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February 16, 1995

SLIS professors aid reclamation of hidden Haitian library collection

Hitler burned books in Nazi Germany and Pol Pot executed anybody with a semblance of an education in the killing fields of Cambodia. Dictators have always known that one way to control their people is to keep them ignorant. So among the things the Duvaliers did when they seized power in Haiti three decades ago was to murder or drive out members of the country's professional class, and then burn the libraries and museums.

"There are very few libraries, archives or records of any kind left in Haiti," says Sally Buchanan, a faculty member in Pitt's School of Library and Information Science who recently completed some work in Haiti. "Even the Haitian parliamentary building was burned to the ground with all of the legal records of Haiti in it, so they don't have birth or death or marriage records, except what might be found in churches. They did a pretty thorough job of wiping out the cultural memory of the country." Remarkably, though, one library survived both the Duvaliers and the military junta that deposed Haiti's first elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991. It contains 30,000 to 40,000 books and other documents on the history of the Caribbean, the arts and letters of Haiti, and what may be the largest and most extensive collection of works on the history of slavery in the Western Hemisphere.

Going back to about 1860, the collection has been in the hands of the Holy Ghost Fathers, or Spiritans, a Catholic order that has been active among Haiti's poor for almost two centuries. Most of it came from private Haitian collectors who left their libraries to the order when they died.

The collection survived because 73-year-old Father Antoine Adrien, the order's librarian, broke it up and hid it in various locations around the island. "He doesn't talk about where or how," says Buchanan. "He just says it was in Haiti." Since the intervention by U.S. troops stabilized the political situation in Haiti last year, the collection has been unpacked and shelved, but under less than ideal conditions. The heating, ventilating and air conditioning system of the library where it is housed is ancient and often breaks down. Due to its years in storage, too, much of the collection is badly deteriorated and it is all in need of being cataloged, which is why Buchanan and Father Romano Almagno, another faculty member in the School of Library and Information Science, traveled to Haiti last month.

Buchanan and Almagno became involved in the project after Father William Headley of Duquesne University contacted the Pitt experts and asked if they would be interested in going to Haiti to examine the collection. The Congregation of the Holy Ghost at Duquesne has extensive contacts in Haiti.

At a meeting in November involving Adrien; other Spiritan priests from Duquesne; Toni Carbo Bearman, dean of Pitt's School of Library and Information Science, and Almagno, Buchanan suggested that a model library preservation project she had developed for use in Latin America for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) might work in Haiti.

The major phases of the model plan include cataloging collections and publishing the catalogs, microfilming collections and bringing the microfilm back to the United States for safekeeping, and training local librarians in preservation practices.

January's trip to Haiti by Buchanan, Almagno and Sheilla Desert, a Pitt graduate student who is Haitian, was the first step in the plan. Its immediate goal was to assess the scholarly value of the collection and to conduct workshops for four young Haitian librarians. Funds for it were provided by UNESCO, which has indicated that it is interested in seeing a report for funding of the next phases.

"While we were there, we also met with the minister of culture," says Buchanan. "What he hopes is that the collection, along with two or three other distinguished collections that are held privately by families in Haiti, eventually will form the core of a new national library." Because Haiti was a central port for slave ships from the earliest colonial days, the collection dates to 1553. A scholar from another university who has seen the collection told Adrien that it contains materials she had heard about, but had never seen and believed no longer existed.

Much of the collection is in English, according to Buchanan, but there also are large portions in French and Creole. "The material presents both a pro-slavery attitude and an anti-slavery attitude," Buchanan says. "It contains log books from slaving ships. It contains all kind of legal documents having to do with the slaves themselves, their indentures, sale slips for slaves, and narratives about the history of slavery." Much of the material in the collection was published by the Society of Friends or the Quakers, who were among the most vocal opponents of slavery. It includes a letter from a Quaker in England to George Washington, castigating the first president of the United States for allowing himself to be called the father of his country while continuing to own slaves.

Buchanan did not see anything in the Quaker material connected to William Penn or other members of the Penn family, but she did find and bring back for conservation an anti-slavery pamphlet published in 1836 by the Pittsburgh Society of Friends.

"It's in very serious condition because it got wet in storage and is badly molded," she says. "I brought it back to consult with a paper conserver here in Pittsburgh at The Carnegie." The collection also contains six copies of the anti-slavery newspaper The Colored Man, which was published in Philadelphia for three years prior to the Civil War. The six issues in Haiti are the only known copies. Several other newspapers produced by African Americans after the Civil War also are part of the collection, as well as numerous Caribbean newspapers, including a complete run of one Haitian newspaper that goes back about 200 years. Due to its unique nature, Buchanan says it is difficult to place a monetary value on the Haiti collection. As far as scholarly value is concerned, however, she says that much of the material is completely new. "I suspect that scholars are going to be truly amazed at what is represented there," she says.

But the decades in which the collection was kept in hiding in Haiti's tropical climate have taken their toll. Along with the usual problems of deteriorated acidic paper, loose pages and bindings, portions of the collection are suffering from mold, water and insect damage that will be expensive to correct.

Conservation work on a single volume can cost from $100 to $500 or even more, depending upon the condition of the object being preserved, according to Buchanan. She estimates that the small pamphlet published by the Pittsburgh Society of Friends in 1836 alone will cost $200-$300 to restore. Building a catalog and publishing it also will cost "many thousands of dollars," according to Buchanan. And the rule of thumb for microfilming material is $75 to $100 per volume. Buchanan says the Spiritans also would like to continue to add to the history of slavery collection. And she is hopeful they will succeed. "I think once people know that this distinguished collection exists, it is highly likely that they will receive other donations," she says.

–Mike Sajna

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