• Sharing Resources amid Technological Scarcity: A Sketch of Historical and Current Resource-Sharing Practices in Cuba / Le partage des ressources malgré une rareté technologique : portrait du partage de ressources actuel et historique à Cuba

Little has been published on the subject of resource sharing in Cuba, particularly in English. This article outlines the history of resource sharing in Cuban and US libraries, reviews the literature by Cuban LIS professionals on resource sharing in Cuba, and details the current resource-sharing practices at three large national Cuban libraries. Finally, there is a discussion of the technological environment in Cuba and how it influences the sharing of, and access to, information. Despite a long history of technological scarcity, the pace of change in Cuba is fast, and Cubans are quickly moving towards dialogue with the international digital LIS professional community.


Il y a peu de publications, particulièrement en anglais, portant sur le partage des ressources à Cuba. Cet article esquisse l'histoire du partage des ressources dans des bibliothèques cubaines et étatsuniennes, examine la littérature produite par des professionnels cubains en bibliothéconomie et sciences de l'information sur le sujet, et explique en détail les pratiques actuelles de partage des ressources dans trois grandes bibliothèques nationales cubaines. Finalement, il y a une discussion sur l'environnement technologique à Cuba et la manière dont il influence le partage de l'information et son accès. Malgré une longue histoire de rareté technologique, la vitesse du changement à Cuba est vive, et les Cubains s'approchent rapidement d'un dialogue avec la communauté internationale de professionnels en bibliothéconomie et sciences de l'information numérique.


Cuba, resource sharing, inter-library loan, library history, technological scarcity

Mots clés

Cuba, partage des ressources, prêt entre bibliothèques, histoire des bibliothèques, rareté technologique

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The impetus for this study was a conversation between colleagues. One author had the good fortune to participate in a delegation of LIS professionals to Cuba to visit LIS institutions and meet counterparts. On return, she remarked admiringly on how the Cuban LIS professionals relied heavily on informal knowledge networks to meet patrons' needs; in fact, sometimes the only route was to pick up the phone to call experts to identify resources in other libraries. The second author, an electronic resources librarian with a background in history and a knowledge of, and experience with, metadata and resource sharing, wondered about union catalogues, and this led to exploring the development of Cuban library systems.

To clarify from the outset, we use the term "resource sharing" in a very broad sense; not only referring, most clearly, to inter-library loan (ILL) practices but also to practices that facilitate discovery and access such as public catalogues, open access publishing, document delivery (other than ILL), institutional repositories, and digitization. We touch upon all of these topics throughout the article, though by no means comprehensively.

This article begins with a discussion of the divergence between US and Cuban library history. The initial development of LIS practices in Cuba was inescapably influenced by its dominating northern neighbour, so this comparison is natural. We outline the broad history of libraries and resource sharing in both countries. Following from this, we cover both the current LIS literature on Cuba by Cuban LIS professionals and observations from Cuba on how resource sharing appears to work there today. It is beyond the scope of this article to attempt a comprehensive description of ILL history in Cuba or the United States. Our goal simply was to present information on this context to engage and inform an LIS professional audience about the realities of Cuban libraries. While Cuban libraries began to develop in a manner similar to those of the United States, albeit in a later time frame, the upheaval of the revolution, economic challenges, and the US Embargo took them down a very different track. We hope to speculate on how some of these events specifically affected the development of ILL in Cuba.

We would like to acknowledge that a comparison of Cuban library history to that of other Latin American nations, rather than to the United States, might provide a better, less ethnocentric lens for examining Cuba's development. However, while US library history is well documented in the secondary historical literature, the history of library networks in Latin America is harder to find, particularly if one is searching for information on ILL. We feel that the United States can provide a useful comparison in light of the close pre-revolutionary relationship between the United States and Cuba. Also, a number of important Latin American librarians and many early Cuban librarians (including, for example, Marta Terry of Cuba and Ernesto Nelson of Argentina) studied librarianship in the United States (Alkalimat and Williams 2015, 65; Finó and Hourcade 1952, 10). Since we wished to compare pre-electronic ILL technologies and practices in the developed world to recent and modern Cuban practice, American history was the natural choice for comparison. [End Page 279]

Stemming from these descriptions, we compare how some modern Cuban resource-sharing practices are similar to earlier US ILL practices. We are not looking to present solutions or grand historical conclusions, but, rather, by shedding light on resource-sharing practices, we hope to facilitate a professional dialogue that has the potential to grow as political conditions change between the United States, the rest of the developed world, and Cuba.

