In what looks very much like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández paid a visit to 50 East Huron Street today, accompanied by First Lady Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, to talk with American Library Association staff about libraries. Joined by an entourage that included Dominican Consul General Giselle Castillo-Veremis and Aida Montero de Jiménez, director of the Biblioteca Juan Bosch in Santo Domingo, the president chatted informally with ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels, International Relations Office Director Michael Dowling, Office for Intellectual Freedom Deputy Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Office for Diversity and Office for Literacy and Outreach Services Director Miguel Figueroa, and myself.
To break the ice, the president smiled broadly and said, “We’re all book lovers here.” We knew we were in the presence of a kindred spirit. Fresh from a meeting with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whose support for libraries is legendary, Fernández then 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.
The president then spent a good part of the one-hour meeting listening, with his advisers taking notes and making connections with staff who talked about everything from the Sister Libraries program to continuing education opportunities, collection building, resource sharing, and public awareness and advocacy.
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.
Following the meeting, the president and first lady made time to sit for an interview with American Libraries Associate Editor Pamela Goodes. During the interview, Fernandez talked about growing up poor and what it takes to succeed. “You don’t need to have financial wealth,” he said. “You need to have a wealth of ideas, and these ideas come from books.”