In the aftermath of last month’s devastating earthquake, food, water and medicine certainly remain Haiti’s biggest needs. But Patrick Tardieu, the 58-year-old curator of Haiti’s oldest library, the Bibliothèque Haitienne des Pères du Saint Esprit, says there is another need almost as important: preserving the country’s memory. The library houses an extensive collection of rare books relating to Haiti’s early history. That’s why Tardieu, who left Haiti for Montreal three days after the earthquake and came to Brown University on Monday at the invitation of Ted Widmer, the director of the John Carter Library, will return to Port-au-Prince todayto see that all of the library’s 20,000 books and manuscripts are secure. The books, relating to Haiti’s colonial period, slavery and fight for independence had been housed on the campus of two schools run by the Fathers of the Holy Spirit and occupied the third floor of the priests’ residence.
Tardieu, who was at his home when the earthquake struck, said that when he visited the library the day after the quake he found the books largely intact. One seminarian who was living in the rectory was killed by falling debris. The two nearby schools operated by the religious order were demolished. Walking through the city and seeing so many bodies produced “no feeling at all” in him, he said, because it was so overwhelming. “It was so much, and there was no one to blame. We were walking around like zombies.” Tardieu said that his visits to Montreal and Brown, which has an extensive collection of Haitian manuscripts, would put him in a good position to keep in touch with experts in France, Canada and the U.S. to develop a strategy for protecting the books.
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Tardieu said in an interview at the Carter Brown Library Wednesday that he expects to join an effort by Librarians without Borders, Architects without Borders and France’s Bouclier Bleu (dedicated to protecting cultural treasurers) to bring about the desired results. Initially, the books will be placed in boxes by people wearing special masks and gloves, and relocated to another site for a few years until a new library is built. “It is urgent that we act now because it is very dangerous for a book to be in a box,” especially during the rainy season, which begins in March, Tardieu said. Tardieu said the library contains documents that relate directly to the years before and after Haiti gained its national independence in 1804. Many may not realize it, he said, but Haitians fought in the American War of Independence as well as the Civil War, and Haiti took an active role in combating slavery by purchasing slaves at $30 a head and setting them free.
The library’s role in preserving Haitian history took on added meaning when close to a third of the books in Haiti’s National Archives were destroyed by the quake. Both Tardieu and Widmer said they consider it fortunate that both of their libraries had already begun digitizing the books in their collections, and that process will continue. Tardieu plans to return to Brown later this month to foster a deeper collaboration.
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