Rural Libraries in Cuba: Experiences in Camagüey
In his "Recuerdos de mi viaje a Puerto Príncipe" [Memoir
of my trip to Puerto Príncipe], published in the Havana journal La
siempreviva, between 1838 and 1839, Antonio Bachiller y Morales wrote: "I
saw a large city, civilized and magnificent in the middle of an island, bordered
by arid lands; I saw the second city of my homeland as a mystery in the history
of the people." It is interesting to once again read
through the memories recorded by the "father of Cuban bibliography," because,
without a doubt, the well–known scholar was trying to bring to life
an image of the city and the surrounding land, which he described in minute
detail, from the first moment of his arrival, highlighting not only the physical
aspects of the area, but also its unique vocabulary and architecture. Historians
and specialists on Camagüey agree that Bachiller's descriptions
of the interiors of the houses of Puerto Príncipe are among the best
ever written. 
Many travelers from distant places passed through the old city of Camagüey
years ago on their journeys, and they, too, recorded their impressions, describing
the special make–up of a region so different from others on the Island.
Legend has it that the city of Camagüey, whose official name was Puerto
Príncipe, was founded in 1514, although historical sources available
today give us a slightly later date, somewhere between the end of June and
the beginning of July of the year 1515. For various reasons, in 1516 the city
was relocated towards Caonao, on the banks of the river of the same name,
and in 1528, it was moved further inland, between the Tinima and Hatibonico
Rivers, where it finally remained, definitively established as Villa de Santa
María del Puerto del Príncipe, a name which was shortened over
time to Puerto Príncipe.
Camagüey, its official name since 1903, is a colonial city that conserves
much of the charm of its past, and has gone down in history as a legendary
city, birthplace of patriots, and producer of beautiful women.
Within a short time, cattle ranching had become the principal source of
wealth in the region. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the
increase in the production of cattle, and a developing sugar refining industry,
Puerto Príncipe was enjoying a high level of economic growth and prosperity.
By the seventeenth century, Puerto Príncipe was known as a city
with its own unique culture and style. Around 1608, Espejo de paciencia,
the first work of Cuban literature, was written here. It has been attributed
to Silvestre de Balboa Troya y Quesada, a native of the Canary Islands who
lived in the city.
The latifundio system–in cattle–ranching at first, then
in sugar refining–endowed Puerto Príncipe with a certain cultural
profile and a special way of life, typified by a close attachment to the land,
and to art and culture in general. These conditions facilitated the creation
of special cultural characteristics, such as the use of traditional elements
in the city's architecture, and the preservation of Spanish customs,
especially those of Andalucía.
The city's celebration of the festival of St. John, which dates from
the end of the eighteenth century, marks the end of cattle sales for the year,
and has continued to be a part of our traditions today, albeit with profound
Cubans active in intellectual and literary endeavors of the nineteenth
Francisquito Agüero Velazco, considered to be the first martyr for
Cuban independence (1826)
Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros sponsored railroad construction, and fought
for the economic modernization of the area, as well as for improvement in
Ignacio Agra Monte y Lorna, Salvador Cisneros, Bernie Boza, and Eduardo
Agramonte, among others, illustrious Camagüeyanos outstanding in their
fight for independence during the Ten Years' War (1868–1878)
Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, one of Iberoamerica's most
important lyrical voices, whose homeland is reflected in works such as the
legend El aura blanca and her novel Sab
During the neo–colonial period, certain people and groups attempted
to achieve some progress for the region. Among these, the scientific research
of Carlos J. Finlay, and the work of Luis Casas Romero as bandleader, composer,
and radio pioneer should be mentioned. In the field of fine arts, there was
Fidelio Ponce de León, symbol of the pictorial avant–garde of
The literary culture of the nation has been nourished by Camagüeyanos
such as Nicolás Guillén, Emilio Ballagas, Felipe Pichardo Moya,
and Mariano Brull. During the 1950s, the figure of Rolando T. Escardó created
a literary environment which fostered the development of authors like Raúl
González de Cascorro, Luis Suardíaz, and others whose work has
enriched Cuban literature.
The triumph of the Cuban Revolution allowed a great enrichment of the nation's
culture: the literacy campaign, the preparation of and attention to the amateur
sports movement, the consolidation of the system of artistic training—all
of these programs helped to begin to erase the differences between urban and
rural areas, and to make cultural activities available to all citizens.
