University News

Haitian librarian joins JCB

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Patrick Tardieu, the chief conservator at Haiti’s oldest library — the Bibliotheque Haitienne des Peres du Saint-Esprit in Port-au-Prince — is the John Carter Brown Library’s newest visiting scholar. Tardieu arrived in Providence Monday morning after a two-week stay with family in Montreal, where he sought refuge after the earthquake in Haiti.

But Tardieu’s responsibilities and status at the library remain unclear after the rush to get him here.

Tardieu managed to escape Haiti to Montreal on Jan. 15 on a Canadian relief plane’s return trip, he said. A colleague of John Carter Brown Library Director Edward Widmer put him in touch with Tardieu, Widmer said.

“He’s not a refugee if he has a home,” said Widmer, motioning to the library. “A network of people is coming together now that has never even existed.”

Tardieu is living in housing provided by the library for its visiting scholars, he said.

Widmer said Tardieu will likely receive a modest living stipend, though Tardieu has not asked for such an allowance.

“He’s not in any sort of known category of visiting scholar here,” Widmer said.

Tardieu said he hopes to study the collection of Haitian history at the library and at other libraries in New England, which he said tend to be rich in Haitian documents because of the strength of the abolitionist movement in the region during the colonial period. Tardieu also said he wants to help raise money for relief in Haiti, especially among scholars who have an interest in the area.

Widmer recently established a fund called Saving Haiti’s Libraries, he said.

The connection between the two libraries, Tardieu said, seemed almost too perfect. Tardieu has been working to digitize his own library’s collection, just as the John Carter Brown Library is beginning its own project to digitize Haitian documents.

Tardieu, operating without high-quality scanners and software, taught himself to become proficient in rotating, cropping and adjusting scans of texts on the computer to make them as readable as he could given financial constraints. With documents that are more legible, he said he uses optical character recognition software, which creates computer-readable text from images of the documents.

Tardieu said the damage to his library is extensive. Though the library is still standing, he is concerned the coming rainy season will bring strong winds and rain, which can damage the books.

Widmer said librarians around the world had been waiting on edge to hear scattered reports after the earthquake on the condition of the “very well-regarded” collection Tardieu manages, which focuses on colonial slavery, Widmer said.

In the days after the earthquake, Tardieu said he lived and slept outside of his house in a group of 30 people, including neighbors and newborns.

“In the moment, it was like nobody felt emotion,” Tardieu said.

Tardieu said that he was disturbed by how numbed he felt by the overwhelming presence of death, which led him to focus on the fate of his library’s collection in the days after the earthquake.

“I wasn’t thinking about the deaths,” Tardieu said. “I was thinking about preserving the memories.”

But Tardieu said he is now more immediately concerned with people than with books. Though he will return to Port-au-Prince this week to examine potential options for relocating his library, he emphasized that now is not the time to focus on a long-term solution for his library.

“The moment now is to give food, to care for the person in the hospital,” Tardieu said. “What will be the message to save books when we could save people?”