“The rumors traveled urgently from Haiti: Beyond all the death and wreckage, one of the nation’s greatest exports — its cultural scholarship — was buried that awful afternoon in January.
The three largest heritage libraries and the National Archives — keepers of much of Haiti’s complicated, heroic, rich story — were reportedly lost to the random nature of earthquakes.
Within days of the Jan. 12 disaster, a university staffer 750 miles away worked frantically to deliver better news: the buildings were shaken but still standing; their precious rare books, manuscripts, newspapers and brochures had been spared. And the people who spend day after day caring for the collections were all safe.
But Brooke Wooldridge also learned help was desperately needed to rescue and preserve the treasures that help chronicle Haiti’s history, clustered mostly in the four institutions in downtown Port-au-Prince.
“First I worried about the people and making sure everybody working at these institutions were OK, and then I thought about all of those collections,” said Wooldridge, project coordinator for the Digital Library of the Caribbean at Florida International University. “I felt very conflicted. Emotionally, I knew there was so much life lost, but I also knew that if the collections were ignored, Haiti’s collective memory could be lost. I knew we needed to help’.”
So Wooldridge quickly assembled like-minded culturalists who were already a part of the Digital Library, an international coalition of research, governmental and educational institutions that provides access to Caribbean-related electronic materials.
The organization, founded in 2004, was perfectly poised to help. Led by Wooldridge, it had already been working with Haiti’s librarians and curators over the years to digitize their collections. Within weeks, the group launched a campaign to rally international contributors, raise money and provide technical support for the recovery and protection of Haiti’s cultural resources — the already brittle rare books and documents scattered and dusted by the quake.
They joined a small cadre of other organizations and Haiti’s own volunteers that pushed the same broader cultural mission: save the public and private collections, all essential to the national identity.
To date, about $4,200 has been raised and 50 volunteers have signed up. Wooldridge and historian Matthew J. Smith, who heads the Haitian Task Force at the University of the West Indies, have traveled to Haiti to bring back a detailed list of needs.
“In real terms, the urgency is to get the collections cleaned and repaired and restored,” said Chantalle Verna, assistant professor in FIU’s department of History and International Relations and member of the Digital Library advisory board. “If we lose these documents, we lose what can help us understand Haiti better.”
The group’s Protecting Haitian Patrimony initiative includes assisting four institutions in Port-au-Prince:
• Archives Nationales d’Haïti, which houses civil and state records as well as those of the Office of the President and most government ministries.
• Bibliothèque haïtienne des Pères du Saint-Esprit, founded in 1873 by the Fathers of the Holy Spirit, holds documents chronicling the history of Haiti, French colonization, slavery and emancipation and 20th century records.
• Bibliothèque haïtienne des Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne, founded in 1912 by the Christian Brothers, serves as repository for Haitian imprints and one of the most significant collections of newspapers.
• Bibliothèque National d’Haïti, established in 1939, holds a small collection of rare books, manuscripts and newspapers, and offers research support and study space.
“These archives represent the collective memory of the Haitian people, their culture, and Haiti’s role in the history of the Western hemisphere and the world,” said Laura Probst, dean of FIU Libraries and executive committee member of the Digital Library. “With this initiative we seek to preserve these invaluable resources for Haiti’s future, and for our own.”
In the days after the quake, leaders of the institutions rushed back to assess the damages. Most everything was salvaged and is now packed in cardboard boxes, but remains vulnerable to layers of dust that destroy paper.
Longer term plans include helping repair buildings and replace furnishings and equipment.
“I rushed over there to see if the building was still standing or if everything was destroyed. At first, people thought everything on the campus had been destroyed,” said Patrick Tardieu, curator of the Bibliothèque haïtienne des Pères, housed on the third floor of a building on the Saint Martial school campus. “We packed the entire library, about 20,000 books and manuscripts, in about 600 boxes and got them to a safe place.”
Tardieu, who is temporarily based at Brown University, a partner in the initiative, said his library’s holdings include several 16th century books, a 1803 Thomas Jefferson State of the Union address translated into French, and Amistad documents.
“Scholars from all over would come to study the documents here because it contained so much important history,” he said.
Francoise Beaulieu-Thybulle, director general of Haiti’s National Library, said the building is still standing amid ruins.
“As soon as the violent aftershocks stopped on [the] 14th, we assessed the damages and took actions to preserve the collection,” Beaulieu-Thybulle said. “So far, all the books have been boxed and sheltered in the safe part of the library in about 1,000 boxes.”
Beaulieu-Thybulle said the library holds more than 50,000 books, 600 periodical titles and 300 rare books from the 18th and 19th centuries.
“We must underline that every Haitian book of the 20th century can also be considered rare as a result of a poor editorial situation,” she said. “An author generally publishes at his own account and rarely prints more than 500 or a thousand copies.”
Now, her staff of 45 is working to help secure the many private collections — some of the most valuable documents are owned by individuals in Haiti — in houses that collapsed or were damaged.
“Many historians, history professors and private collectors are calling on us for help to recover and offer temporary shelter,” Beaulieu-Thybulle said. “We are hopeful that our next step will be to reshelve our collection and start providing services.”