US ILL history

In the first half of the twentieth century, when Cuba's libraries were just beginning to form, the United States had libraries that were developing into not just a network but also a network of research libraries. The growth of research libraries was vital for the development of ILL; members of the Association of Research Libraries "provided the bulk of interlibrary loans in the developmental stages of the movement" (Gilmer 1994, 13). Tracking down citations tends to be the province of researchers, and ILL is "of the greatest value to the students and scholars of the country" (Drachmann 1928, 37). ILL "developed out of a necessity arising from the growing need of research material in all parts of the country" (Gilmer 1994, 16). Yet public, specialized, and government libraries were important to the development of ILL as well. The earliest ILL codes allowed libraries to lend the "average book to the average reader" (Committee on Coordination of the American Library Association 1917, 82); therefore, the lack of a robust public library system (as in Cuba) could hinder the development of ILL. In continental Europe, where international ILL developed early, around a dozen nations would regularly share books internationally by direct post by 1900 (Gilmer 1994, 6), and, in many of these countries, "any public library [could] get the books for use" (Drachmann 1928, 33). Importantly, as early as 1930, there is evidence that, while major regional libraries in the United States and Europe would do the bulk of lending, they would pass requests on to other libraries that would send books directly to the appropriate user (33–34). An ability to spread out the burden of lending would become invaluable as ILL systems grew.

Modern ILL in most large, academic libraries is dependent on national electronic catalogues and custom-developed automated systems. These systems can often send certain patron requests with automatic verification of citation information and without any mediation from a librarian or library staff member. However, long before these systems existed, librarians used analogue and mediated methods to handle ILL. Electronic databases, like the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), which first appeared in the 1970s, made ILL grow rapidly, yet, even into the 1990s, librarians were encouraged to conduct reference interviews before placing a request (Gilmer 1994, 122) and were required to verify citation and location information manually, either in print references or electronic databases (Reference and Adult Services Division 1994, 180). The steps of ILL have not changed; they are just performed differently and are now often invisible to librarians and patrons. Therefore, these procedures may be relevant to nations and networks with limited access to online bibliographic data and automated systems. [End Page 280]

The formalization of codes, standardization of procedures, and access to location and bibliographic information allowed ILL to thrive in the analog period. The Library of Congress (LOC) sent out 1,023 volumes to other libraries in 1909 and over 20,000 volumes in 1926 alone (Gilmer 1994, 15). The American Library Association (ALA) created its first ILL code in 1917, which has been updated several times over the last one hundred years. Eventually, codes were supplemented by procedural manuals that provided detailed instructions on how to streamline ILL. Consider the 1970 ALA Procedure Manual (chosen as an example here since it is the most current manual that deals primarily with pre-electronic requests and databases). It describes how simple standardizations, such as using a separate location request form for each title sent to the LOC, had unexpected impacts. Sending multiple forms allowed the Union Catalog Division librarians to run separate searches or to send requests to other divisions and, therefore, fulfil more requests (Thomson 1970, 52). These requests addressed another major hurdle to ILL discussed in the manual, locating books. Today, finding which libraries hold a title is usually solved by consulting online databases, not by requests sent to the Library of Congress. Yet, even before the OCLC existed, the LOC expected librarians to search a variety of print bibliographies before contacting them, including the Union List of Serials, available volumes of the print National Union Catalog, and indices like the Chemical Abstracts (21).

Libraries without access to such print references were encouraged to work through regional "hub" libraries, which grew organically, throughout the nation, to form centres of informal networks and often held regional or specialist union catalogues. In addition to communicating with larger academic libraries that were likely to hold a book, a librarian could request a location from at least 12 regional card catalogues that existed in the United States and Canada by 1970. Other title locations could be found through print subject bibliographies, which often included lists of holding libraries in addition to simple bibliographic title data. These works were vital in the first half of the twentieth century, before many regional union catalogues existed and while the LOC's Union Catalog was in development. Even bibliographies listing these print bibliographies were available (Winchell 1930)!

While many librarians today remember well the practicalities of the era of pre-electronic ILL, the concepts around which it was based are just as important as the details of practice. Procedure manuals with chapters on Teletype may seem irrelevant, but they illustrate how tiny standardizations can facilitate collaboration. Codes and print bibliographies illustrate how useful partial attempts to aggregate bibliographic data can be. Regional networks and hubs illustrate how local ILL can reach even small public libraries if national-level work lags. Cuba is far smaller than the United States and faces unique financial challenges, but a principle still holds: moving books to users is cheaper than moving users to books (Askew 1928, 52). As early as the turn of the century (and even today), US libraries began to collect titles in specialized areas and used ILL to fill in the gaps in their collection, in large part due to the high costs of subscriptions for rare and specialty journals (Gilmer 1994, 8). Similarly, costly journals are a [End Page 281] major problem for Cuban libraries because of their financial hardship and infrastructure difficulties; ILL is already a part of their solution. An examination of early US ILL allows fundamental ideas of ILL to emerge from the current literature and library education on the subject, with its focus on software linking networks and computer-based standards.

Cuban library history

The existence of libraries in Cuba can be traced back to the beginnings of Spanish colonization, when religious organizations and orders held small collections, but organized library activities only began to appear in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Péres-Matos and Fernández-Molina 2010, 214). Cuba's first public library, the Economic Society of Friends of the Country, was founded in 1793 (215). Only two other public libraries existed in the colonial period, the public libraries of Matanzas (founded in 1835) and Santiago de Cuba (founded in 1899) (Viciedo Valdés 2006). The University of Havana and the Biblioteca Nacíonal were the only major research libraries established before 1915 (Mayol and Orne 1952, 122). At the turn of the twentieth century, low literacy rates discouraged the growth of widespread libraries in Cuba. While literacy rates were similar to, or better than, in many other Latin American countries, only 40.9–46 per cent of the nation had basic literacy. For comparison, the United States had a literacy rate of 89 per cent in 1900, which supported the growth of a thriving public and academic library system (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2018).

