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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 13. Cuban Libraries: Challenges and Achievements

By Rhonda L. Neugebauer,
Bibliographer, Latin American Studies, University of California.

As a Latin American area specialist, I have had a long-standing interest in Cuba and in Cuban libraries. I have visited Cuba several times since 1989, and each time I met with librarians and toured libraries. During these visits, I learned about the history and development of library collections and services, the training and education of library professionals, the professional development of the librarian and information technologist (or the "informatico), the community-based programming and outreach of the libraries, and the assessments and user studies that are done in Cuban libraries. I visited all types of libraries: the national library, public libraries, school libraries, university libraries, the graduate school of library science and a library training school. The librarians were very glad to see us and to be able to talk to their US counterparts. Many, many times they expressed their appreciation for our visit and asked us to convey their friendship and greetings to the US librarians that we might know. Our librarian hosts treated us cordially, were friendly and open. They willingly shared their experiences as well as their challenges. And, they answered all of our questions. There was never a situation in which I felt the Cubans did not want to answer questions, to describe their problems, to pose criticisms and complaints about things, or to discuss critical issues affecting the profession - or, for that matter, the relations between the two countries that also affected the profession.

During our visit, the Cuban librarians also asked us all types of questions about our work, our collections and services, about our professional ethics, our organization, about ALA, about our collection development budgets and philosophies and about the Internet and electronic resources and their impact on our work. They genuinely wanted to learn about U.S. librarianship experiences and practice. In short, our conversations revolved around the same issues that interest library professionals from any part of the world (and left with the feeling of true friendship and collegial concern).

We had numerous organized and spontaneous exchanges that included discussions of services and collections, automation, the Internet and new technologies and their use in libraries, professional development activities and the projects they had organized to further literacy, and the love of reading and to bring the community into the library. Several times, we talked about intellectual freedom and their collection development parameters and techniques for building their collections even during times of limited budgets and even while they were in an "underdeveloped, poor" country. It was obvious that many of their problems resulted from underdevelopment, scarce resources, limited growth, and a precarious economic situation that is typical throughout Latin America.

A few words on sovereignty and development--two of the themes of this panel. Cuba is a poor country that struggles for stable economic growth, foreign trade and investment based on national dignity, political autonomy and sustainable development for the country as a whole, not just for certain groups of people or businesses. This makes Cuba unique from the US and from most Latin American countries. Many of their decisions about allocation of resources and their chosen paths toward development are shaped by a national interest in maintaining sovereignty and choosing a type of development that is sustainable and that has benefits for the society as a whole. Of course, the whole issue of free trade and the WTO process has called further into question the sovereignty of any nation with regard to offering services, establishing businesses and creating trade relations that serve both parties equally. But, this is a topic for another day (perhaps next year there will be a panel to follow up on last year's wonderful panel on libraries and the WTO).

Visits to libraries

On my trips to Cuba, I observed a range of achievements by the library profession as well as a range of problems caused by scarce resources and economic limitations. On the positive side, it is worth noting that these limitations have compelled library professionals to be creative, patient, vigilant and resourceful. Cuban libraries face chronic shortages of resources - such as office supplies, paper, computers and budgets for acquisitions and technology. They experience regular problems with the telephone system and international communications, which make library development difficult. Yet, librarians are determined to find solutions to technological as well as other problems, and they have progressed toward their goals of collection building and improved services. They continue to add materials to their collections through exchange and donation, and by developing new programs.

Cuban librarians place public service and outreach high on their priorities and they have accomplished a great deal by combining creative writing and publishing programs. They also have embraced culture and the arts as paths to reaching children and youth, parents, working people, individuals with special needs, isolated rural communities, students, the aged, the sick and the isolated.

Now for some of examples of these programs. For children, the public libraries host "game" days and contests about historical figures, the arts and culture. Many libraries have developed a variety of children's programs with story times, theater presentations, and art and music appreciation days.

For parents, librarians teach classes on integrating reading into family activities and have established "bebetecas" (books for pre-schoolers). For working people, they take books to the workplace or establish reading rooms to circulate books to employees. For the elderly and housebound, they deliver books to their homes on regular visits. In one library closed for repairs, the librarians traveled throughout neighborhoods to meet patrons, give classes, talk in schools about library services, and continue outreach activities. These librarians had been without a building for over 6 months, but were never idle and eagerly shared their ideas with us.

Another innovative program established in several libraries was "subscription borrower groups" where patrons contribute books and/or pay a small sum to borrow new books (10 pesos per year - a peso is worth about 5 cents, so about $.50/year). These groups, called Minerva Clubs, invite patron support and donations to public library popular fiction collections, and are one way in which Cuban libraries have responded to the increased need for new books when, since the 1990s, publishing declined dramatically. These clubs, started with donations of materials from Spain, serve large numbers of people and help the library buy multiple copies of high-demand titles.

