Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez on Libraries

January 25, 2011

In what looks very much like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández recently visited American Library Association Headquarters in Chicago, accompanied by First Lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, to talk with ALA staff about libraries. Fernández spoke passionately, but pragmatically, about his plans for developing a superior public library system in the Dominican Republic, and about the First Lady’s plans to build libraries for children and teens. An avid reader who grew up in New York City and attended Harvard and the Sorbonne, Fernández is also a writer and a believer in the power of education. One of his early actions as president was to equip government offices with computers. He is equally enthusiastic about the printed word.

American Libraries: How important is the development of libraries in the Dominican Republic? PRESIDENT FERNÁNDEZ: It is very important for us personally and for the future development of the Dominican Republic. As you look around the world, you see that all great nations have great library systems. On the other hand, poor nations tend to lack a library system. So there is a correlation between economic and social development and the existence of a library system that will enable a population to read and see reading as a tool for personal growth and for national development.

It has to do with development, but also for self-fulfillment. Sometimes you just read for pleasure. But even reading for pleasure, you will develop a connection with words, and you will discover the power of words and ideas. And all this is very transformative, for the individual, the family, the community, and the whole nation. Both of us place a lot of attention, a lot of interest, on the importance of reading, the importance of books, the importance of libraries, in personal transformation and the transformation of nations across the world.

Tell us about your country’s Reading Olympics? PRESIDENT FERNÁNDEZ: This has been amazing, astonishing to see how many young students around the country participating in these Olympics are able to read, the amount of reading they can do, the time frame in which they can do it, and the comprehension skills that they develop. We have had students, for example, that in a three-month period can read over 100 books. And when you question them about the contents, they have understood very well and they can discuss and argue around each and every book. We have discovered many young, talented students around the nation, and we have awarded them with a Presidential and First Lady Recognition Award for their natural inclination toward reading and reading comprehension.

What is your personal favorite librarian or library experience that you’ve had in the states or in the Dominican Republic? PRESIDENT FERNÁNDEZ: My reading habit personally began here as a student in the United States in New York. It began at the school level, elementary school. The idea of having a library within the school and the children have to visit the school library at least once a week, you begin a reading habit there. But at the same time, I was fortunate enough to have a branch public library in my neighborhood. I used to live near 95th Street in Manhattan. We had the Bloomingdale branch within the New York Public Library system down the street, just five blocks away. After 40 years, on this trip we went back just to see exactly what had happened to this Bloomingdale branch and it was amazing to see all the children and young adults there, just as in my old times. I was lucky. I was fortunate to have access to this reading opportunity as a child and then go back to the Dominican Republic and also be part of an environment of young readers that I have always kept going on with me.

FIRST LADY FERNÁNDEZ:That’s why we want the people from our country to also have that opportunity and to have access starting when they are very little so that they develop that skill and that habit of reading every day. When I don’t read even one day, I get hungry. I need that. That’s like food for my soul. That’s what we dream that our youngsters have in our country.

How can your American counterparts help you develop what you want in the Dominican Republic? PRESIDENT FERNÁNDEZ: In many different ways. The U.S. has the best public library system in the world. You have the knowledge, the experience, and the best practices in every way: How to build collections, how to train the staff members, how to even build libraries. Everything that needs to be put in place in order to really have a system that can be effective, that can be running on a standard international recognized standard basis, you have it here in the U.S. and within the American Library Association. You have so many members affiliated with the Association who you can tap into directly. I know that they’re very open and very helpful in trying to implement all our different projects. This is the reason why we have come here to the American Library Association to establish a permanent, long-term relationship where you can make a contribution to the improvement of library services into the Dominican Republic.

I came from a low-income family, while I was living in New York or back in the Dominican Republic. It is very difficult for someone with a humble origin to aspire to become president. The only way I was able to do that is because I was able to, through books, get an education and through that have been able to communicate to people my thoughts, ideas, and dreams for a better Dominican Republic. You don’t need to have financial wealth. What you need to have is a wealth of ideas. And these ideas come from books. The transformative impact that books and reading can have on a person’s life; they can take you anywhere because through reading, your imagination can flow, your creativity will enhance; and if you’re able to put that in a practical term, from ideas into action, you will transform yourself, you can transform your nation.

FIRST LADY FERNÁNDEZ: We have to follow up and pursue our dream, which is to plant the Dominican Republic with education, with books, with the habit of reading, because that’s the only way to get what we really want and to go to the top of the mountain.

Watch the president and first lady’s full interview with Pamela A. Goodes.