Libraries grew slowly throughout the republican period (1901–59); in 1958, only 21 governmentally funded public libraries existed nationally (Viciedo Valdés 2009). By 1955–60, overall national literacy had increased to 79 per cent (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2018), but large disparities in literacy and standards of living existed between urban and rural Cuba (Falcoff 2004). Rural literacy was under 60 per cent (Alkalimat and Williams 2015, 91). But, at the same time, in urban, literate, and wealthy Havana, a number of social and professional clubs had developed strong private book collections for local readers (Mayol and Orne 1952, 122). Many of these society libraries were focused strictly on general-topic recreation, like the library of the Asociación de Dependientes del Comercio de la Habana, but others, while still collecting on general topics, also focused on a particular area, such as the writings of Asturias or the Galician authors (97–98). Havana was the nation's centre of library activity, housing the country's three largest libraries, the public Economic Society of Friends, the National Library, and the Library of the University of Havana (and the university's specialist medical, law, engineering, and architecture libraries) (Rivera 2005). The city would also become a centre of library education. The physical proximity of these specialist and research libraries decreased the need for formal networks of ILL since researchers could meet their needs locally.

Library professionalization and education, which foster a climate for library cooperation, were developing during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. In 1936, Cuba's first library science course was taught, an informal seminar at the private Lyceum of Havana (Lyceum and Lawn Tennis Club). The Lyceum allowed [End Page 282] non-members to pay a small fee to take the course. In 1938, a "pro-libraries" national assembly at the University of Havana resolved to promote permanent library education and endorsed a new series of courses at the Lyceum (Rivera 2005).1 The Lyceum would eventually develop a public library to serve the general community. Library science education in Cuba would continue to be informal (through the Lyceum or through summer courses at the University of Havana) until a degree-granting school was officially established at the university in 1950 (Alkalimat and Williams 2015, 87). The Cuban Librarians' Association (Asociación Cubana de Bibliotecarios [ASCUBI]) was founded at a meeting at the Lyceum in 1948. ASCUBI dissolved after the revolution, but it was reformed in the 1980s and currently serves as Cuba's professional library organization (Bellas Vilariño 2006).

The history of libraries in Cuba, similar to the history of the nation, signifi­cantly changed course after the socialist revolution of 1959. Information theory, which had previously followed US thought (when it was addressed), began to align "with the Soviet approach" (Péres-Matos and Fernández-Molina 2010, 220). Therefore, librarianship was treated "scientifically," and the National Library began to focus on the preservation and dissemination of current science, often through bibliographies on topics whose specialists had emigrated (221). Similarly, library classification, which had once strictly followed the US Dewey model, was modified under the influence of Soviet classifications for Marxist theory as well as to better represent Cuban literature (Alkalimat and Williams 2015, 119). Due to the US Embargo, librarians could not access updates to the Dewey Decimal System but, instead, relied on their pre-existing knowledge of it and on local modifications developed by Marta Terry and others. Ultimately, despite these problems, the history of US influence on library training resulted in the maintenance of the Dewey system; the resources that would have been needed for reclassification were allocated elsewhere. Eventually, the US LOC's classification system and the Universal Decimal System were implemented at specialist and medical libraries (106–8).

No discussion of libraries in Cuba can ignore the 1961 Campaign against Illiteracy. Young teachers, many of them under the age of eighteen, who were called Brigadistas, travelled throughout rural Cuba to teach basic reading and writing to agricultural workers. While the campaign was influenced by political motives (to prove their literacy, students had to write a letter to Fidel Castro), it had an extremely large effect on illiteracy and on the culture of the nation. Offi­cially, illiteracy was reduced from 75–80 per cent to only 3.9 per cent of the population, and the disparity between rural and urban literacy was greatly reduced (EcuRed, n.d.). While statistics vary, outside observers generally agree that literacy improved dramatically and that Cuba became one of the most literate countries in Latin American and the Caribbean (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2018). Cuba maintained these gains over the long term, despite economic hardship; by 1981, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (n.d.) estimated youth literacy in Cuba at 99.6 per cent compared to 89.0 per cent in the region overall; UNESCO's 2012 estimate [End Page 283] for Cuba was 99.9 per cent youth literacy. In addition, the Campaign against Illiteracy importantly influenced the thinking of the young teaching volunteers and focused the new government's efforts on education, science, and information. By 1964, 34 new public libraries were established to meet the needs of newly literate readers and to promote education (Alkalimat and Williams 2015, 91). However, research-level libraries were still centred in Havana.

