CUNY Librarians in Cuba: Peer to Peer Review

By William “Bill” Blick, Library Journal
March 10, 2016

On January 15, a team of bold, innovative librarians from the City University of New York (CUNY) set out to do what many librarians in the United States have not: travel to Cuba for a week-long expedition of cultural, professional, and informational exchange. I was among those chosen for the trip.

The mission was exhilarating as it was challenging.I was among the ten librarians in the delegation representing a wide range of backgrounds and skills. Professor Kenneth Schlesinger, chief librarian of Lehman College, acted as the leader and organizer of the trip.

Other leaders included the chief librarian for the Dominican Studies Institute at City College, professor Sarah Aponte, and professor Tess Tobin of New York City College of Technology. Without them this trip would not have been as successful, due to their skillful diplomacy and attention to organizational details. Also, joining us was the senior archivist from CENTRO, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College, Pedro Juan Hernandez, and acting chief librarian for Queens College, Manuel Sanudo.

The other participants represented areas of librarianship such as cataloging, electronic resources, information literacy instruction, and interlibrary loan. They were: Maureen Garvey (College of Staten Island), Silvia Cho (the Graduate Center), Liz Jardine (LaGuardia Community College), Judith Schwartz (Medgar Evers), and me.

Departure and arrival

Most of us did not know one another previously, and the pot luck of talent was a unique aspect of the trip. We first met in the Cuba Terminal of JetBlue at JFK Airport, and gradually the group came together. Throughout the journey, members demonstrated a spirit of adventure and wonder and the desire to connect with Cuban information professionals and absorb the culture as best they could.

When we arrived in Cuba, it was in the aftermath of a fierce rainstorm. As we passed out of the cool of the terminal into the damp heat of the street, many members of families greeted their sons, sisters, brothers, and mothers with open arms. This new locale seemed immediately exciting and different from what we had grown accustomed to. As we boarded the tour bus, we traveled through pitch black night, down washed-out streets, to our destination, a semi-deserted resort, which was a last-minute change of plans. One thing we discovered about visiting Cuba in these initial stages was to be prepared for the unexpected. This was part of the excitement.

Seeing the sights

We eventually relocated to the Hotel Plaza in downtown Havana. It boasted impressive architecture, but the elevator frequently broke down, and it was quite without hot water…for the whole week. Nevertheless, this did not stop the efforts of the group.

On our first day of rest, we traveled to Old Havana, taking in the sights and sounds of the culture. There was music in the streets and the air of the revolution can still be felt. Painters sold artwork on the sidewalks. Men selling fresh peanuts scattered the city landscape. We observed Havana Cathedral, or Catedral de San Cristóbal, a very ornate example of Colonial Baroque architecture with breathtaking religious iconography inside. We visited all four of the historical squares, each bearing significance to Cuban history, such as the Square of Arms, an ancient parade grounds for Spanish soldiers, and Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, former seat of the colonial government, which now houses the Museum of the City of Havana.

One of earliest trips was to the colonial city of Matanzas. It is named the “city of bridges” because of the different elaborate bridges that are built around it. It is known for poetry and Afro-Cuban folklore. We visited the slave museum housed in a fort that guarded the city, where there were many manifestations of Afro-Cuban religions and reminders of the unjust captivity of slavery. Although mostly quiet, as it was a Sunday, you could see that at a time this city was prominent and thriving.

When we finished our tour of Matanzas, we went back to Havana. One night, we were fortunate to catch the Cannon Ceremony held each night at the La Cabaña fortress. “The Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabaña was built around 1774 by the Spaniards to control access to the Havana Port. In the fortress is a museum about Che Guevara. In 1959 Guevara took possession of the fortress on his triumphant conquest of Havana during the fall of the dictator Batista. Soldiers dressed in 18th-century uniforms fire a cannon over Havana Bay at precisely 9 p.m.” (quoted from the Havana Guide website). The anticipation could be felt throughout the crowd waiting in the dark. When the cannon was ultimately fired,everyone was awed. The event dignified the landscape in a manner I had not anticipated, giving me a sense of Havana’s history and culture.

