The Transformation of Cuba’s Libraries

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

Cuba's National Library.

Public spaces in Cuba suffer rapid deterioration, especially those set up to encourage and promote culture. Notwithstanding, those of a markedly commercial character have experienced certain improvements in their infrastructure and have secured their economic and legal status.

This is how things begin to work with the arrival of neoliberal “revolutions” that replace pseudo-socialist ones. Money, productivity and consumerism reemerge from the ashes of economic centralism leaving hyper-bureaucratization and the precariousness of consumption behind.

This doesn’t mean that the state assigns little importance to the public’s cultural instruction. The administration of this social service constitutes one of the most actively used arguments when justifying its self-assigned role as the mediator of society’s daily life.

Eurocentric elite culture constitutes the basic ingredient with which governments institute this universal service. For governments, the educational function of public libraries is something secondary, though the opposite is propounded through the media.

The main purpose of these educational institutions is the cleansing of civil society. They serve to exorcize social conflict and economic precariousness through the direct transmission of a normalizing culture consistent with the government’s interests. These represent first-class demagoguery.

Public libraries in Cuba have historically been institutions upholding the state strategy of the moral instruction of the people. In each Cuban municipality one can find at least one public library available to the local population. Much has happened since their earlier years, those were days of impulsive activism as well as ones of dedication to education.

Currently their deteriorated municipal mega-structures appear in our eyes like a demand for compassion. But this deterioration is the superficial face of the deep moral instability that public libraries in our country are suffering. Inside of them inhabit more eloquent faces.

The reading rooms remain practically desolate the six days of the week that they’re open. The few readers we discover, who are like ghosts in a dungeon, only go to public libraries out of intellectual passion or the need for distraction.

Cornered in dim reading rooms, crowded among shelves stuffed with outdated and deteriorated books, overwhelmed between the dust and dangers of imminent collapse, and in the absence of any type of basic of services, these readers somehow manage to access literary works and authors.

The workers at public libraries are partly responsible for this situation. They are the victims and the perpetrators of the same situation, simultaneously contributing to and suffering from the precariousness of the service.

On one hand they suffer a lack of social recognition. For example, people generally don’t know about fascinating programs like the one called “Libro hablado” (the spoken book), which basically consists of the extension the library to the homes of people who, for one reason or another, are unable to read. A specialist from the institution reads books to these people who previously select those works there at the library.

On the other hand, these same workers contribute in various ways to the deterioration of these public spaces. They bring their family and local atmospheres into the library, causing the invasion of spaces dedicated to tranquil reading and study. The overly active staffs end up shaking the walls with their uproar and racket. It’s even worse when fights and quarrels break out, not to mention those distracting sessions of “tell me your life.”

There doesn’t exist a mental state capable of conserving the disposition for study under these conditions. And since we all share some degree of complicity in situations like these, there are moments when workers and users merge in the tyranny of back-scratching and socialization. In this way there hatches a social function to the detriment of another one.

Today many public libraries in Cuba function more like adult-youth asylums than like libraries as such. More than institutions that promote neighborhood integration, they seem more like Hollywood studios set up to create atmospheres for terror films.

Shadows, howls and dusty rooms appear before our every step. However there exist ghost-hunting readers who out of pure courage are able to get beyond the most dissimilar obstacles in search of that grandiose enjoyment that reading and study represents to them.

Could it be that a “guardian angel” persists in aiding us in the attempt to revive that intimate enjoyment produced by reading and studying in a public library? It could be.

3 thoughts on “The Transformation of Cuba’s Libraries

  • No hay igualdad social posible sin igualdad de cultura. Jose Marti
    -no hay bibliothecas reales en Cuba, solo una maffia imperante que mantienen al ciudadano de rodillas, ambriento y en la oscuridad!


  • Having recently visited the aging libraries of Havana, I can concur as to their rapidly deteriorating condition. I am a scholar interested in researching the period of U.S. occupation of Cuba, 1898 to 1903. Unfortunately for scholars like me, the texts in Cuba, related to this time period, are in horrible condition. Since libraries are the repositories of information for the future generations, lack of attention to their condition is an offense to the society. During several visits to the University of Havana library, the conditions prevalent were distressing. The majority of the card catalog is in disrepair. Numerous drawers are missing, while others are empty. Of those that contain cards, the result of a request for a specific text is often met with, “No tenemos ese libro.” (We don’t have that book.) Of 62 titles requested over three days, less than a quarter were available, and half of those were unreadable due to deterioration, neglect, or damage. At two other libraries I visited in Havana, the conditions were somewhat better, however the deterioration of the older texts is distressing. Unless Cuba undertakes a rapid process of electronic preservation of these older texts, I am afraid that our generation will be the last to lay eyes upon them.

  • Mr. Yenisel Rodriguez Perez, if your picture portrays the libraries in general, what do you suggest? Are there any good guys among the staff and managers? The brave readers you describe, what would help them get better services? Besides this web site, have you posted your concerns in any publications in Cuba?

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