In order to provide this description of Camagüey summarizing the most
important historic and social facts about the city from its founding to the
present day, I consulted the Cultural Program of the Biblioteca Provincial.
The province of Camagüey occupies an area of 16,000 square kilometers,
and is home to a population of 781,815 inhabitants, of whom 595,393 live in
cities, and 196,422 in rural areas. Following the political and administrative
re–districting of the country in 1974, the province of Camagüey
was divided into 12 municipalities; the principal cities are Nuevitas, Florida,
y Guáimaro. The economy of the region centers around cattle ranching,
the generation of electrical power, and sugar production.
Today, the city of Camagüey occupies 70,500 square kilometers, the
largest urban area in the country, after Havana. Its population of nearly
300,000 is exceeded only by that of Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Historically,
as the city kept moving, its area and boundaries kept changing; the present
configuration of Camagüey's city boundaries was established only
in the middle of the last century.
The tinajón, a large earthenware jar used for collecting
rainwater, is the symbol of Camagüey, an image so deeply rooted in the
history and culture of the area that the city is often referred to by its
symbol rather than by its geographical name. For this reason, Camagüey
is known throughout all of Cuba as the "city of water jars." 
The Camagüey area boasts a vigorous education system, with students
assigned to particular school centers throughout the province offering varying
levels of instruction ranging from elementary grades to high school.
A brief history
of public libraries in Camagüey
The province of Camagüey has been known for having libraries since
the nineteenth century. The first public library was inaugurated in 1831,
under the sponsorship of the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País.
Other libraries were established during this century as well, although they
served the patrons of private schools or educational and recreational societies,
rather than the public.
Also worthy of mention is the public library founded at the beginning of
the twentieth century by the Círculo de Trabajadores, and operated
by the workers themselves. They were able to count on support from the government,
sporadic though it was, which enabled them to continue providing services
up until 1959. Libraries of the upper and middle classes had a better chance
of survival, since they served a much smaller circle of patrons.
The March 1950 issue of the Boletín de la Asociación Cubana
de Bibliotecarios notes the existence in Camagüey of 18 public and
36 private libraries.  With rare exceptions, these
libraries performed poorly, and lacked
the dynamic character of our modern libraries.
In 1959, educational and cultural opportunities opened up for the Cuban
people, opportunities accessible to all without regard to sex or race. Along
with other basic programs, the Cuban government successfully oversaw the Campaña
de Alfabetización–the campaign for literacy–and in
1961 created the National Library Network, an action which assured the development
of libraries in Cuba.
Although a public library was opened in Camagüey in January of 1960,
it lacked a sophisticated organization, and there were no qualified professional
staff members to maintain its operations. As a result, a short time later,
its collections were merged with the holdings of the Biblioteca Pública "Isabel
Esperanza Betancourt", located in the Ignacio Agramonte Provincial
Museum. These institutions were subjects of risky popular debates, which called
for official endorsement of both the library and the museum in order to assure
their continued operations at a high level. The Isabel Esperanza Betancourt
Library remained in a formative stage until the Cuban Revolution, and opened
shortly thereafter, in 1960.
But it was with the opening on June 1, 1963 of the Julio Antonio Mella
Library, the very first library established in our province by the National
Library Network, that our goal was finally realized of having a truly modern
cultural center to meet the needs which had emerged in a moment of enormous
The Juan Antonio Mella Library has a well–structured and functioning
organization, with trained professional staff
members who serve the library users at the highest levels, making it an effective
institution for raising the cultural level of the community. 
Beginning in 1963, municipal or town libraries were also established. Camagüey's
public library system consists of thirty–one libraries: one provincial,
twelve municipal and eighteen branch libraries, with thirteen of the branches
located in sugar refineries, and five in communities.
The public library
system in Camagüey in rural areas and cattle–ranching communities.
The growth of public libraries in the province can be divided into four
1963–1969. During this stage, three libraries were created,
including the Biblioteca Provincial, on June 1, 1963; and two others in
the towns of Nuevitas and Florida. The Bibliobus, or traveling library,
was also started that same year.
1970–1977. The province's own socio–economic
and educational development during this period promoted the creation of municipal
libraries in Esmeralda and Céspedes, and two branch libraries in
Santa Cruz del Sur and Florida. In addition,
agreements between the Ministry of
Culture and the government office of sugar production fostered the creation
of libraries in sugar mills, refineries, and communities near these industries.
