Library Community Rallies to Aid Earthquake-Stricken Haiti

January 18, 2010

In the days following the devastating 7.0 earthquake that all but toppled Haiti’s capital city and other population centers, news is slowly becoming available about how Haitian libraries and their staff members fared. The library community elsewhere is responding by starting multiple initiatives, which the coincidental convergence of librarians in Boston at the January 15–18 Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association helped to advance with a donation of $27,084 from attendees and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

The news about Haiti libraries began with a tragic eyewitness report in the January 13 Phoenix Arizona Republic that a U.S. citizen made it out of the five-story library on the Les Cayes campus of the American University of the Caribbean just before it collapsed.

According to a January 14 story in the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, the AMSAI School in Port-au-Prince was believed to have met the same fate along with its donated library collection of 400 books. Sirona Cares Foundation Director Michael Lacourciere said in the January 15 Pleasanton (Calif.) Weekly that the foundation’s trilingual school library in Grand Goave was decimated as well. Wire-service reports streamed in of countless school buildings damaged or destroyed throughout Haiti.

“The University Caraibe and most universities in Port-au-Prince are completely destroyed. Most schools too. Thousands of schoolchildren and university students are under those buildings,” wrote Jocelyne Trouillot, president of IBBY Haiti to members of USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People). “For now, we have to bury the dead. The children of Haiti will need psychological help and bibliotherapy will certainly bring some healing. Schools will not reopen until September or October.”

Unlike so many medical facilities destroyed by the earthquake, the Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles was unscathed and utilizing every inch of space to treat patients. “Every single room is being pulled into service,” Ian Rawson said in the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Tribune-Review reported January 14. “The classrooms are closed. The library is closed. The cafeteria is closed.”

Miraculously, the National Library building also survived, Director-General Françoise Beaulieu-Thybule e-mailed members of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries January 15. “The building of the National Library is safe [although] the shelving and holdings have shifted,” she wrote. Noting that “our building is the only one standing in the whole area,” Beaulieu-Thybule added, “I have not been able to locate all the personnel; half of them are safe. We keep on checking.”

The library community response one week after the earthquake has focused on raising funds for general humanitarian aid and, of course, sharing disaster-relief information. Officials of Haiti’s local-library movement FOKAL (Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty) have established the lasiren website for updates about the country’s ever-changing urgent needs as well as links and hotlines to reliable aid groups.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions is among the groups joining forces with the International Committee of the Blue Shield to place the organizations’ collective expertise “at the disposal of their Haitian colleagues to support their work in assessing the damage to the cultural heritage of their country, including libraries, archives, museums, monuments, and sites and subsequent recovery, restoration, and repair measures.”

Creating his own international coalition, Valdosta (Ga.) State University librarian Cliff Landis pledged January 14 to match from his personal savings up to $10,000 donated to Partners in Health for Haiti by the end of February. Only three days later, Landis posted his heartfelt thanks to donors from around the world who had already made his fundraising goal a reality.