Cubans study their constituencies

On my most recent trip to Cuba, several in our group participated in the conference From Papyrus to the Virtual Library sponsored by the Casa de las Americas. There, we had the opportunity to hear about several studies carried out by Cuban librarians to assist them in designing and delivering services to library users in their communities. Most of these studies were prepared by Cuban librarian-researchers (investigadores), whose responsibilities include conducting research and needs assessments on a particular library's constituencies in order to design improvements in or develop new programs or services. Several librarians presented research that they had completed in the course of their work or had researched to address a specific need.

It was very interesting to see, through these presentations, what the Cuban librarians sought to change or improve. The topics studied by Cuban librarians revealed an intense interest in preserving the historical record, such as the documents and publications of the various archives, libraries and research centers. They were also interested in intellectual property Rights, distance education, marketing of cultural products (i.e. books, websites, etc.), the role of the librarian in a digital world, and the library as promoter of culture in the community and among special populations. It was refreshing to learn about the Cubans' use of technologies to offer services to such diverse populations as scientists, teachers, athletes and physical education faculties, workers and administrators of sugar refineries, environmental specialists, individuals with disabilities and, last but not least, in the training of library school students - an interesting project developing library collections to fit a targetted neighborhood after an extensive needs assessment.


As I mentioned earlier, Cuban librarians have used a variety of innovative strategies to build their library collections because of their limited budgets. Exchanges (canje) and donations are used extensively to build the collections - because library budgets are so limited. As a matter of fact most US research libraries with Latin American collections have well-developed exchange relations with dozens of Cuban libraries and research institutes. And, if you add the amount of materials exchanged over 40 years, it is a sizeable amount, no doubt, resulting in hundreds if not thousands of titles for the Cuban and US partners. Just imagine for a moment, how you would build a collection in your library to serve 1000s of people, with a very small amount, say about $1000 per year. How could you do it? You'd have to be very creative.

The National Library provides an answer to part of that question for how they do it in Cuba. The National Library benefits from the law of "deposito legal" (legal deposit), which requires all publishers in Cuba to give 5 copies of each title they publish to the National Library. The National Library adds a copy to their collection, sends some copies to other libraries, and uses some copies for exchange with its extensive list of international partners. And, just a plug here, the exchange list of the National Library is on their website (

The National Library is another place we visited. Founded in 1901, it has a sizeable collection (about 3 million items), and serves as the main repository for Cuban intellectual patrimony. The Library also provides services to the public including circulation, reference and children's services, and serves as the lead organizer of a network of 387 public libraries in the country. Several librarians at the National Library are in charge of providing training, cataloging and reference tools, program and planning support, continuing education, and technological support to public libraries as well as to about 600 school libraries, 500 health centers, and 1000 information centers in Havana.

At the National Library, we talked about collection building strategies and found that we have a lot in common. We both strive to build collections that the reading public wants and that serves to stimulate minds, and to offer various perspectives on cultural and national development and national policy matters. I was heartened to learn of their interest in all types of materials, especially Cuban authors that are published outside of Cuba. This is not new - every time I have been to Cuba I have received the same request - to help them find books about Cuba and by Cuban authors, wherever they may be published in the world.

During our visit, the director of the National Library, Dr. Acosta, brought up the issue of censorship and intellectual freedom in Cuban libraries. He said, "The materials we have in our libraries offer a variety of perspectives on the revolution. In our collections, we want diversity. We want to add materials of all types. We have books by U.S. authors and books by Cubans that live abroad. We want more materials that are published abroad, we just do not have the funds to purchase them. That is why our exchange programs with libraries around the world are so important. Through exchange, we add materials that we could not possibly purchase abroad because of the cost. Many titles from abroad are in our libraries because of the exchange relations we have with U.S. and other foreign libraries for decades. We are attempting to preserve the national patrimony, and our collection development policies reflect the needs and desires of our people to be exposed to all kinds of ideas and perspectives."

There are other challenges that face the National Library too. They want to automate their main catalog as well as their departmental catalogs, create a union catalog for the country's public libraries, continue to develop their website, establish Internet connections for public libraries, publish bibliographies on thematic topics, set up exhibitions of cultural artifacts and books, organize authors' presentation events, and expand the new recreational reading Minerva Clubs to all of the localities that have requested them. That is what is on their agenda for the next few years.

The Internet in Cuba

The Internet, as might be expected, was a topic of intense interest among librarians. During visits, our Cuban hosts asked many questions about how we meet the demands of patrons and how new technologies, especially the Internet, have affected our work. This discussion led to an engaging dialogue about the transformations in our profession and our new work priorities that result from technology and the seemingly all-encompassing "electronic imperative."

