Haiti: A Library History

February 22, 2018

1825 - The First Haitian National Library

In 1825, the first Haitian National Library was established (Janson). This was during the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer. Boyer was one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, which was the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state that was both free from slavery and ruled by non-whites and former captives. It challenged long-held beliefs about black inferiority and shocked and frightened slave owners. There was a great migration in 1824, which had the intention of relocating the entire black population out of the United States (Franz). Unlike the Haitian Revolution, this was considered a failure because more than 6,000 migrants returned to the states due to poverty on the island (Franz). This was a time of struggle, triumph, and intellectual growth for the people of Haiti, which was surely reflected in the collections at the Haitian National Library. Due to the political and environmental challenges that ensued, this is unfortunately uneasy to identify.

1939 - The National Library of Haiti (legal deposit)

There’s also a legal deposit library, the National Library of Haiti, established in 1939, which is located in Port-au-Prince and has approximately 26,000 volumes (Bissainthe). Max Bissainthe, director of the library in the 1950s, collected several historical and cultural materials, like rare colonial-era books, maps, lithographs, and several important journals. But later, three-fourths of these collections disappeared under the government of Francois Duvalier (Bertrand). Duvalier was responsible for the murder of 30,000-60,000 Haitians and the exile of many more (Franz).

During the era of dictatorship in Haiti, Haitians used radios to access news bulletins outside their territory, and occasionally radio shows would skirt censorship by using the Haitian Creole language (Skokan). Years later, several organizations in Florida would form to address the civil rights issues affecting Haitians and former Haitians: the South Florida Social Justice Movement, the Miami Dade Community Relations Board (CRB), Take Back the Land, and Haitian Women if Miami (FANM) (Skokan). More prominently, Haitian American Max Rameau from Take Back the Land sought to resolve issues such as affordable housing, gentrification, and land ownership. All of these issues were a result of the same political turmoil that had prompted the forced migration of many Caribbean and central and south American residents in the 80s (Skokan).

2010 - An Earthquake Strikes

On January 12, 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti (Moore). This was one of the worst natural disasters in two centuries in the Western Hemisphere. The earthquake set back educational progress, as survival resources became more of a priority. The earthquake caused several items from library collections to be lost or damaged. Thankfully, health sciences librarians in Miami and across the world assessed the information needs of first responders of this disaster and came to the rescue, providing access to the most relevant electronic books and journals the library subscribed to, patient information resources in Creole, and 24-hours reference services (Moore).

This has initiated the need for a free, public, and universal education system. One result has been the Emergency Access Initiative (EAI). The primary goal of EAI is to provide free, full-text access to key medical and scientific journals most useful to health care professionals and librarians responding to a disaster (Moore). Currently, EAI contains more than 240 leading biomedical journals, 69 books, and 3 online databases (Moore).

The librarians you’ve met are more

than just professionals who help you with research or leisurely things. Every area of librarianship, particularly archives and outreach, is intended to serve the needs of all people. Sometimes doing this effectively means building partnerships and integrating themselves into the community. Your librarian does more than you realize.

Haitians have historically used hardship to be innovative

in the ways they curate and share information. You can explore some of Haitian’s unique history by visiting The Richard and Erna Flagg Collection of Haitian Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum or visiting the online Digital Library of the Caribbean.


Franz, Paul. Archived April 2011. “Haiti's Lost Children." Haitiedstories.org.

Janson, M & Opitz, H., eds. 2011. World guide to libraries. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Bertrand, J.W. 1981. “Plea for a reorganization of Haitian Libraries.” UNESCO Journal of Information Science, Librarianship, and Archives Administration. 8. 117.

Bissainthe, Max. 1957. “National Library of Haiti.” UNESCO Bulletin for Libraries. 11.

Skokan, Beatrice Colastin. 2013. “From Haiti to Miami: Security, Serendipity, and Social Justice.” Informed Agitation: Library and Information Skills in Social Justice Movements and Beyond. Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

Moore, Mary, Suzetta Burrows, Maria Collins, and Nancy Roderer. 2011. “Libraries and Publishers Respond to Disaster with Groundbreaking Collaboration.” Journal of Electronic Resources in Medical Libraries. 8:1. 54-62.