Formal library networks started appearing in Cuba during the late 1970s and 1980s. In 1977, the Dirección de Bibliotecas began to organize public libraries by designating or founding 13 main provincial public libraries that would collect material about the individual provinces. Municipal libraries, which numbered two hundred by the 1990s, were also part of the system, with an additional 150 branch libraries (Alkalimat and Williams 2015, 212). In 1976, research-type libraries were organized separately to serve universities and scientific research centres (el Sistema Nacional de Información Científico Técnica) (León Ortiz 1994). These libraries had comprehensive catalogues of their own materials, and this network became the basis for work on a union catalogue for natural science and medical periodicals (Santos Labourdette 1994). Since the research centres were focused on science, the exchange of articles was a priority and grew over time.

This historical discussion of libraries does not include any information on the history of intellectual freedom, freedom of the press, or political dissent in Cuba. Instead, the focus of the history is on scholarly communication and issues of practical library development since these factors are closely linked to the practices and technologies of resource sharing. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,2the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (Pateman 2001, 193), Freedom House (2017), the Open Observatory of Network Interference (Xynou, Filastó, and Basso 2017), and many other organizations have documented Cuba's international law violations in its treatment of political dissent, despite its stated commitment to "political openness" (Salomon 2016).3 The modern "independent library movement" was also omitted from this history as it refers not to libraries that focus on access and education but, rather, to collections of politically motivated, internationally published materials maintained and shared by Cuban dissidents, often funded by the United States and Cuban expatriates (Pateman 2002, 148). The intersection of scholarly communication mechanisms and intellectual freedom (both national and external) would require a thorough analysis of the larger political landscape. This article simply addresses access and attempts to promote communication, under the presumption that most librarians in Cuba, whatever their politics, want to improve access for their users, even if it must be within the limits of their (highly problematic) governmental and financial resources.

Current literature from Cubans on resource sharing in Cuban libraries

Cuba has an active community of library professionals who contribute to library and information science discourse both within Cuba and internationally. While political relations between Cuba and the United States make accessing Cuban [End Page 284] professional literature difficult, Cuba's investment in open access publishing allows for international distribution of the country's own scholarly work, albeit with outdated technology. For example, a premier open access Cuban library journal published by the National Library, Bibliotecas: Anales de Investigación, should be accessible through its online portal and search, but the site is often down with technical difficulties. Yet some Cuban librarians are talking about ILL, and their perspectives (both current and historical) reflect the future of Cuban resources sharing and library networks. We detail these perspectives in the following three subsections.


ILL is largely dependent on a library's knowledge of the collections at other libraries; in the practice of modern developed countries, this is possible through the existence of online union catalogues (WorldCat in the United States). Cuban librarians recognize the importance of a union catalogue, even though they do not yet have a comprehensive national catalogue for works other than medical serials. Ponce Suárez, of the Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba José Martí (BNCJM), has described the utility of a national catalogue in an article about his visit to the National Library of France. He describes how library research members of the Biblioteca Nacional de Francia can request loans from any institution in the union (collective) catalogue of France. He ends his article, in its very last phrase, by emphasizing the special significance of "the existence of a National Union Catalog" (Ponce Suárez 2011, 76).4

Union catalogues present particular difficulties in the Cuban historical context. Some amount of bibliographic automation (principally, computers to store bibliographic metadata) began as early as the 1980s (León Ortiz 1994). However, comprehensive catalogues within major bibliographic centres for their own materials were only in their infancy in the 1980s (Santiago Martínez 2007). Despite efforts to produce all-subject union catalogues of serials at a few major research libraries, the national library professionals had to stop updating their developing union catalogue in 2000 since other libraries were not sending complete information. But Santiago Martínez (2007) has argued for the creation of a subject-based union serial catalogue in education to help researchers locate documents and to facilitate ILL. He sees how real benefits can come from these efforts, even if partial and within proscribed topics.

Similarly, León Ortiz's (1994) conference paper identifies the potential benefits of projects that have found only partial success. She describes Cuban efforts to achieve one of the major building blocks of a true union catalogue, the standardization of data. In 1982, the Cuban Rules for Bibliographic Description (Norma Cubana de Descripción Bibliográfica de Libros y Folletos 1982) (were published to help normalize nationwide bibliographic practices, which had over time diverged and developed from the rules built around the Dewey Decimal System that were adopted after the revolution. She describes that, in practice, many libraries turned to the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (1967) for guidance, blending it with the Cuban rules. However, the implementation of the [End Page 285] rules, while not perfect, still led to the development of standards for describing maps, manuscripts, and serial publications. Through automation, she believes Cuba will be able to more thoroughly join the international world of bibliographic information.

Most recently, Cuban librarians have discussed and created a card image public access catalogue (CIPAC). This concept is an alternative to the traditional online public access catalogue (OPAC) that can facilitate online catalogue discovery. Much of the labour and cost of producing a traditional OPAC involves the conversion of print cards into machine-readable cataloguing (MARC) records. However, the basic digitization of paper cards can be an intermediate step that will both ease future conversion to MARC (since professionals anywhere can do the work) and can provide immediate online access to the catalogue. Online card digitized images can be "arranged" and used in a similar way to print cards. Then, optical character recognition (OCR) can allow for full text search of the cards, as the project moves forward. Online hosting allows for OCR quality control at any participating facility. The CIPAC does not need to be integrated into other library management systems but can exist independently, relying on its own search and using linked open data to allow integration with web discovery and online databases. Urra González (n.d.), in his article on CIPACs, discusses how digitized cards can be linked to openly available authority files and even WorldCat records. Using linked data in this manner allows the CIPAC to provide some of the most useful functions of traditional catalogues (controlled author searches) without the strict content and formatting controls that MARC requires (Urra González, n.d.).