1980–1989. This was the period of greatest growth, bringing
the number of libraries to twenty,
consisting of eight in provincial capital
cities, nine branch libraries in areas of sugar production, and three in
cattle–ranching districts. For the most part, the libraries located
in sugar producing areas were defined as small towns, because of the small
number of residents–under 10,000–and the limited radius of
service. Libraries in cattle raising areas
were considered strictly rural,
with fewer than 2500 residents.
1990–1997. The close of the twentieth century saw the creation
of four new libraries: two in cattle areas, two in sugar refining areas.
At the present time, the number of registered library borrowers exceeds
10,475 in the thirty branch libraries. Some of these libraries are located
in remote areas such as Minas, Santa Cruz del Sur and Sierra de Cubitas. However,
the library staff, in conjunction with those promoting cultural activities,
work together to carry out the mission of a modern–day public library,
which is to contribute to the development of the people of a community, and
to their sense of identity; as well as to serve as a bridge between accumulated
stores of culture and free and open access by the community to information,
knowledge, and entertainment.
With the creation of the public library system in our province came an ongoing
interest in promoting reading to children and teenagers, and along the way
improving the cultural and educational formation of the community in order
to forge the ethical characteristics of our nationality.
Figures in the following table summarize the results of these activities
to promote reading:
No. of activities with children
Nos. of participants
No. of activities with teenagers
Nos. of participants
Sta.Cruz del Sur
Sierra de Cubitas
We cannot leave this panorama of the library system without mentioning the
attention paid to handicapped people: nine municipal libraries have special
areas for the blind and visually handicapped. In addition, libraries provide
activities in old age homes, maternity homes, hospitals, and family clinics.
Library service to farm cooperatives, sugar cane factories, and work centers
located in rural zones is made possible through the creation of mini–libraries
By 1999, there had been a sizeable increase in this type of service which
offers effective ways to bring books to people who, for various reasons, are
not able to use the library, usually because it is too far from their homes.
In the first quarter of this year, the number of rural mini–libraries
rose to sixty–seven, and rural home–libraries to twenty–six,
together offering a total of 879 activities to promote reading.
The Sistema de Información de la Education of Camagüey
province, with which the libraries maintain close and productive working relationships,
offers traveling collections which provide service to 317 schools in rural
areas without libraries. This service is operated by librarians who transport
their collections to these schools, organize activities to promote reading,
and insure that local teachers have the resources they need to educate the
children. Books and other documents—bibliographical and audiovisual—are
deposited in the schools, which become operating libraries. Borrowing is done
on a weekly basis. The public libraries support this effort by participating
in inter–library loan projects, or through the Library Extension Department,
which organizes mini–collections to be used on loan for consultation
by teachers and students.
The application of new technology to library operations has placed in the
hands of librarians valuable tools which increase information and knowledge.
The web page of the provincial library includes a complete directory of the
thirty municipal and branch libraries; and at the same time, the libraries
are listed on the web pages of the municipal offices of culture, which are
periodically updated. The web pages have been received with great enthusiasm
by people interested in knowing important events and services of Camagüey's
public library system.
The local organization of the Cuban Association of Librarians offers summer
courses in July and August for library staff, aimed at improving their cultural
and professional training. Some of the courses which have been offered include:
initiatives to promote reading; public relations and communication; and an
origami workshop. This year, a "hands–on" course is being
prepared, which will include technical assignments, and a special program
on organizing and administering community projects.
Also worth mentioning are the consulting services–part of an overall
community health initiative—offered to the staff of the library network
by a specialist in the Children's Division of the Provincial Library
on the appropriate application of early childhood bibliotherapy to school—age
children who experience behavior problems as a result of poor parenting. The
municipal and branch libraries in Esmeralda have seen satisfactory results
in children with respiratory problems using reading and stories as part of
their therapy. These results have been presented at scientific and community
conferences, as have the efforts of the Children's Division of the Provincial
Library, which were noted at the Convention of UNESCO Associated Libraries
in Cienfuegos in 1996.
comes the Library!
Our best and most rewarding experience in rural
areas has been with the bookmobile, the Bibliobus. Those of us who have
had the opportunity to work with the Bibliobus regard those memories
with great respect and admiration. Today, for technical and economic reasons,
the Bibliobusis used mainly for reaching neighborhoods on the outskirts
of the city of Camagüey; whereas the efforts of municipal and branch libraries,
which have been working together for more than thirty years to promote reading,
have been focused on the most remote areas of the province of Camagüey.
