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Proposed historic pact between UC Berkeley, Cuban libraries encourages research, share materials
07 Sep 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Libraries at the University of California, Berkeley and Cuba are building a unique archive on the troubled history between Cuba and the United States, striving to give scholars access to materials made difficult to circulate during four decades of a U.S. embargo's trade restrictions.

Campus librarians will join representatives from the Cuban National Library on Wednesday, Sept. 13, in UC Berkeley's Doe Library to celebrate the first-of-its kind project. A public exhibit of 17 cases of Cuban materials offers a glimpse of the array of information that would be available under a proposed pact between the UC Berkeley library and the José Martí National Library of Cuba.

The display, at the Bernice Layne Brown Gallery, includes:

* Handmade books and periodicals composed on scraps of brown grocery bags and cardboard during periods of scarcity in Cuba

* Sheet music of the Cuban national anthem and of more contemporary songs

* Books on Cuban poetry, prose, literary criticism, art, and cinema

* Books by and about José Martí, Cuba's greatest hero and most influential intellectual

Under the pact, Cuba's National Library would provide the campus with free, duplicate copies of books, sheet music and journals. That library contains more than 2 million volumes as well as slides, books, photographs, music, periodicals and hundreds of maps documenting Havana's growth since 1615.

In return, UC Berkeley would catalog and store duplicates of the materials, making them available via online catalogues and interlibrary loans to researchers across the country. A post-revolutionary poster collection also may be digitized and folded into the collection of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury informed UC Berkeley in mid-May that a proposed exchange of information and informational materials would be exempt from the long-time trade embargo. Since then, the two sides have been working on details of the exchange.

If it is approved, Carlos Delgado, librarian for Latin American collections at UC Berkeley, said potential contributions to scholarship and international relations are immense.

"This project, as it contributes to the building of library research collections, will have a long-term impact on Cuban studies in the U.S.," he said. "I think it's a great opportunity not only for (UC) Berkeley, but for Cuban or Caribbean scholars throughout the United States."

UC Berkeley's immediate goal would be to improve access to Cuban materials that for many years have been difficult to obtain, and to thereby stimulate research and enhance understanding of Cuba, Delgado said.

Charles Faulhaber, director of The Bancroft Library and a professor in the Spanish and Portuguese department, called the tentative pact "very, very important."

"For student purposes, I think it will be very interesting to have the ability to compare the way the Cuban Revolution is presented in these materials, as compared to the way the Mexican Revolution is presented. Both (collections) represent significant political statements about the evolution of Latin America during the 20th century," Faulhaber said. The Cuban poster collection would complement The Bancroft Librarian's existing collection of posters from the Mexican Revolution, he said.

The exchange does not reflect a political position, said Delgado.

"At the core of librarianship is our desire to represent various viewpoints. This is not a statement for or against Castro; this is an opportunity to broaden and enrich our collections at Berkeley and in the United States," he said.

Word of the agreement has spread among academic researchers, who are quite excited and may want to ask their own institutions to copy it, according to Delgado.

Some travel restrictions were eased for students, artists, athletes and others traveling to Cuba about a year ago and, as a result, 82,000 Americans flew to Cuba last year compared to 55,900 in 1998. Legislation to further ease travel restriction is awaiting President Clinton's signature.

At UC Berkeley, several professors do research relating to Cuba. For example, a sociologist is examining the long-term transformation of Cuban agriculture, and an environmental science professor is exploring Cuba's local community organizations. Lydia Chavez, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism and former Latin American and South American bureau chief for The New York Times, took a class to Cuba in 1993. She is preparing to take a dozen students to Cuba next spring to report for a book on Cuba. Ling-Chi Wang, head of UC Berkeley's ethnic studies department, helped organize a conference in Havana about the Chinese Diaspora.

But getting large amounts of books and reference materials across the borders between the two countries has been difficult.

In the past, Delgado said, libraries at UC Berkeley or at other institutions occasionally sent librarians to Cuba to "buy whatever they find there." The resulting collections often were spotty and expensive, he said, with major gaps in such collections as out-of-print Cuban-produced materials.

There are a few vendors in South America and the United States who put together catalogs of selected Cuban materials, but none can provide the volume of titles needed to build comprehensive research collections, Delgado said.

Cuba, which stages a national celebration of the book each year, is unable to buy directly from U.S. publishers any books that relate to Cuban history, culture and development.

Its national library finances are meager, and some authorities consider the library a luxury rather than an essential cultural and educational center. Constructed in the mid-1950s with a half-cent sales tax on sugar, the national library is responsible for developing Cuba's public library system and its literacy programs. The money isn't enough. The trucks used to transport books and other materials "are literally falling apart," Delgado said.

Under the proposed agreement, UC Berkeley would establish and manage a $5,000 fund to help buy Cuba research materials in the United States. Another $1,000 would be deposited in the account for the second and third year of the exchange. After the third year, the deal would be re-examined.

UC Berkeley bears all costs of transporting the materials to and from Cuba. Ironically, despite the Treasury Department clearance for the library exchange, UC Berkeley must have its materials from Cuba shipped first to Canada and then to the San Francisco Bay Area. The U.S. embargo is still in place and, despite certain program exemptions, it is impractical to ship large quantities of materials directly from Cuba to the United States.

For the past seven years, Delgado has been a member of the Association of Latin American National Libraries, serving as a technical consultant. He met the national librarian for Cuba through the organization, and the two discussed important collections more than once.

But it was a year ago when UC Berkeley-affiliated researcher Lincoln Cushing told Delgado about a project to digitize Cuban post-revolution posters on his own Web page.

"That gave me the idea," Delgado said, referring to the new UC Berkeley-Cuba exchange. He was encouraged by Faulhaber and hasn't stopped working toward the agreement since.

The non-commercial mass poster in Cuba is a direct product of the revolution as the government helped fund the application of art to further social improvements, according to Cushing. It has been used to effectively reach many of Cuba's 11 million people, urging support for joining the sugar harvest or working in the sugar mills, political causes and cultural programs.

"I'd like to believe that one of the benefits of the library connection will be to help legitimize constructive discussions on this subject," said Cushing, a student at UC Berkeley's School of Information Management & Systems.

Cushing's work focuses on digitizing the poster images so they are available not for duplication and commercial exploitation, but for viewing for research. The digitized collection to date can be seen at

The Bancroft Library plans to seek funds to underwrite expenses of digitizing posters under the exchange agreement, at a cost of about $20 per poster. So far, Cushing's work has been the product of volunteer labor and grant funds.