Tuesday, April 24, 2012


BCALA February / March 2012

We are sitting in the balcony of an out-door restaurant in Delmas, Haiti, the sound of music from the restaurant challenging the noise from the evening traffic below as the sun slowly gives up the day. It is our final night in Haiti. Over the past few days we have visited li-braries in several Haitian cities deter-mining how we can be of assistance in the recovery of the libraries there.

Our host has been overly kind to us. Emmanuel Menard, Director of Biblio-theque Nationale, the National Library of Haiti, and his staff have taken us to libraries in coastal cities and nearby Croix des Bouquet and have given us a tour of their national headquarters.

In the towns of St Louis du Sud, Caval-lion, Aux Caye and Croix des Bouquets we’ve seen small libraries housing collec-tions that are outdated, yet free for loan to residents of the town. These libraries have been established by residents of the city and at some point became part of the Na-tional Library public library system. They are testimonies to the value and desire for education in Haiti and Menard wants to transform these small semblances of librar-ies into educational centers that can have a positive impact on education in the coun-try. Most of these libraries don’t have elec-tricity and patrons sit in the warm build-ings reading newspapers, books or even using laptops with access to the Internet via stem cards.

He wants to professionally groom his staff by sending them to library schools in America then having them return to Haiti to train other staff. There aren’t any library schools in Haiti. That is a need that must be filled.

When the American Library Association returned to New Orleans last year, a group of librarians in New Orleans founded Bib-liotheque Parrainage (Library Sponsor). Our purpose was to adopt a library in Haiti and help with its recovery. That is our pur-pose but not our plan. Our plan is to let the peo-ple of Haiti determine how that should take place. And so we’ve trav-eled here to identify their needs as determined by the Director of the Na-tional Library.

Joseph Hector Louis Jeune, the Contact Liai-son for Bibliotheque Par-rainage, is President of the Board of the New Or-leans Haitian Relief Task Force. Louis Jeune is from Jacmel, Haiti and lives in New Orleans. He and Mr. Menard’s executive assistant, Jo-hannes Lause Michel are our translators. Michel lost her brother and father in the earthquake. Joel Vilmenay is from Wash-ington, DC and is one generation removed from being a native of Haiti. He is Presi-dent of the New Orleans Haitian Relief Task Force and has secured a videographer to film the trip. Both have accompanied me to Haiti to tour libraries and support the recovery.

Menard has provided us with a driver and for the last few days, he and Michel have taken us to libraries throughout Haiti; some of these libraries did not experience the earthquake, yet are still in need of as-sistance. They’ve shown us footage of the earthquake taking place in the National Library that was captured by the library’s security cameras. They’ve introduced us to the mayor of one small town, the president of a major district, and the Minister of Cul-ture, whose domain covers the libraries in Haiti. We’ve seen libraries in total darkness and libraries with light provided by the sun. We’ve spoken to library managers about their collections, their library’s history, and the challenges they face. The challenges are many and the financial resources quite limited.

Haiti and New Orleans historically have been connected and influences in food, music, art and language are present in our cultures. The obvious connection stems from the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the selling of the Louisiana Purchase to America. Planta-tion owners who escaped the revo-lution settled in New Orleans with their slaves. The 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisiana was planned with the assistance of for-mer slaves of the Haitian Revolu-tion. In present day Haiti, the names of heroes of the Haitian revolution are engraved around the wall in the Museum of the Founding Fathers. Many of these names are quite common in Louisi-ana today.

Having gone through Hurricane Katrina and witnessed firsthand how a library can be used as a disaster relief center for the community following a natural dis-aster, I rec-ognize the importance of a library to a devas-tated com-munity with no financial resources. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the City of New Orleans, the New Orleans Pub-lic Library became an immediate part of its recovery. The Main Library was leased by FEMA to establish a disaster relief center, providing assistance to residents for FEMA applications, SBA applications, tarps for houses, bottled water and more. The Main Library provided Internet use, faxing and a collection of books, DVDs, music and other resources for homeless residents scattered about a torn city and living in trailers, ho-tels, and cruise ships or if they were lucky, in one of the rare neighborhoods that es-caped the flood. But in Haiti, these sup-portive government agencies do not exist and resources are limited.

New Orleanians returned to a city full of flood swept homes and barren neighbor-hoods and found themselves displaced, overly exposed to the loss of human life, broke, angry and in some cases dehuman-ized, these wounds did scar us. Haiti is still living with their wounds.

On this final night of our visit, I feel in-formed, grateful and humbled by what I have seen over the past few days. As we are driven back to our ho-tel, we make a stop to drop off one of the staff members who lives in Delmas. Driving away from the business district of Delmas, the lights on the streets get fewer and fewer as we enter the residential neighborhood until finally there are no lights at all except for headlights of the truck we are in. A woman and a teenager walk in this dark-ness and our driver turns off the lights perhaps not to blind them with the beam. We are now in total dark-ness, but there is a light that goes off in my head. For several months and in some cases years, there were no lights in parts of New Orleans following Hur-ricane Katrina, but for peo-ple in Haiti, this is an every-day reality. In reaching out to Haiti to help them through their recov-ery, I have helped myself to understand just have far I’ve come in my own recovery process and how limited my struggle has been.

Pictures from Valencia Hawkins Article An Eye Opening Visit to a Haitian Library BCALA Feb_March 2012

Valencia Hawkins is the Associate Di-rector of Central Public Services for the New Orleans Public Library. She is presi-dent of Bibliotheque Parrainage, a non-profit organization based in New Orleans to assist libraries in Haiti. The organiza-tion works closely with the New Orleans Haitian Relief Task Force, whose board president is a member of Bibliotheque Parrainage. Donations for libraries in Haiti can be sent to Bibliotheque Parrain-age, P.O. Box 57418, New Orleans, La.

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