The Julio Antonio Mella Library's Bibliobus began operating
in 1963. From the beginning, it offered services to specially selected rural
areas on a bi–weekly basis, and the response was so favorable that its
route was expanded. When conditions permitted, the Bibliobus carried
with it photographic exhibits furnished by the provincial office of the Instituto
Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, or documentary films provided by the Empresa
de Cine, which were shown in schools, grange halls, and small towns.
Book borrowing was direct: patrons registered in the Bibliobus and
were able to take out the books they requested. Children were accompanied
either by a teacher or a parent. The bus made 40 official stops along the
route, an indication of the extent of the support it offered to the school
library system as well.
The Bibliobus that provided service to the eastern part of the province
of Camagüey eventually had more than 3000 members, both children and
adults, and made 112 stops on a route which covered more than 60 zones.
By 1971, the mini–libraries had begun to operate. The Bibliobus provided
service to all those who happened to be situated along its route: it accepted
patrons' requests at the stops along the way, and delivered the materials
to them on the return trip, two weeks later. In contrast, the collections
of the mini–libraries were carefully chosen so that all types of materials
were easily and immediately accessible to patrons, and, furthermore, were
able to satisfy the specific needs of that patron group.
Clearly, the Bibliobus provided services to a very wide public.
Its route covered the most remote areas, where people had never before had
direct, immediate, tangible access to culture.
The arrival of the Bibliobus was a great event in the lives of these
people. As soon as they caught a glimpse
of it, they began to shout, "Here
comes the Library! Here comes the Library!" They would line up, and enter
the bus in small groups, where they would
receive the books they had requested. The
excitement which the arrival of the bus brought to life in these distant places
was the subject of an article which appeared in Bohemia, one
of the most important journals published
in Cuba. 
The study "Dynamics of reading in rural areas of our province," written
by two staff members of the Provincial Library
at the end of the 1990s, summarized the work
of the Bibliobus and its
relationship with its registered users, taking
into account socio–demographic
factors (sex, age, occupation, and level
of education) along with the number of visits and number of books borrowed.
The hypothesis presented by the authors was that "in rural areas of
the province of Camagüey, the greatest number of adult readers would
be housewives." In order to examine this hypothesis, 287 registered users,
chosen from 10 different rural locales, were interviewed, and other data was
assembled based on information from readers' cards, and the type of
The results described in the study regarding the use of the Bibliobus and
its collections prepared the way for other projects in rural zones administered
by the public libraries, which we will mention in a moment.
The conclusions of the study showed that Bibliobus users included
adults between the ages of nineteen and twenty–five, and children between
the ages of ten and twelve. Of those who had had some years of schooling,
most fell into two groups: those in the economically inactive sector, who
had completed sixth grade; and those in the economically active sector, who
had a basic high school education. Most users were housewives, students, or
workers in the cattle industry.
Students and housewives accounted for the greatest number of subjects consulted.
The most popular subject areas requested were foreign literature, national
and social politics, José Martí, history, and Latin American
and Caribbean literature.
Community intervention projects, which illustrate
the interest in improving the cultural level of people living in rural areas,
and in developing good reading habits in children at a very early age, include
two studies undertaken by members of the provincial branch of ASCUBI.
The National Program for Reading that is being carried out in Cuba establishes
general objectives, one of which is to consciously
and creatively include both the community
and the family in the activities of the program. The "Reading
for a Better World" project, which has been run by the Municipal Library
of Jimaguayú in the Los Dolores neighborhood since 2001, is the result
of a careful study of reading programs, and
is based on the idea that the individual
and his community should appropriate the material and spiritual resources
of his environment, in order to satisfy his own necessities, interests, and
The barrio of Los Dolores, a rural area of 896 residents, where the chief
economic activity is raising livestock, lies about two kilometers from the
town of Jimaguayú. There are no other economic or recreational enterprises
anywhere in the area. Because there are no sources of entertainment for the
community, the Municipal Library "Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda" decided
to launch a program to promote reading among very young children in their
spare time, which would be led by a staff member of the library.
To make the "Reading for a Better World" project meaningful,
it was necessary to consider different research methods and techniques, so
that the people's perception of the quality of the services offered
could be evaluated at the end of the project. The project ended up developing
joint activities with cultural and health institutions aimed at capturing
the interest of three–year–olds: reading activities, traditional
games involving literature, and book presentations, etc. This year, the International
Festival of the Book, aimed at municipalities, also benefited rural populations.
