Haiti Rising from the Rubble

More than two years after the earthquake, the country’s libraries see signs of hope

July 3, 2012

More than two years after the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, vast numbers of Haitians are still struggling just to return to something resembling normal life.

The first thing you see in the capital city of 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 other than rows of portable toilets. Rubble is everywhere; the Palais National still stands in ruin.

While Haiti Library Relief dollars are making a difference, the need is so vast that the American Library Association has to focus this effort on specific 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 disbursed to specific building projects.

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 the campus’s historic library, but the collection—comprised of Haiti’s largest offering of English-language books for the public—was salvaged.

The Bibliothèque Nationale has received $20,000 from ALA for a new library in Petit-Goâve, a coastal town 42 miles southwest of the capital 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.

FOKAL—part of Open Society Foundations, funded by philanthropist George Soros—recently opened the Darbonne Library in Léogâne, which was at the epicenter of the quake and roughly 90% destroyed. 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 upward of $300,000. Bibliothèques Sans Frontières, a French nongovernmental organization dedicated to building libraries, is taking a similar approach and has opened several libraries.

The National Library oversees the public library in Petit-Goâve, and its representatives 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, where libraries were leveled or rendered inoperable. The money to rebuild is not available, and the library’s potential is buried by other priorities.

Michael Dowling of ALA’s International Relations Office leads the ALA efforts in Haiti. And Deborah Lazar, a librarian in the New Trier High School in Northfield, Illinois, is also raising money for Haiti Library Relief and for a private school in Petit-Goâve that is trying to rebuild. “Every dollar helps in these ongoing efforts, but we still have a long way to go before we succeed,” Dowling told American Libraries.

During a 100-day campaign, from October through January, generous library supporters contributed $6,999.95 to the ALA Haiti Library Relief Fund in support of the destroyed Petit-Goâve Public Library. Lazar had offered to match ALA’s fundraising up to $5,000 during this period, but when she heard how successful it was, she agreed to increase her match dollar for dollar—including an extra 10 cents, she told American Libraries, to make it come out to an even $14,000.

Lazar said she is “thrilled and thankful” that contributions exceeded the match. “Every penny makes it possible to turn the rebuilding of the library in Petit-Goâve from a dream into a reality,” she said.

The amount raised during the 100 days will go toward renting a temporary building and acquiring furniture and computers for the library, Dowling said. He added that it could take as long as two years for a brand-new building to be completed.

“It is urgent to address the concerns of young people in Petit-Goâve who are eagerly awaiting the reopening of the library,” Petit-Goâve Library Director Jean Midley Joseph said. “We have planned many fun activities with the children, but for lack of a building we are in danger of not achieving our goal.”

Lazar has been to Haiti twice—once before the earthquake, when she visited a school in Petit-Goâve that a New Trier employee’s father started in 1952 and the high school was helping to rebuild. “It’s been more than two years since the earthquake, and this effort will keep Haiti in people’s minds for a time,” she said. “Rebuilding doesn’t happen quickly.”

Along with Katie Nelson, librarian at Carleton W. Washburne Middle School in Winnetka, Illinois, Lazar will be hosting “We Read for Haiti” read-a-thons to foster the enjoyment of reading and provide an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding. She also maintains the Rebuilding Haiti’s Libraries: Rebuilding Dreams website.

To contribute, please visit Haiti Library Relief on the American Library Association’s website.

LEONARD KNIFFEL is a Chicago-based writer and former editor and publisher of American Libraries.