Collaboration and networks

Cuban library literature includes discussions on the theory and practice of inter­library collaboration, a necessary component and prerequisite of ILL service. While the system of medical libraries throughout the country is a prime example of collaboration, some Cuban librarians would like to see collaboration expanded to other sectors. For example González, Marisol, and Hernández (2011), librarians of the Biblioteca Pública Provincial Rubén Martínez Villena de Sancti Spíritus, have discussed potential methodologies for further cooperation and integration between school and public libraries. They have examined possible ways to measure collaboration and avenues for it, including ILL. Their enthusiasm for collaboration and the support that others showed them during their research, despite the barriers they identified, bodes well for the growth of collaborative activities such as ILL (60).

ILL and electronic document delivery

Some Cuban literature, which specifically addresses ILL (préstamo interbibliotecario), "document supply" (suministro), and "document transfer" (transferencia), seems to focus on challenges in technological infrastructure, economic conditions, and automation; unsurprisingly, these concerns are similar to those expressed throughout Cuban library discourse. Government financial support for [End Page 286] purchasing international publications and for fostering library network collaboration was "violently changed" by the "fall of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the intensification of the Embargo," forcing libraries to depend on their "own resources (or means)" (Santos Labourdette 1994).5 Similarly, Nuñez Fina, Valdés Sanabria, and Machado Paredes (1994) state outright that "the economic question is an insurmountable barrier" to the problem of obtaining current information as part of a global network of inter-lending.6 Yet, while they acknowledge these challenges, Cuban librarians still discuss library-based solutions they may be able to implement and the progress they have made towards ILL solutions.

Santos Labourdette (1994) describes how Cuban librarians have identified problems and potential solutions to improve cooperation among university libraries. She describes an initiative where librarians evaluated the university library network to identify if bibliographic data was stored in standard interchangeable formats for physical transfer on drives or disks; they considered which materials should be prioritized for description in a union catalogue. The initiative also examined legal and language barriers to resource sharing. Ultimately, this work led to a union catalogue of periodicals in the natural sciences (known today as SeCiMed) since periodicals and medical topics were both prioritized for article ILL (Santos Labourdette 1994).

Nuñez Fina, Valdés Sanabria, and Machado Paredes (1994) suggest that "considering [political and economic] limitations in our country, document delivery to users has developed considerably."7 They cite the use of bibliographies for providing citations and a national deposit law for ensuring that libraries have access to literature published in Cuba. Yet they acknowledge that their system puts heavy burdens on particular libraries and on expert knowledge: "This work [of ILL] is fundamentally based on the experience [or knowledge/expertise] that exists at three centers."8 These centres receive many requests because of their strong collections, good catalogues, their use of new technologies, and their relationship with international sources for document supply. But, while these major libraries and information centres can use international document supply centres, costs can be high, and ILL between libraries in the Caribbean is not well developed. Therefore, many requests go unfulfilled when the document is not available within Cuba (Nuñez Fina, Valdés Sanabria, and Machado Paredes 1994).

Despite the challenges of accessing the professional library literature of Cuba in the United States, some sense of how Cuban librarians discuss library collaboration can be gleaned from the works that are available. The literature suggests that the nation's librarians are acutely aware of the ways in which technological advances are used internationally to facilitate document delivery and unified cataloguing. Yet they describe how economic and political conditions (including, but not limited to, the US Embargo) require the development of alternative solutions. The literature describes some potential solutions in theory, only a few of which have been put into practice, due to the need to prioritize resources and services. [End Page 287]

Current resource-sharing practices in Cuba

As mentioned earlier, this section on current resource-sharing practicalities in Cuba will touch upon discovery (the use of card catalogues, the development of OPACs, and offline access), access, document delivery, and ILL procedures. This discussion is organized by institution: Biblioteca Médica Nacional (BMN), the BNCJM, and the Universidad de la Habana, though some themes re-occur. As our title declares, many of Cuba's barriers to implementing modern resource-sharing practices are caused by technological scarcity. The subsequent section, on Internet and computer access, describes this situation in more detail.


The BMN oversees a network of 735 medical libraries throughout the country, serving health care professionals. Its facility was the most recognizable as a modern library to those on the delegation. It is well funded, and it was the best-equipped library on the tour. The BMN is a priority for the government as doctors abroad are Cuba's largest source of income, coming in above tourism (Fuente 2017). This income goes to the government, which then pays the individual doctors a small proportion, though larger than they would receive working at home.

Doctors can request journal articles and books, wherever they are working. Very similar to ILL, as we would recognize it, a document delivery program is operated in Cuba by the BMN, which is called Servicio de Accesso Directo al Documento (SCAD). It is an initiative of the Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences Information. The BMN also runs SeCiMed, an online catalogue of serial publications held by Cuban libraries.9 SeCiMed facilitates the SCAD program, allowing for the discovery of journals held in Cuban libraries.

