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Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Last Updated Wednesday, December 31, 1969

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Americans Help Rebuild Haiti’s Libraries

By Phillip Kurata

Washington — After an earthquake devastated Haiti in January, a student in South Carolina was so moved to help rebuild libraries in Haiti that he shaved his head, legs and beard.

Before shaving, Chess Schmidt, a library science student at the University of South Carolina, vowed to fellow students that he would take the dramatic step if they contributed a total of $750 to help Haiti rebuild its libraries. After his fundraiser netted $950, the once-hairy Schmidt showed off his new look.

Although the buildings in Haiti housing the libraries were destroyed, the spirit animating Haitian librarians was not. Librarians in Haiti quickly resumed their work from roadsides and tents, from which they loaned books and told stories to children. It was that spirit of determination from Haitian librarians that inspired the South Carolinian.

Schmidt’s interest in rebuilding libraries, if not his method, is in keeping with a long tradition by American librarians to provide relief to regions struck by disaster. The earthquake that rocked Haiti in January was no exception. “Within a couple of weeks of the earthquake, we set up a Haiti library relief fund,” said Michael Dowling of the American Library Association. “Any time there is a large international disaster, we look at what we can do to assist.”

The American Library Association began its international work more than a century ago. During World War I, it collected books and shipped them to troops in the trenches in France, Dowling said. It built libraries in Europe and Japan after World War II, in Armenia after the 1988 earthquake and in Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the earthquake and tsunami of 2004.
Haitian librarian telling story to children in tent (Courtesy of American Library Association)
Librarian Magali Gondre Laguerre tells a story to children in Haiti's Petit Goave library, housed under a tent.

The association so far has collected $25,000 in donations for Haiti’s libraries from individuals, civic and youth groups, and businesses, as well as local libraries across the United States. The money that the association collects is going to help three libraries. Two of them — Petit Goave and Pyepoudre — are public libraries under the national library system. The third is the library connected to the Saint Martial College, which houses historical documents dating from Haiti’s independence struggle from France early in the 19th century.

The association has already sent $10,000 each to Petit Goave and Pyepoudre, and $5,000 to the Saint Martial library, according to Dowling. The cost of rebuilding the Petit Goave library is estimated to be $350,000. A citizens group in New York City is also committed to help and has collected more than $100,000 and contributed it toward the Petit Goave library project through a U.N. office, according to Dowling.

“That really boosts things for Petit Goave,” he said. But he said that Petit Goave is one of five libraries in the national library system that was destroyed.

Dowling noted that Cub Scout Pack 77 in Ridgewood, New Jersey, donated $100 and the Bloomfield Township public library in Michigan contributed $220. According to Bloomfield deputy librarian Carol Mueller, the library organized casual-dress days on Fridays for several months and charged $1 donations from staffers who wanted to participate.

The American Library Association is in contact with women’s clubs in America to seek their help in assisting the Haitian libraries. Women’s clubs have “a long history of connecting with public libraries in the United States. This is a way for them to reconnect with their history,” Dowling said. He said he expects various clubs to adopt libraries to support.

An Internet-based youth social movement, GreenMyParents, has embraced the Haitian library assistance project in cooperation with the library association. GreenMyParents teaches children to guide their parents in adopting energy-efficient practices. The kids “earn” money by pocketing the savings gleaned from reduced energy expenditures. GreenMyParents encourages young people to donate a portion of their earnings to Haitian libraries in an effort to inculcate the value of philanthropic giving in young people. GreenMyParents was launched in April 2010.

“Our partnership with the American Library Association to engage thousands of youth to help rebuild Haitian libraries is a wonderful example of our shared mission to improve people’s lives and make our world a better place,” said Jordan Howard, editor of the book GreenMyParents.

Dowling said he expects contributions from members of GreenMyParents to start arriving soon, as energy savings start to appear in family budgets. “The anniversary of the earthquake is coming up in January. We’ll do a big push for donations at that time,” Dowling said. He said the library association is making available the option of donating to Haitian libraries by wireless text messages for the first time. “Donating via text appeals to the young generation.”

The U.S. government, for its part, has contributed $676,000 to help rebuild the Haitian-American Institute, which teaches English and houses the largest collection of English language books in Haiti. “The Haitian-American Institute will have a state-of-the-art library, with computer terminals and research areas in addition to the tens of thousands of books and periodicals,” said Patricia Convery, president of the board of directors of the Haitian-American Institute.

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