We learned that we shared many concerns about the impact of technology on our profession and our work. And, this led to many lively discussions about the impact of technological change on library services and how to face the rising expectations of library patrons and staff while continuing to offer traditional products and services. At this time, developing professional expertise on computers and the Internet is a top priority for most staff. Through their professional associations and workplaces, they organize workshops, courses, seminars and panel presentations on librarianship and information technology.

Cuba already has quite a commitment to web development. Libraries and research centers have an impressive web presence, with nicely designed sites, unique databases and active, energetic developers that are eager to digitize many unique Cuba holdings. Specifically, at the conference organized by Casa, we saw demonstrations of several new electronic products produced in Cuba. One of them, CubaLiteraria, is a beautiful and comprehensive website dedicated to Cuban literature ( Billed as "the portal to Cuban literature," its content and developing database of authors as well as its sponsorship by the Cuban Institute of the Book, make this an important resource for studying Cuban literary production and publishing. Another website that brings together many Cuban resources is the Portal for Philosophy ( And, the Casa de las Americas, is now digitizing the first 40 years of its important literary journal (Revista Casa de las Americas) with coverage of Latin American literature, criticism, and the arts. At our visit to the Institute for Scientific and Technological Information (IDICT), we met with a team of web developers and library technology coordinators about their initiatives in support of business development and commercial enterprises in Cuba. And, recently, while browsing an Internet directory, I found a listing for an Internet Café in Habana at the Academia de Ciencias (Academy of Sciences), where Cubans and foreigners can search the Internet and email services.

Library Associations in Cuba

I would like to briefly mention two professional librarian associations in Cuba. The two major associations for librarians in Cuba are the Association of Cuban Librarians (ASCUBI) and the Cuban Society of Information Sciences (SOCICT). We met with both groups and learned of their organizations and methods of professional training, keeping current (actualizarse), and keeping in touch (comunicarse).

ASCUBI, the Association of Cuban Librarians, has about 1200 members and represents librarians, library workers and library technicians. There are chapters in nine of the 14 provinces. The decision-making body, the Executive Council, meets regularly and one of their agenda items is to facilitate development of relations with sister librarian associations. Cuban librarians pay about one peso per month for dues to ASCUBI (about 60 cents per year). And, they are geniunely interested in developing a professional relationship with ALA as well as with individual librarians from around the world. They are currently discussing how they might participate in the ALA Sister Library Initiatives. Their next conference will be in November and they extend an invitation to US librarians to attend.

SOCICT, the Society of Cuban Information Professionals and Technologists, also met with us and conveyed their gratitude for our visit. They have about 800 members with chapters in all 14 provinces. They regularly host (since 1988) an international forum on technology. During our meeting with the leadership of this association, they asked us to convey a special invitation to U.S. librarians and to members of the American Library Association to attend an upcoming conference that they were helping to organize. They consider this conference, "INF02002 Information, Knowledge and Society: Challenges of a New Era," to be an important forum for dialogue between librarians from Cuba, the U.S. and Latin America. It will be held April 22-26, 2002 in Havana. There are usually over 500 librarians in attendance.

The conference site is at I agree with my SOCICT colleagues that this conference will be an excellent opportunity for exchanging experiences, best practices, philosophy and values. Indeed, the leadership of ALA has received an official invitation. I am convinced this opportunity is important, so I am organizing a delegation to attend. Actually, we are working to build a US and a Canadian delegation. If you've ever wanted to check out Cuba for yourself, or if you want to be a part of this important dialogue, please let me know and I will sign you up. For details on this conference, contact the conference organizer: Lic. Nicolas Garriga Mendez, President of the Organizing Committee, Aptdo. 2019, La Habana 10200, Cuba. FAX (537) 338237; Tel (537) 635500; infoat For travel arrangements to this conference, contact Marazul Tours. My conclusions

Cuban libraries are an important component of Cuban society and serve thousands of people on a daily basis. Librarians in Cuba are eager to provide materials of all kinds to their users who are very well educated about Cuba and about the world. Librarians look for and deposit in their collection materials with many different viewpoints, including materials that are critical of the revolution, materials written by Cubans living abroad, and materials on human rights, such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The development of libraries in Cuba has been hampered by the economic and political isolation of the country, a movement led by the U.S. with its singular support for and now Congressionally mandated economic blockade of the island. This 40-year blockade has made it difficult for libraries to develop as well as for people to survive with proper nourishment, medicines and supplies. To combat their poverty and isolation, Cuban librarians have worked with many professional associations, international agencies and universities all over the world in order to acquire books and materials for their libraries. Their primary manner of doing this is through gifts and exchange. One of the main messages we received from librarians in Cuba is that the librarians would appreciate donations of materials and supplies to help them continue to build their collections. The librarians also seek to establish relations with U.S. librarians and professional associations when they are based on honesty, mutual respect and professional support.