The BMN's website does have separate pages for SCAD and ILL, and it has produced a procedures manual for its ILL services, which was last updated in 2012 (Santana Arroyo 2012). Information on SCAD is contained within this ILL procedures manual, as it is one method of resource sharing. The manual states: "SCAD guarantees all the requests for titles registered in SeCiMed / SeCS receive attention" (13).10 These systems are not integrated in the way that a librarian in the developed world might expect—for example, in the same way that ILLiad is aligned with WorldCat. And ILL exists at the BMN outside of the SCAD service, particularly for articles that will not be shared electronically but in print (13). The manual has detailed instructions for this non-SCAD­facilitated ILL, including standardized forms for lending and receiving institutions. Such material is not publicly available for other institutions.

The US Embargo must be acknowledged as a major factor that hampers access to scholarly literature in Cuba, as it impedes most activity in some way. The Embargo prevents Cuban organizations from doing business directly with American companies. The director at the BMN has mentioned the vendors Ebsco, Springer, and Wiley, in particular. The BMN must use an amenable third party in Latin America to conduct its purchasing with these companies. The acquisitions librarian specifically said that, because of the cost of databases, [End Page 288] they have little to no budget to purchase print journals. Of course, the issue of journal subscription cost is very familiar to all librarians, but this fact was disheartening (to both the Cuban and US LIS professionals) in a country clearly still reliant on print access.


As we have seen, ILL does not exist in Cuba in the same way that it exists in the United States. This discussion deals with resource sharing in the broadest sense, and sharing resources requires resource discovery. There is no equivalent of a union catalogue in Cuba. Large, relatively well-funded organizations are just beginning to develop traditional OPACs (except for the BMN). Card catalogues are ubiquitous, and national organizations are working on projects to digitize them, including the BNCJM.

The services of the medical library are restricted to health care professionals, as expected. Access at the BNCJM is different, though also limited, and this affects resource sharing. One of the sub-directors who conducted our meeting and spoke to our group at length, Nancy Machado Lorenzo, mentioned the move to tiered services. After the revolution, access was freely granted to everyone. Around the year 2000, the BNCJM implemented a tiered services model (as found in many North American academic and private institutions) in an effort to balance access with preservation issues. This is a dilemma long faced by libraries, which was delayed in Cuba due to the socialist principles of the revolution. They started to provide targeted access by user type: students, researchers, and so on. This conversation was corroborated by Viciedo Valdés (2009) in Biblioteca Pública y Revolución:

In Cuba the concept of what a public library should be was always very closely tied to the criteria that were laid out by [Domingo] Buonocore [in his Diccionario de Bibliotecología of 1976]. Cuban public libraries are for general, free-access use, directly and at no cost. Also government [parliamentary] libraries, university libraries and the National Library have characteristics of public libraries in so much as they are free-access and offer no-cost services. [FN7]; [FN7] However, this [access] is provided in accordance with a new cultural policy. Since the end of the last century [2000], the National Library has restricted the ability of the public to enter the library, as a part of a system of tiered [or hierarchical] user [group designations] that are used when providing different services.


The BNCJM's website details its current access policies. It does provide ILL service ("Interbibliotecarios," n.d.). According to its website, it is only available within the public library system, and items other than books and brochures are loaned at the discretion of library management with some types of items being excluded. Items cannot be checked out but are for reference only in the receiving library. One must have a library card to use the services. Access is restricted by the conditions placed on acquiring a card. To use the reading rooms, one must pay a small annual fee and have an organizational affiliation (status) with a letter of recommendation ("Inscripción y acceso," n.d.). There are no detailed [End Page 289] instructions for requesting an ILL. There is simply an email address and telephone number listed on the ILL page. Use of the circulating collection in the basement is not restricted; it is like a public branch library ("Carnés de la biblioteca," n.d.).

The BNCJM has responsibility for a network of 401 public libraries nationwide. The delegation also visited the central branch in Havana, which is called the Biblioteca Pública de Rubén Martínez Villena. Here, the librarians spoke about the importance of their strong informal networks and their reliance on expert knowledge of their own collections. They will make phone calls to find out who has what and where it is located. It is unclear how the actual resource sharing takes place in practice and how it aligns with the information on the BNCJM's website. This harkens to the "gatekeeper" model of librarianship, before discovery was publicly accessible through OPACs (related to this, the delegation saw few open stacks) (O'Leary 2011, 22–23). Of course, card catalogues are in use everywhere. At the time of the visit in January 2016, the BNCJM was working on creating an OPAC. The librarians did not have the capacity to put it online and were focusing on making it accessible on site. They have succeeded in putting the OPAC online in the intervening period, using Koha, the open source library software ("Catálogo de Acceso Público en Línea," n.d.). This Koha-run OPAC is for material from 1998 onwards. Initially, the librarians had photographed their catalogue cards and made a CIPAC, which is still in use for pre-1998 items ("Catálogos," n.d.).

