World Libraries

Introduction: Library Services in Cuba

This special issue of World Libraries has been several years in the making, and World Libraries is indebted to many people for contributing and making suggestions for contributions. Its origins are in themselves international, when curiosity was aroused in an editor not cognizant of the situation by a posting by Robert Kent in the fall of 2002 on behalf of his organization, The Friends of Cuban Libraries, to Biblioteknorge, the Norwegian librarians' email discussion list. Kent wrote that he wanted to draw the attention of the list's subscribers to the plight of Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, "a blind activist and independent librarian" after his arrest by Cuban authorities. [1] The background to these events would be very much within the purview of the journal, and Kent was invited to write an article about the Cuban situation for World Libraries. However, he was enjoined to write in broad, general terms, in order to provide our readers with an overview of the situation.

Further investigation on the web during this fall of 2002 revealed the existence of another organization, the Cuban Library Support Group, which provided a very different picture of Cuban libraries, suggesting that there was freedom to read and very little censorship in the country, if any. [2] That group was founded by a British librarian, John Pateman, Head of Libraries and Heritage of the Borough of Merton in London, England. An article was requested also from Pateman, in order to provide a balance.

It was becoming clear from ongoing discussions, both in the American Library Association and earlier at the IFLA meeting in Boston that this was a divisive issue, and one that was more complicated than Robert Kent's repeated missives to library discussion lists might suggest. A delegation from ALA under the leadership of then President-elect John Berry had visited Cuba in May of 2001. Among the delegates were some who had close ties with our publisher, Dominican University, so that there were several who might be willing to write an article. John Berry very graciously agreed to write an article as soon as he was contacted, an account that provides a very helpful background to the history of ALA's relations with Cuba (click here). Attendance at an International Relations Committee meeting at ALA Midwinter in January 2003 brought another promise to write from Rhonda Neugebauer, who had made several visits to Cuba. Her article, "For Services Rendered," shows a picture of the independent libraries and librarians that contrasts sharply with that of Robert Kent.

But, at the same time, the suggestion was made to include articles that illustrated other aspects of Cuban librarianship and US relations with Cuban libraries. Dean Prudence Dalrymple was aware that Jeanne Drewes had been involved with a preservation project in Havana. Jeanne Drewes is Assistant Director for Access and Preservation at Michigan State University Library, and her website shows that she has made a number of visits to Cuba or arranged workshops for Cuban librarians. [3] When asked about the possibility of writing an article for a special issue on Cuba, Ms. Drewes suggested a novel approach: formulating the article as advice to readers who may be interested in being involved in some kind of service project abroad, using her experiences in Cuba as an illustration. The result is a very interesting article which can be read here.

The memorable joint annual conference of the American and the Canadian Library Associations in Toronto in June 2003 brought the prospect that as many as five articles could be added to the growing issue. When asked if he was aware of possible authors, the Director of ALA's International Relations Office, Michael Dowling, mentioned that there would be a delegation of librarians from Cuba who would be making presentations in Toronto, and suggested that we might consider publishing translations of their papers. This exciting opportunity became reality with oral permissions secured from all five at the seminar during the conference. Robert Kent was also present, together with Ramón Colas, who launched the independent library movement in 1998, but who now resides in Miami, Florida. [4] In keeping with theorganizers' expressed desire to present Cuban librarianship in the specific areas of "library education, library associations, outreach to the community, service to rural areas, and collections," [5] four of the five papers present a wealth of information about everyday library work, both urban and rural, and suggest that, despite the difficulties that have resulted from the political situation, library services have continued very much as they have in other countries. World Libraries has attempted to provide as broad and informative a presentation as possible, so that the reader may make up his or her own mind. For additional information and perspective on the changing views on Cuban libraries, the reader is referred to the websites of the Friends of Cuban Libraries and the Cuban Libraries Solidarity Group. Ultimately, perhaps, only a visit to the island can give a surer idea of what exactly is happening there, as Gretta Siegel shows in her article, "A Tale of Two Conferences." At the same time, however, there is more than a little suggestion that where one comes down on this question will be colored by a prior political stance.


[1] Robert Kent, "Justice and Compassion Needed," email to discussion list For generell diskusjon om bibliotekspørsmål [For general discussion about library questions], dated Sun, 22 Sep 2002 23:15:36 EDT. The website of the Friends of Cuban Libraries is

[2] "At the Third International Congress of Culture and Development, held in Havana, Cuba, from 9-12 June 2003, the Cuban Library Support Group was re-launched as the Cuban Libraries Solidarity Group (CLSG). The organization was [originally] established on July 1, 1999 . . ." From the CLSG website at Accessed 3/30/05.

[3] See "Cuba Preservation Projects," accessed 3/30-05. Online at

[4] Robert Kent and Eliades Acosta, Cuba's National Librarian, are seen debating after the presentations at the conference in a photograph and article reprinted from American Libraries August, 2003, in "Spotlight on Cuba, ALA in the Middle / ALA (American Libraries Asociation) enfoca a Cuba en Asamblea de Toronto," Librinsula: la isla de los libros, Publicación Semanal. Año 1, Nro.7, Viernes, 20 de febrero del 2004 [v. 1, no. 7, Friday, February 20, 2004]. Online at Accessed 3/31-05.

[5] Ibid.

About the Author

Johan Koren is Coordinator of the School Library Media Program at Murray State University in Murray, KY, USA.
Email: johan [dot] koren [at] coe [dot] murraystate [dot] edu

© 2005 Johan Koren

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