CUNY Librarians take Havana

IMG_6425CUNY Librarians take Havana

by Professor Maureen Garvey, Evening/Weekend Instruction Librarian

In January 2016, I was very fortunate to be a part of a 10-member delegation of CUNY librarians to Cuba. The week-long visit included a mix of just the right balance between social and community projects and 8 professional visits to large, culturally important institutions; Universidad de la Habana (University of Havana), Casa de las Americas (Latin American art museum), Biblioteca Pública de Rubén Martínez Villena (the central public library in Havana), Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba José Martí (the national library), Biblioteca Médica Nacional (the national medical sciences library), Museo Nacional de la Campana de Alfabetización (the museum for the campaign for literacy), Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba (the national archives), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes- Arte Cubano (the fine art museum).

Never have I heard the word patrimony used so often. Cubans take the preservation of their cultural heritage very seriously. It was a wonderful thing to see such value placed on the kind of work that we do. Of course, even with this high regard, they face challenges too. What was most striking to us were the similarities in our professional lives, despite the very particular working conditions in Cuba. Everyone we visited was gracious in sharing a glimpse into their organization. They too were dealing with competing for limited funding, persuading state officials of their budgetary requirements, providing broad access while preserving resources, and supporting the needs of their users amidst inadequate infrastructure.


The central library of the University of was very recognizable to us, as academic librarians. They were undertaking a large project to digitize 90k catalog cards to create an online publically accessible catalog (OPAC). They also have an open access institutional repository where they encourage (and sometimes must persuade!) faculty and students to deposit articles and theses. They have a social media presence. They provide information literacy programs. Just as we observe, their students are technologically adept but require help with research and adapting to the demands of academia. (Of course, all education is tuition-free. Students must do 3 years of work placement upon graduation in exchange for their undergraduate degree. Post-graduate degrees do not require further service.)

At the public library in the old town, we met dedicated and inspiring librarians who have created a warm and welcoming public amenity. They have a well-equipped room for users with special needs, a fantastic children’s library and a well-used open circulating collection of literature from North and Latin America, Western Europe, and Russia. The public library is also in the process of digitizing their card catalog to increase access. Currently, public libraries rely tremendously on the expertise of librarians and their deep knowledge of their collections to aid in resource sharing. Regla, the head of adult services, had wanted to be a doctor as a child. Possibly influenced by a childhood friendship with Ernest Hemingway, she became a librarian, ‘a doctor of the soul’, as she saw it. Adrian, the children’s services librarian, was a Cuban Mr. Rogers, honored by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) for his incredible service.


Card catalogs were in use almost everywhere, along with ongoing efforts in various stages to digitize them and provide access online. Mostly, that computer access is available onsite only. Which brings us to the main impediment to modern library and information services in Cuba- the lack of technological infrastructure. Whether it is a server issue, bandwidth, or simply not enough hardware to give users access (only 2 scanners at the national library for their newspaper digitization project, no OPAC anywhere, 1 computer terminal with the catalog at the university and the public library) the lack of technology is holding back Cuban organizations from preserving and sharing information. Whatever one’s politics, it’s undeniable that the blockade has had a devastating impact on Cuba in all facets of life. It was evident at every institution we visited. Cubans are proud and dignified, the library professionals we met no different, but they were candid in sharing how this impeded their work and their mission. There are humanitarian projects to help them and they rely on their few allies but it was fascinating to see geopolitics playing their part in academic database subscriptions. The national medical sciences library has to find amenable Latin American neighbors to provide banking services to allow them to make purchases from US companies like Wiley, Springer and Ebsco, so their students and working professionals can have access to the latest scholarly research.

Just like in the US and elsewhere, we saw how STEM subjects attract funding. The best-equipped and most recognizable facility was the national medical sciences library. And it’s no wonder, as Cuban doctors abroad are the countries number one source of income, above tourism. The medical library provides a fantastic service, including publishing 23 open access scholarly journals, a well-developed portal for medical specialties, with content created by medical professionals and information infrastructure overseen by information professionals, and also a conference hosting service.


The national library had just undergone a long term renovation and the 1957 building was beautiful, including restored original furniture. They produce a striking monograph series showcasing prints in the collections. They also are undertaking several major digitization projects, of newspapers, the card catalog, and other archival materials. Again, technology was an issue. They do not yet have the capacity to put online what they have digitized.

Other highlights included a visit to the National Literacy Museum, which houses artefacts from the 1961 nationwide, year-long, and highly successful campaign to eradicate illiteracy (which was then at 23%, now .2%); the mosaic-covered village of Jaimanitas created by the artist Josè Fuster; the Fine Art museum holdings and special library; and the national archives.

Without exception, the information professionals we met were proud, dignified, passionate, and warm as well as resilient and resourceful. It was reaffirming to see such value placed on patrimony and higher education, and to witness others nobly struggling to provide equitable access to resources.