The other large-scale project that the BNCJM librarians discussed was the digitization of the twentieth-century Cuban newspaper collection. Obviously, the library holds a plethora of unique local material, newspapers being only one example. They have two scanners for digitization, one used to scan paper and one used to scan microfilm. This project had been ongoing for four years in January 2016. The librarians pointed out that all of this type of work is done inhouse, not outsourced as it might be elsewhere. The discussion of this project highlighted how technology issues remain their most serious impediment. They had digitized many items and were ready to advance the project, but the items were not on the Internet. The images were available on-site, but, even then, patron demand could not be met since the library lacks sufficient hardware (computer terminals) to allow all patrons to view items on site. Machado Lorenzo said that she had told the government minister with responsibility for libraries at the Department of Culture that without technology Cuba would not advance. The limited availability of online discovery hampers resource sharing. But changes are coming quite quickly in Cuba.

Biblioteca Central de la Universidad de La Habana

The University of Havana has 18 departments or faculties, containing 23 circulating collections and the Rubén Martínez Villena Central Library, which holds about 10,000 items in closed stacks for reference only and 8,000 rare books. The delegation visited this Central Library. The Central Library does offer ILL, according to the Services page of their website, but there are no instructions [End Page 290] provided there on how to do so. There is an online comment submission form at the bottom of their Services page, though this is not ILL specific ("Servicios de Información," n.d.). Therefore, it appears that all ILL must be mediated. Procedures are unclear. Some of the individual department libraries also provide ILL. The Department of Law has ILL information on their homepage ("Reglamento de la Biblioteca," n.d.).

As stated, card catalogues are ubiquitous. The Central Library was digitizing their cards to form an OPAC. The general move from print to digital, and this project, in particular, was the first thing detailed by the director, Yohannis Martí Lahera, in her presentation. The work is supported by a grant from a UK development organization, the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publication. It is a three-phase project to scan 90,000 cards. In Phase 1, which was then 15 per cent completed, one person was photographing the cards. In Phase 2, which is running concurrently, 20 workers were converting the images to text via OCR. The first iteration was to be searchable by author, the final would be full-text searchable. They were making this CIPAC available as they went; in January 2016, it was available on-site only, at one computer. They have one computer lab, which comprises 50 computers for 15,000 students. This CIPAC is now available online, hosted by the BNCJM (Urra González n.d.).

The Central Library at the Universidad de la Habana runs the university's institutional repository for theses, Scriptorium, using Dspace. There were over 2,000 items in it, as of 2016. Items are from the nineteenth century onwards, though most available full text is from the twentieth century. The librarians spoke of the woes of persuading faculty to deposit material, which was a very familiar theme to the American librarians!

The Cuban library professionals expressed great interest in open access scholarly communications, and also in open source software, as a solution to their budget and US Embargo issues. This is unsurprising as Latin America embraced the open access movement early. Well-known and widely used open access aggregators include the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (Biblioteca Virtual de CLACSO), the Scientific Electronic Online Library (SciELO), and the Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y El Caribe, España y Portugal (RedALyC). It is estimated that over half of Latin American online journals are open access, which compares very favourably to a global study that found that only 11.9 per cent of journals are open access (Alperin 2014, 17). The Cuban National Commission for the Development of Open Access was created in 2009 ("Cuba," n.d.).

Technological scarcity

The lack of Internet access and technological infrastructure seriously impedes resource discovery and sharing. The discussion of the three institutions above clearly indicates that the lack of technological infrastructure is a major barrier to the provision of services at libraries. Cuban libraries do not have the hardware or server capacity or Internet access that they need. Very often, in the course of preparing this article and others, over the last few years, the Cuban institutions' [End Page 291] websites were not available when searching. This section provides information on the wider context, outlining access to the Internet generally.

Internet access rates for the public are very low. Service is very slow. There is little personal access at home unless you have a network expander. It was illegal to buy a personal computer until 2007 (Fenton 2016). In August 2015, the government rolled out 35 public wifi hotspots (Dube 2015). By March 2016, this number had increased to 65 (Fenton 2016). To use a private hotspot (such as those at hotels and other tourist destinations), one must buy an access code from the Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA, the national telecommunications company. It is $2 to purchase a few hours access. For those not working in tourism or the limited private sector opportunities, this may be a high cost in relation to their monthly government income, but many people purchase these codes as crowds congregate around buildings with private wifi in the evenings to use the Internet and to speak to family abroad.

