PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - “Two years after the earthquake, vast numbers of Haitian people are still struggling just to return to something resembling normal life,” said Leonard Kniffel, who returned March 5 from Port-au-Prince after a week of talks with librarians and government officials about the American Library Association’s Haiti Library Relief fund. “Our dollars are making a difference,” he said, “but the need is so vast that we have to focus our efforts on sustainable projects that will advance the nation’s recovery from one of the largest natural disasters on record.”
ALA has raised $55,000 for Haiti library reconstruction, and $35,000 has already been dispersed to specific building projects. The Bibliothèque Nationale has received $20,000 for a new library in Petit-Goâve, a town that was virtually leveled by the quake. The Haitian foundation FOKAL (Fondation Connaissance et Liberté) has received $10,000, which was used to purchase property for the construction of a new facility for the Centre Culturel Pyepoudre Library in Port-au-Prince. The Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Pères du Saint-Esprit Library received $5,000, which helped construct a temporary facility to house the archives, all of which was salvaged although the building was irreparably damaged. Founded in 1873, Bibliothèque Haïtienne is the oldest library in Haiti and holds resources documenting the nation’s history.
Part of Open Society Foundations funded by philanthropist George Soros, FOKAL recently opened the Darbonne Library in Léogâne, which was at the epicenter of the quake and roughly 90 percent destroyed. “The library stands like an oasis of hope in a devastated community,” said Kniffel. “When I visited, young men were reading at tables, mothers were browsing the collection with their children, the library was staffed and humming.”
FOKAL's philosophy is one of community engagement. Program Director Elizabeth Pierre-Louis said, “If we build it, the community must support it--otherwise it is not sustainable. We support existing efforts.” The neighborhood library in Darbonne charges families $2 a year to become library patrons, which offsets the fact that there are no tax dollars to support the library. Pierre-Louis noted that the small Darbonne library cost some $110,000 to construct. Estimates for what it will cost to build a library adequate to meet the needs of the much larger population of Petit-Goâve run upwards of $300,000. Bibliothèques sans Frontières, a French NGO dedicated to building libraries, takes a similar approach and has opened several libraries.
“The 2010 earthquake shook Haiti to its core, and the extraordinary need for assistance has overwhelmed the country’s leadership,” Kniffel observed. “The first thing you see in Port-au-Prince is miles and miles of “Tent City,” as the temporary housing has come to be known, “where thousands of people live under sheets of plastic, cook in the street and have no provisions for sanitation. Rubble is everywhere; the Palais National stands in ruin.” In the midst of all this, however, the Haitian American Institute, a school and cultural center with some 2,500 students, has broken ground for a new library building. The earthquake destroyed a historic library on the campus, but the collection was salvaged.
“As I visited schools and talked with Haitian librarians and teachers, it became clear how much people value education and understand the library’s potential as a community center for lifelong learning,” said Kniffel. “Representatives of the National Library, which oversees the public library in Petit-Goâve, are eager to rebuild but while they try to raise the money, the library’s already meager collection languishes in cardboard boxes in a leaky room in the local police station.” This same situation exists in several other towns Kniffel visited: “The library was leveled or rendered inoperable, the books dispersed, there is no money to rebuild, and the potential is buried by other priorities.”
During the trip, Kniffel met with Jean Midley Joseph, director of the library in Petit-Goâve and with teachers at the town’s elementary school, where he conducted a library story hour with a class of 1st-graders. “The earthquake is already ancient history to a 5-year-old,” he noted. “The children are so eager, so engaged and responsive. They are Haiti’s future, and American librarians and library lovers can have a profound effect on that future.”
Michael Dowling of the ALA International Relations Office leads the Association’s efforts in Haiti, and Deborah Lazar, a librarian in the New Trier High School in Northfield, Ill., is also raising money for Haiti Library Relief and for a private school in Petit-Goâve that is already rising from the rubble. “When I visited the building project,” said Kniffel, “about a dozen workers were mixing cement, laying blocks and digging a septic tank and trenches for pipes for a sanitation system. The school is going up.”
Since it will take over $300,000 to build an adequate public library for the residents of Petit-Goâve, “every dollar helps in these ongoing efforts, but we still have a long way to go before we succeed,” said Dowling. To contribute, please visit Haiti Library Relief on the American Library Association’s website.