The National Program for Reading also showed the high quality of its programming
and the possibility of successfully creating a reading audience, by focusing
first on young children and teenagers.
A staff member of the Municipal Library set up a casa–biblioteca
or "home library" in her own house for greater access by readers,
with a collection primarily made up of books for children and young people
to be used there until such time as another place for reading could be built.
Another community intervention project that focused on housewives had its
antecedents in a study of its patrons conducted
by the Biblioteca Provincial in 2000, the
results of which showed that this social group was poorly represented among
those who used the library and its collections. 
It was decided to investigate two pre–selected and stratified groups
in order to learn about their informational,
cultural, and thematic interests: first,
housewives residing in the historic city center; and second, housewives who
lived in a rural zone on the outskirts of the city, in this case La Belén,
a target area in the Program for Social Prevention
that the Library has been developing since
The results of the survey were important because they revealed not only
the interest of the women in learning skills such as decorating, cooking,
hairdressing, and handicrafts, and their desire to understand more about family
relationships in particular, and human relationships in general, but also
the reading preferences of housewives under 65 years old.
With all of this in mind, the program directors made a careful selection
of assignments or activities which would
satisfy the expectations and interests of this group of readers. Because of
the distance of La Belén from
the Provincial Library, a communication strategy
was devised to attract this particular patron group, beginning with activities
coordinated with a reading initiative. At the present time, the project is
in its experimental stage. 
Even though we have emphasized the experiences of rural libraries in the
province of Camagüey, it is appropriate and important to point out that
the National Network of Public Libraries
also provides similar experiences for readers
areas in the eastern and central parts of
the country, as part of the Turquino–Manatí Plan.
Libraries in Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Sancti Spiritus,
and Villa Clara–all provinces containing mountainous areas–have
organized a special program for the people
of the highlands through the creation of municipal libraries, branches, mini–libraries,
and centers. In the city of Trinidad in the province of Sancti Spiritus, the
bookmobile offers its services in mountainous areas, and in Matanzas special
attention is given to the rural locales of Ciénaga de Zapata. In other
libraries around the country, special programs are being carried
out in logging zones, coffee plantations,
and mines. 
Although there is more to say on the subject, the short time allotted for
the presentation has forced us to summarize both basic and new aspects of
rural libraries in Camagüey province. This report, a synopsis of public
library development in Camagüey up to the founding of the Biblioteca
Provincial, has been preceded by an introduction describing the region from
a socio–historical point of view, a necessary preamble to the main topic
I am grateful to the organizing committee of this event and to the chairmen
of these prestigious library organizations
for extending an invitation to me, since
it has given me the opportunity to exchange
experiences and to represent my province
at this international conference.
—Translated by Jane Carpenter
 Antonio Bachiller y Morales,"Recuerdos de mi viaje a
Puerto Príncipe", La Siempreviva, 1838-1839.
 Roberto Méndez Martínez, Imagen fragmentada
de la ciudad, p. 15.
 Camagüey. Biblioteca Provincial "Julio Antonio
Mella." Programa cultural, p. 1-7.
 Héctor Juárez Figueredo. Camagüey,
de la leyenda a la historia, p. 3.
 Boletín de la Asociación cubana de
bibliotecarios (La Habana), March 1950.
 Zenaida Serrano León, Historias de las bibliotecas
en Camagüey, p. 13-20.
 The journalist who wrote the 1973 article was Jaime
Sarusky, with the accounts of staff member Ester Quintero.
 Noemí Mendoza, Ester Quintero, Dinámica
de la lectura en las zonas rurales, p. 1-14.
 Dailé Arce, Elda Alvarez, Validación
del Proyecto de Promoción de la Lectura, p. 1-8.
 Enma Presilla Andréu, Dinámica de
la lectura, p. 15.
 _________________. Estrategia de comunicación
para el incremento del uso de las bibliotecas y sus fondos para las amas
de casa, p. 8.
 Habana. Biblioteca Nacional "José Martí." Informe
annual del Sistema Nacional de Bibliotecas Públicas, 2002.
About the Author
Enma Presilla Andréu is a researcher at the Julio Antonio Mella Provincial Library in Camagüey, Cuba.
Jane Carpenter is Cataloging Librarian at The Newberry
Email: carpenterj [at] newberry [dot] org
© 2005 Enma Presilla Andréu
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