The libraries

Although a Third World country lacking in many of the resources of other nations, Cuba features unique spirit born of its people’s ingenuity, warmth, and pride. This was particularly evident with the information professionals, archivists, and librarians we met. We visited the University of Havana and were greeted with enthusiasm. We toured the campus, which was elaborately laid out to reflect reverence for higher education. Then we visited the library, followed by presentations from the librarians from the university. We then exchanged ideas and revealed the functionality of Academic Works, CUNY’s own institutional repository,

Havana University Library also “has a room of rare books that holds 8,000 titles with 10,000 copies in its collection available to users in the hall of rare books. It receives an average of 150 users [daily] who use their services and facilities” (quoted from the university’s website). There is evidence of the investment in and encouragement of education and libraries in Cuba. One need only see the finely established library to see that Cuban education and literacy are taken seriously. Also worthy of note is the support and emphasis on open access. This ideal is not taken for granted at the institution, as the librarians and faculty try to make their scholarship as readily available to the research community as is possible with their resources.

Havana University Library tries to make every effort to keep up technologically with other universities. It has 50 computers with Internet access, although the access is slow. It also has an updated website and is fastidiously working on digitization projects. All librarians have faculty status. The similarities and congruence of our beliefs, professional ideals, duties, and responsibility resonated throughout the visit.

One of the most interesting institutions that we visited was the José Martí National Library, an impressive 17-story building. We met with the library director, the children’s librarian, and the adult services librarian. Across from the Plaza de la Revolución, the administrative center where many Cubans gathered for lengthy speeches by Fidel Castro, the Bibloteca is more than a little prominent and essential to this landscape. The library holds 20 million books and implements numerous programs to engage readers of all ages. However, due to lack of funding and resources, librarians, like all Cuban citizens, are forced to make do with what they have.

Other sites included the Museum of Literacy, which celebrates the yearlong campaign in the early 1960s when Cuba waged war against illiteracy and won. Castro vowed to eliminate illiteracy, and employed educators and methodologies to teach people to read. We met with the director of the museum, who was very proud of the campaign and very enthusiastic about the results. We watched Maestra, a documentary by American documentarian Catherine Murphy, which is essential viewing for anyone interested in this movement.

We also visited institutions that were relevant to our mission, including the National Archive and the Art Museum Library. Again, dedicated and responsible representatives greeted us as we observed the infrastructure of these important institutions. It should be noted that the archival material was not open to the general public. To view any document, it is necessary to submit to the government a specialized letter from your organization. Unfortunately, most of the documents and information are inaccessible to visitors without the required paperwork.

The culture

In addition to liaising with information professionals, we also had the chance to taste and savor the flavor of Cuba. We had meals in terrific restaurants with sophisticated fare as well as “folksy” cuisine. All of it was terrific. Often we were serenaded by local musicians with wonderful voices, lively drums, and vibrant guitar playing.

Cubans are very civic and community minded as evidenced by some of their programs, such as the Arte Corte, “a hairdressing salon that is also an ‘interactive museum’ in which customers, while comfortably seated in a 100-year-old chair awaiting their turn, may view antique scissors, razors, mirrors, vials, shaving brushes, combs, brushes, and advertisements, along with original paintings and drawings by Cuban artists, all focusing on the topic of hairdressing” (from The curio is an inventive resource that serves several purposes: it hosts a training program for students to learn the business of haircutting so that they may become productive members of society, it serves as cultural artifact, and it provides a service for people in the area. Arte Corte is a perfect example of how Cubans find multilevel purposes for many things and often put their limited resources to good use.

We also dined with the renowned ceramic artist Fuster. In his incredibly elaborate studio, where he had built a phantasmagoric playland of colors and shapes. As a way of “giving back” to the immediate surrounding community, Fuster made a custom ceramic mural for every house in the neighborhood that wanted one. It was quite a sight.

The Broad View

As librarians, information professionals, archivists, and protectors of the word, most of us strive for the “broad view.” We strive to break down barriers; to reach for an ideal, while dealing with real-world practicalities. In Cuba, we had many opportunities to see the broad view of our profession at work. Reaching out to future colleagues, comparing notes and methodologies, examining the different library spaces—these are all ways of thinking outside the box and examining the global impact of information and our profession. I, for one, think we made some progress, and I was fortunate to be a part of it.

William “Bill” Blick serves as the Electronic Resources Librarian and Institutional Repository Representative for Queensborough Community College (CUNY). He has published work in popular culture and information literacy. He has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally in places as diverse as Gdansk, Poland, and Leeds, England. His research interests include international librarianship, information literacy, popular culture, and the scholarly study of the cinema and crime fiction.

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