Libraries in Cuba : Thoughts on Technology, Preservation and Access

Photo by Pedro J. Hernández. CC BY-NC 2.0

Last January, I was part of a group of CUNY librarians who had the opportunity to visit a several libraries and cultural institutions in Havana, Cuba. In Havana, I was privileged to meet many librarian colleagues and to see their approaches to collecting, preserving and making accessible the wealth of intellectual resources in Cuba. Paralleling efforts in the United States, librarians in Cuba are addressing the changing information needs of the public and scholarly communities by leading digitization efforts and emphasizing the importance of open access resources.

Cuban librarians’ efforts are hampered, however, by the inadequacy of available technology and equipment. With the recent historical visit and statements from the United States and Cuba, there may be cause to look forward to positive changes in the future. Hopefully those changes will lead to the increased availability of technology, equipment and infrastructure to enable our Cuban colleagues to succeed in their efforts.

Here are some highlights of what I learned during our brief visit.

Libraries in Cuba: Opportunities and challenges

With librarians at the central library of Universidad de La Habana.

Universidad de La Habana. Photo by Arlene Ramírez. CC BY-NC 2.0

Unsurprisingly, given Cuba’s wealthy intellectual tradition and high literacy rate, Havana has a rich and complex network of libraries–including government and public libraries and archives, academic and school libraries, and libraries dedicated to specialty areas (such as numerous medical libraries).

These libraries gather a wealth of resources unique to Cuba, and are staffed by highly trained professionals. The biggest challenge that the librarians most commonly cite, however, is lack of access to adequate technology and equipment to help them make the resources digitally discoverable and accessible.

Making resources discoverable: Digitizing catalogs

In the United States, online catalogs are widespread and a part of library users’ everyday experience. However, the common nature of online catalogs in the United States today is the result of a large-scale effort that libraries undertook in the past to transfer print catalog records to digital formats. In Havana, digitizing catalogs is currently in process at most of the libraries we visited (except the National Library of Medicine, which already has their full catalog online). Digitizing catalogs is recognized as a top priority, and libraries are directing a significant amount of time and resources for that end. The lack of adequate servers to host the resulting digital catalogs on the Internet remains a significant challenge to be tackled, but in the meantime, librarians are making advances in digitizing records and adding metadata.

Preserving resources, and making them accessible


At the National Archives. Photo by Pedro J. Hernández. CC BY-NC 2.0

Havana libraries and archives hold a wealth of unique materials and face important challenges for their conservation and preservation. Digitization is an essential strategy for preserving aging print information resources, and projects to build digital libraries are also under way in the libraries we visited (The National Library is, for example, building a digital library of Cuban newspapers). These are huge projects, however, and our colleagues are again hampered by a lack of equipment. In the meantime, librarians have developed professional best practices for preventative conservation and preservation, to help delay the degradation of physical materials.

Supporting Open Access

Given the U.S. trade embargo and the general economic situation that Cuba faces, it is logically difficult for librarians in Havana to provide access to subscription databases from abroad. In such a context, the availability of open access resources is particularly important, and our colleagues in Havana are educating library users about those resources.

Rather than just being users of open access material, the libraries we visited are also producers of open access content. Some of the major libraries and information centers we visited have built, or are building, open access thesis and dissertation repositories, much like CUNY’s Academic Works. Some libraries and cultural institutions also publish fully open access journals online (e.g.: Casa de las Américas, Revista Casa and Anales del Caribe). Although they would be of interest and value to people around the world, other repositories that are being built are currently available in local Intranets only, due to limitations in server capacity.

The road ahead


Photo by J. Silvia Cho. CC BY-NC 2.0

Though limited by currently available equipment and infrastructure, the librarian colleagues we met in Havana continue to work to provide access and services to the public. Having met these inspiring professionals, I am cautiously optimistic about the future, when the technology and infrastructure context may improve and the wealth of intellectual materials from Cuba can be made more widely accessible.

Doing research on Cuba-related topics? 

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About the Author

Resource Sharing Librarian, Graduate Center Library.