According to the World Bank's open data indicators, there are 0.13 fixed broadband subscriptions in Cuba per one hundred people ("Fixed Broadband Subscription," n.d.).12 Yet 38.8 per cent of the population had accessed the Internet in the preceding three months in 2016 compared to 45.91 per cent of the global population and 76.17 per cent of the United States, which suggests people are accessing it outside of the home on mobile devices through public or private wifi hotspots ("Individuals using the Internet," n.d.). There were six secure Internet servers in 2015, up from two in 2001, (compared to over 1.5 million globally and over half a million in the United States), or one secure server per million people in 2016 ("Secure Internet Servers," n.d.).13

Due to this technological scarcity and lack of Internet access, Cubans also access the Internet offline, just as they do catalogue records. The delegation's members quickly learned that "digital" meant that an item or record was available on a computer, not, as assumed, on the Internet. El Paquete (the package) is a "weekly cache of materials from the internet that circulates on hard drives" (Fenton 2016). A delivery person drops them to a customer who downloads the content they want (music, movies, television shows, magazine articles, and so on), and they are picked up later for delivery to the next stop. While outside the scope of this article, it should be noted that, of course, even once it is accessed, use of the Internet is also restricted by the government in other ways (Fenton 2016). And the US Embargo plays a large part in the scarcity of technological hardware, as it does in so many facets of Cuban lives. Michael Parmly (2016), the former chief of mission of the US Interests Section in Havana from 2005 to 2008, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times during President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba, stating his belief that one thing that Cubans want more than anything is greater Internet access.


In detailing the divergent paths of libraries and resource sharing in the United States and Cuba, this article is an original contribution to the LIS literature. To record and to inform readers about the history and practices of our profession in [End Page 292] another part of the world is always of value. It is a worthy endeavour to make people aware of how things are done elsewhere, to encourage dialogue between LIS practitioners globally, and to serve as a reminder that things can be done differently. As librarians, we know how important it is to document practices, yet little has been written on this subject about Cuba in English-language publications. We believe in the importance of sharing this perspective with American LIS professionals.

Through the Universidad de la Habana and the BNCJM's joint catalogue digitization project, these Cuban institutions have leapt past a step in US library development (using MARC records) straight to the full-text searching of records. They managed this very soon after developing their CIPACs. Out of necessity, Cubans are solving problems in different ways and may provide examples and ideas for others. Open text might impede the implementation of US-style automatic ILL systems that rely on field-based data, but the work has provided the important first step in resource sharing and the open discovery of holdings. In terms of resource sharing more specifically, there are a range of implementations in Cuban libraries, with varying levels of standardization and formalization.

The delegation heard the word "patrimonia" (patrimony) repeatedly throughout the trip. Cubans take the preservation of their cultural heritage very seriously. Seeing such value placed on the kind of work librarians do was gratifying. Of course, even with this high regard, Cuban professionals face challenges too. Most striking were the similarities in our professional lives, despite the very particular working conditions in Cuba. Everyone that we visited on the trip was gracious in sharing a glimpse into their organization and the difficulties they face. They too were dealing with the challenges of competing for limited funding, persuading state officials of their budgetary requirements, providing broad access while preserving resources, and supporting the needs of their users amidst inadequate infrastructure. The information professionals the delegation met were proud, dignified, passionate, and warm as well as resilient and resourceful, "doing more with less," as we so often have to do as well. The value they placed on patrimony, intellectual and cultural heritage, and higher and life-long education was reaffirming, as was witnessing others nobly struggling to provide equitable access to resources. [End Page 293]

Maureen Garvey
College of Staten Island, City University of New York maureen.garvey@csi.cuny.edu
Christine McEvilly
College of Staten Island, City University of New York christine.mcevilly@csi.cuny.edu


1. The Asamblea Nacional Pro Bibliotecas.

2. Human Rights Watch also has researched on how the US embargo specifically has been used to justify limits on intellectual freedom (Human Rights Watch 2016).

3. The Cuban government does not allow official Amnesty International visits, which affects their reporting, yet they make efforts to gather information from internal dissidents and non-political emigrants (Amnesty International 2017).

4. "La existencia de un Catalogo Colectivo de la Nación" (translation courtesy of author).

5. "Fue violentamente cambiada. . . a partir de la caída de los países socialistas del Este de Europa y del acrecentamiento del bloqueo; hoy la adquisición de literatura en las bibliotecas universitarias cubanas depende de los propios recursos" (translation courtesy of author).

6. "La cuestión económica es una barrera infranqueable" (translation courtesy of author).

7. "Consideramos que a pesar de las limitaciones que existen en nuestro país, el servicio de suministro de documentos en Cuba se ha desarrollado considerablemente" (translation courtesy of author).

8. "Este trabajo está basado fundamentalmente a través de la experiencia que existe en tres centros" (translation courtesy of author).

9. SeCiMed can be viewed and searched at http://bmn.sld.cu/secimed/msrc/secimed_home.php?lang=es.

10. "SCAD garantiza la atención de todos los pedidos de los títulos registrados en Se­CiMed/SeCS" (translation courtesy of author).

11. "En Cuba, el concepto generalizado de Biblioteca Pública estuvo muy emparentado con los criterios que al respecto expone Buonocore. Las Bibliotecas Públicas cubanas son de uso general, directo y gratuito, de libre acceso; pero también las bibliotecas parlamentarias, las universitarias y la Biblioteca Nacional han tenido carácter gratuito de los servicios que ofrecen. Aunque de acuerdo con una nueva política cultural al respecto, desde finales del pasado siglo la Biblioteca Nacional restringió la entrada del público, a partir de la jerarquización de usuarios para distintos servicios" (translation courtesy of author).

12. World Bank data taken from the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations.

13. There is some discrepancy among these Cuban server and population numbers, but they all come from netcraft.com via the World Bank's data indicators.


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