Library director looking to share old Haiti documents

By
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The John Carter Brown Library may soon embark on an initiative to digitize hundreds of early Haitian documents and make them available to the country’s residents, according to Edward Widmer, director of the JCB.

“The advent of digital technology is revolutionizing the world of libraries and … we would like to offer some of our holdings to people who don’t traditionally have access to them,” said Widmer.

Right now, Widmer and the JCB are looking for one or more donors to make the project possible. Widmer said he hopes that within six months they can secure funding and finalize plans to scan and distribute the documents.

Widmer, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton and current member of the Clinton Global Initiative, said the idea was discussed at a CGI conference earlier this year, along with other projects intended to help the island nation. At the conference, which was attended by Haiti’s president, Clinton emphasized a larger focus on helping the Carribbean nation, especially in the wake of several devastating hurricanes this year. Widmer said Clinton’s plea generated interest in the philanthropic community.

“It’s a good time to be helping Haiti,” Widmer said. “There’s a lot of good will at the moment, so we just want to raise the money and do the scanning.”

Widmer said it is precisely because of the nation’s current challenges, including widespread poverty and damage to infrastructure, that the project is so important.

“Haiti has one of the richest histories of any country in this hemisphere, and it’s one of the oldest republics on earth,” he continued. “All people need access and deserve access to their history, so we just want to make these rare books available for free to people on the ground in Haiti.”

He said in addition to private donors, companies that specialize in scanning technology may be interested in donating their services. If the project goes through, the JCB would digitize between 500 and 1000 documents from the island of Hispaniola, which is comprised of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The library’s collection – one of the largest in the world – includes economic reports, manuscripts, books, traveler’s journals and other historical documents, primarily from the 17th and 18th centuries, according to Widmer.

Naika Apeakorang ’11, who is half-Haitian and an Minority Peer Counselor, said, “It seems like a really great thing. My people are really proud of our history, being the first independent black republic. It’s a shame that Haiti is in the situation that it is right now – economically, politically, socially – but having access to this type of historical information is a really good thing.”