provide an itemized list of the sites you visited; or that you can’t even access your email to download vital information for your research – even with all that, I’m still thankful for the facility.

But what I’ll never be in agreement with is the treatment meted out by the woman who attends the public there.  The word tyrant doesn’t go far enough to describe her, and overseer sounds too old and antiquated.  She thinks of herself as the owner of the information and that’s why she’s disparaging of any youth who comes near the place.  She uses her position to browbeat them or just to be rude.

A sociology student went there who evidently knew about the service, but not about the magic words “information recovery,” and because of that he was almost squished like a roach.  The same thing has also happened to me and many others.

Internet access is limited to forty-five minutes, but if there’s no one next in line you can continue your “information recovery.”  However, I once had the nerve to say to her —after she had announced the imminent closing of the facility— that there was still an hour before the place was scheduled to close.

That was enough for her to lash out against me.  One of her comebacks was, “Though there’s no one next in line to perform a search, you can’t sit there forever, because this service is paid for by UNESCO.”

So I asked myself, what does it matter to this woman if I or anyone else uses that time?  What need is there to block an open door to communication and knowledge?  Did the people at UNESCO really hire a librarian or were they looking for an overseer?

This may seem like an isolated complaint or a petty tirade, but it happens with greater frequency than we imagine.

It seems like vengeance is being taken out by an aging country against everything that seems young; or it is simply against the image in front of the mirror, of what happens from “up above,” which does nothing more than reflect itself even in the smallest puddle in the street.

2 thoughts on “Librarian or Overseer?

  • Is it her or is she following orders from above?
    It can be said that free exchange of information is not the Cuban regime’s forte.
    Wouldn’t you agree?

  • Not all of us old folk are “fussbudgets,” like this petty tyrant whose domain, fortunately, seems to be limited to the UNESCO library in Habana, though this profession does seem to attract more than its share of this sort of person. At least that was the case up here in Yuma-land until a generation ago. In the last 30 years there has been a transition to librarians who are much more open, and the atmosphere and the activities in libraries are more spontaneous. Looks like your nemisis has, err, “issues.” You might suggest she receive help for her problems from the therapist depicted in “Vida es Silbar!”

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