Independent libraries

I would have liked to end this paper here, but I must say a few words about the "independent libraries". I leave the "independent libraries" for last because they are really a small group of people in Cuba that are paid by outside political interests, and they do not represent Cuban librarianship and do not deserve mention as part of the history of Cuban librarianship.

The so-called "independent librarians" are the brain-child of the US government, as is much of the anti-Castro opposition within Cuba. And this is admitted by State Dept officials as well as by the "independent librarians" themselves - this is not a secret!. The "independent libraries," although they claim they offer books that are "banned" in Cuba, are merely mouthpieces of the anti-Castro opposition in Miami and in the US government. The supporters of these "libraries" are using them to claim all sorts of things that actually go way beyond the that scope of a book collection and way beyond what the librarians themselves say. And, if they are so "repressed" by Cuban officials, then I ask why are they allowed to exist, to have their collections, hold meetings, receive equipment from the US and phone in daily reports to opposition radio and TV located in the US?

Why are they allowed to receive money for their work? Why are their materials available for me to see when I visit Cuba? Why do they tell me what they are doing and from whom they receive funds? Why can an "independent librarian" also be an "independent journalist," phone and FAX reports to Miami on a daily basis about "repression" (that only one they witnessed), and receive money from a foreign government for their "services?" The fact that they exists proves there is freedom to dissent, freedom of assembly, freedom to read and freedom to openly criticize the government. The existence of these libraries seems to provide evidence to the contrary of what they espouse.

My perspective is this: the information that today's panelists bring you direct from Cuba, fresh from visits to these libraries is extremely important. Why? Because we are able to disprove many of the myths that have been spread around the Internet and throughout ALA and other professional associations about these so-called "independent libraries." We are able to give you first hand observations and reports on the activities of these groups because we interviewed them and visited them in their homes and saw their libraries, their FAX machines, their set-ups and connections to Miami and their materials with labels "From the US Interests Section." And, we are able to tell you - with all certainty - that the group called the "Friends of Cuban Libraries," the mouthpiece of the so-called "independent library" movement in Cuba, has led a campaign of misinformation and outright lies and disseminated them widely on the internet, to the media, to Congress and especially to librarians and library associations throughout the world with the hope that you will believe them and help them denounce the Cuban government. It's that simple.

By visiting these libraries and talking extensively with their owners, these so-called librarians told us themselves that they are using the front of an "independent "library" in order to call themselves opponents of Castro and receive monthly checks from the US government! They are clear about what they are doing - although some of them do claim to have actually circulated books - they know their purpose is merely to exist in Cuba so that outsiders (like the Miami community and the US government) can claim that there is opposition to Castro in Cuba.

And, while there may be opposition to Castro in Cuba - and I heard a lot of critical remarks about the government - (from many sources) the "independent librarians" are not independent thinkers. They are not independent; and they are not librarians. Do they represent a struggle for intellectual freedom? I think not.

To summarize my findings about the "independent libraries": we confirmed that the owners are not librarians. We confirmed that the owners are not independent. We confirmed that the owners have political objectives and are using their "libraries" to distribute anti-government propaganda. We confirmed that the owners have ties to groups in Miami as well as to the U.S. Government - both of which have been involved in trying to overthrow the Cuban government. The owners of these "independent libraries" regularly receive materials directly from the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba (the official U.S. government diplomatic representation to the country). And, the materials are hand-delivered to the homes of the "librarians" complete with labels with their names and addresses (and paid for with our tax dollars). Of course, it is not news that the U.S. government, for decades, has sought to overthrow the government of Cuba and has financed right-wing groups in the U.S. and Cuba to promote the demise of the revolution and to kill Cuban leaders (US agencies have publically stated as much). Nevertheless, it is important to understand just who these "independent librarians" are, from whom they receive financial and material support, and with whom they have aligned themselves politically and for what purpose. The real librarians in Cuba that we met are aware of the misinformation that is being spread by the facetiously-named "Friends of Cuban Libraries" group headed by Robert Kent and Jorge Sanguinetty. They know that the FCL group represents right wingers in Miami and hardcore anti-communists within the US government who have never given up the hope of overthrowing Castro. Actually, I resent these attempts to put a human face on foreign intervention by using librarians and the rallying cry of "intellectual freedom". The tactics have changed, but the goals are the same - to overthrow the Cuban government.

Final statement

And, I'll end with this: based on our reception and our very detailed discussions in Cuba, the real librarians in Cuba know who their friends really are. Friends are individuals that respect each other, that do not seek to destroy or mislead, and that base their relationships on honesty, integrity and the values of our profession. I invite U.S. librarians to continue to care about and help Cuban libraries develop by contacting me to send donations, materials and to spread the word! Thanks for your support.


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