PORT-AU-PRINCE – Françoise Beaulieu-Thybulle remembers exactly how long the earthquake was (38 seconds) and how many aftershocks there were the first night (30). Thybulle, Director General of the National Library of Haiti, was on her way to a conference at FOKAL, the cultural organization, and was stuck downtown the entire night when the earthquake struck.
“All the dust– it was like 9/11,” she said referring to the attacks on America. “It was only in the morning that I saw how many bodies I had to cross.”
Thybulle knows she was lucky – the National Library, located in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince where some of the worst damage occurred, is still standing and none of her staff was hurt because the library happened to close early on January 12.
Still, inevitably, the librarian and her colleagues are dealing with the aftermath of the disaster nearly six months later: the National Library remains closed pending repairs to cracks in the walls and replacement of shelves and tables which were destroyed, and some municipal libraries were completely destroyed. Beyond the physical damage, Thybulle realizes there are also other obstacles to recovery.
“I knew the worst was the morale of my troops,” Thybulle said of her employees at the National Library.
Now, the international community is rallying around Thybulle and the libraries of Haiti. Last week the president and president-elect of the International Federation of Library Associations, or IFLA, flew to Port-au-Prince to meet with Thybulle, tour library and cultural facilities and signed an agreement pledging support for at least two years, including funds to help establish an archives preservation and treatment center, among other projects.
The agreement, pledging at least $1.5 million in funding, was signed on last week by Haitian Minister of Culture and Communication Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassègue and IFLA President Ellen Tise, who represented the umbrella cultural heritage organization International Committee of the Blue Shield at the meeting.
Pointing out that the current infrastructure for archives and heritage materials in Haiti is inadequate, Lassègue called the situation critical and “a crisis of patrimony.”
Tise, whom Thybulle referred to as “the pope of libraries,” said she was impressed with the efforts being made to improve the situation.
“We wanted to come and show our support for what has happened in Haiti, and show our solidarity,” said Tise. “We are committed to working with the archivists and the librarians.”
Other international fundraising efforts are also underway, including one by the American Library Association, highlighting the importance of international cooperation after major disasters, said Thybulle.
“I’ve always been a member of all these international organizations; it was always a joy,” said Thybulle. But after the earthquake, she said, she truly appreciated it for the first time.
“It was only then that I realized why: the solidarity,” she said. “Right away, people wanted to know if we were okay, if the collection was okay. We have the sense of belonging to a corporation where everyone cared.”
Among the first organizations to provide aid were UNESCO, which gave Thybulle $5,000 in emergency funds, and Bibliothèques Sans Frontières (Libraries Without Borders), who sent in the first volunteers with gloves, masks and boxes to help preserve the collection at the National Library.
Thybulle said she has not yet received any funding from the Haitian government. She said the government also urgently needs to work on infrastructure around the library– downtown Port-au-Prince still has no electricity and rubble from collapsed buildings is precariously balanced in the blocks around the National Library.
There are now 20 municipal, government-run libraries in Haiti, but Thybulle envisions 130– one for nearly every commune in the country. The municipal library in Arcahaie, a typical example of a public library, is a model for the kind of center Thybulle wants for each commune.
“One time they had a man’s coffin here and the whole town came to pay tribute,” said Thybulle. A library is “everything” for small communities, she said. Each municipal library currently has three employees, and Thybulle plans to add a fourth, specifically to manage internet and computer access.
Thybulle is also in the process of buying the land immediately adjacent to the National Library and wants to build a newer, bigger library to house important materials in a climate-controlled environment.
That would be welcome news to many library workers such as Brother Ernest Even, who, along with just one assistant, runs the Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Pères du St-Esprit across the street from the National Library. BHPSE is privately owned but collaborates with the National Library and has some of the best and oldest materials on Haitian history.
“The earthquake didn’t destroy the library, but it suffered,” said Even. The library has the most complete collection of the Haitian newspaper La Nouvelliste, for example, dating back decades– but right now, most of the library’s collection sits in cardboard boxes or on shelves without any protection from heat, humidity and dust.
Thybulle, who was awarded the title “Information Professional of the Year” by the Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries just two weeks ago, remains confident that the collaboration between Haitian and international organizations will result in big things for Haitian libraries and archives.
“We’re going to prevail,” said Thybulle.
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