From Immediate Relief to Longterm Development
A conversation with LWB Director Jérémy Lachal on LWB’s post-earthquake efforts in Haiti
How do you plan the future in the midst of a humanitarian emergency? This question has haunted aid organizations and governmental agencies throughout contemporary history, but perhaps never as strongly as when the January 12, 2010 earthquake struck Haiti.
“We were facing a situation where a million people were suddenly homeless and hundreds of thousands had died,” recalls Jérémy Lachal, Director of Libraries Without Borders / Bibliothèques Sans Frontières, who just returned from a trip to Haiti. “The physical infrastructure, including schools, universities and libraries, across Port-au-Prince was completely ravaged.”
With a team dispatched to Haiti, Libraries Without Borders (LWB) faced the question of how to provide immediate relief from the trauma of the earthquake through books and story-times in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps while also preparing for the future and longterm development. The Rector and Executive Council of the State University of Haiti (UEH), the largest and only public university in the country, called a meeting with LWB and asked for immediate support. Council members were concerned that “the students who would return after the earthquake would not be able to access books,” Lachal remembers. Nine of UEH’s 11 departments were severely damaged or completely destroyed in the earthquake.
From here, the LWB team began to develop a plan to ensure that key educational services would be available to students as soon as possible after the catastrophe. LWB quickly began creating new reference libraries in each department of the State University of Haiti. “We stocked them with text books and reference books in each major major or discipline. [We stocked them] with the most practical books to help ensure that education would continue after the earthquake,” Lachal says. By the end of the year, LWB had established 11 new reference libraries in each of the UEH departments. The organization added 7 more reference libraries in the spring of 2011.
“Our second big idea was digital libraries.” Why high-tech, digital libraries in a country of limited infrastructure? LWB chose to develop a digital library in Port-au-Prince because it would have an immediate impact. Their digital library only needed to be 100 m², which was only 10 percent the size of a traditional library with the same services. “We installed 60 computers and negotiated with international publishers to have free access to online databases.”
“In the particular context of Haiti and when facing a major catastrophe, the Digital University Library housed at UEH ultimately allowed us to respond quickly to the lack of resources available,” he says. It was a fast method of providing students with the resources they needed to move on from the disaster and continue their studies.
But the Digital University Library in Port-au-Prince did not only allow for a quick response to catastrophe; it also prepared the university system for the future. “In the long term, having a digital library prepares students and helps to teach them to use digital resources, new media, and technological tools. This wasn’t common in Haiti and ours was the country’s first digital library.”
Lachal and his team’s efforts continue in Haiti. With staff stationed in Port-au-Prince and project oversight from the organization’s Paris office, Libraries Without Borders continues to develop plans to further aid individuals and communities in Haiti. IDP camps remain crowded, a half-million remain homeless, and though aided by reference libraries and a digital library, the university system remains in disorder.
LWB has divided its efforts across three main initiatives: humanitarian relief in IDP camps, the development of public libraries, and the construction of new libraries for Haiti’s system of higher education. In the first category, LWB’s projects and partnerships for 30 mini-libraries and storytelling activities in IDP camps have provided relief (and distraction) from the trauma of disaster for children and adults. On the initiative for public libraries, LWB supported the reopening of the National Library of Haiti and established the Library of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. LWB has supported 28 public libraries and reading spaces in total with book donations, librarian training for professionalization.
Looking to the future, Libraries Without Borders has focused a great of attention on supporting higher education in Haiti by redeveloping academic library systems. LWB is launching a campaign to build a central library reserve at UEH to serve all Haitian universities. Called “the RUCHe,” meaning beehive in French and an acronym for Réserve Universitaire Centrale Haïtienne, the central reserve will use digital and physical resources in tandem with an integral book shuttle system for distant libraries. More information on the RUCHe Central Library Reserve can be found on its website http://ruche-haiti.org/?lang=en
In total, LWB has opened or supported 163 libraries in Haiti.
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