World Libraries

Reading Initiatives: A Major Effort by the Libraries of the San Antonio de los Baños Community, Havana Province


The term "culture," in its broadest sense, encompasses all of the values and creations—both material and spiritual—of people in the process of the development of society. In a narrower sense, it refers to creations of the spirit, such as science, art, moral values, and education, and to the institutions that sustain them: libraries, theaters, and museums, among others. Principally through education and teaching, human beings are exposed to the existing culture, and assimilate its knowledge and spiritual values, which have been gradually forged and accumulated over time. As a result, the level of educational development and public instruction reflects the cultural and spiritual level that a particular society has attained.

During the nineteenth century, our national hero, José Martí, brought together two inseparable ideas, culture and independence, when he stated that "we must be educated in order to be free," a concept which, even after more than one hundred years, continues to serve as inspiration for present generations of Cubans in fulfilling the social and cultural objectives of the Cuban Revolution. [1]

During the first half of the twentieth century in Cuba, different schools of thought organized by intellectuals and artists found common ground in their pursuit of cultural achievement, which would contribute to the formation of a national spirit. In 1923, the Grupo Minorista was formed, so named by one of its founders for the small number of actual participants who made up its membership. Although its structure was only loosely organized, and its spokespersons lacked the necessary political experience, the group was able to unite the intellectuals of the avant–garde around a common problem: the social condition of the country. Some of the group's most important members included Rubén Martínez Villena, poet, writer, journalist, and outstanding revolutionary leader of the 1920s and 30s, as well as intellectuals such as Juan Marinello, Alejo Carpentier, Felipe Pichardo Moya, and others.

The ideas of these earlier thinkers, and the triumph of the Revolution—to the extent it represented Cuba's independence and the affirmation of the people and their ideals, and introduced the possibility of building their own society and creating their own sense of identity—made it possible for Cubans to analyze and undertake certain courses of action which have been progressively shaping the cultural politics of their country.

The Revolution gave back to our culture the dynamism and coherence that it had acquired in the ten years between 1923 and 1932. But in addition, as a triumphant socialist revolution, it made reading a right of the common people, and a pressing need: "there can be no true equality without cultural equality" (Martí); illiterate and ignorant people cannot build a new society. [2]

In the same way, the Revolution, from the first moment of its inception on January 1, 1959, revealed its humanist nature by creating the political, economic, institutional, educational, and cultural conditions necessary for the radical transformation—both material and spiritual—of our society. It made possible the delivery of free health care and educational services to all citizens, and stimulated participation by all people in cultural activities by targeting workers, farmers, and especially children and young people.

In 1958, Cuba had one million illiterate people, more than a million semi–illiterates, 600,000 children without schools, and 10,000 teachers without jobs.

The literacy campaign of 1961, as well as subsequent plans for educational reform and development which included all social classes, provided the necessary platform for offering the people limited access to culture. In one year, 700,000 adults learned to read. Ten thousand rural schoolrooms were opened; army barracks, remnants of the Batista dictatorship, were converted into schools; the number of classroom teachers and art instructors rose dramatically, as did the number of educational degree programs. The principles espoused by José Martí, national hero of the Cuban Revolution, were put into practice: providing education universally to all citizens; and emphasizing the link between "education" and "jobs."

A network of libraries was created throughout the country, and in order to provide professional staff for them, a School for Library Technicians was established in 1962.

The decades of the 70s and 80s were marked by the institutionalization of the Cuban school system, followed by various plans for improving teaching methods, large–scale training of teachers and university professors, the creation of different levels or ranks within the sub–systems of teaching; the formation of a tri–level system of art schools—elementary, middle, and high—for the training of researchers, professors, and promoters; and the growth of a network of many different types of institutions, such as libraries, radio and television stations, museums, and bookstores.

The regional, municipal, and provincial cultural programs that began to develop in the early months of the 1990s would prepare reports on new projects for local cultural institutions to undertake, in which they outlined the strategies needed to successfully execute these projects.

These projects were based on a historical and socio–economic study of the areas or neighborhoods, an assessment of the cultural situation, and the demands of the residents, all of which helped to determine the goals, actions, and results which could be expected in different areas within a certain period of time, and with the cooperation of local cultural, educational, and social institutions.

The most recent cultural achievement in our country is the educational program known as "College Education for All," in which university professors teach distance–learning courses in history, geography, art appreciation, meteorology, and foreign languages, to name only a few subjects, in order to raise the educational level of the people, and contribute to the general improvement of society.

Following the Revolution, the economic sanctions imposed on Cuba by the United States gradually multiplied until, finally, they became a complete embargo, making it difficult—and often impossible—to acquire basic materials such as books. Yet, in spite of this situation, our publishing houses have produced and sold more novels and books of Cuban stories, scientific and technical books, and works of classic and contemporary literature, both national and foreign, than in all of the period before 1959.

Before the Revolution, there were very few publishing houses. Book production was less than one million books each year, with technical and scientific books accounting for only a very small number of publications. The graphic industry was basically reduced to commercial imprints. Libraries were few and far between; after all, what good were they, when the majority of people didn't know how to read! Now, all of the townships in the country have library service, with 395 public libraries, and more than 3,000 school libraries, in existence. Thanks to the cultural and social objectives of the Revolution, through which the people regained control of their educational destiny, reading has become a necessity and a right of all citizens.

Libraries play a dominant role in the cultural work of a community, in particular by promoting reading, which helps to raise the educational level of the people, and also provides ammunition in the ongoing "battle of ideas" in our country today.

We are talking about the process aimed at creating the objective and subjective conditions necessary for culture to reach the farthest, most hidden corners of the country; and for the masses to truly be able to develop literary and artistic taste and play a leadership role in achieving a cultural development that is broad and genuine and contributes to the affirmation of a national identity and the formation of a new person in the superior society we wish to build. [3]

Reading constitutes an essential element in our spiritual and ideological development; it makes us grow internally, and is capable of transporting us through space and time.

 San Antonio de los Baños

The municipality of San Antonio de los Baños was founded on September 22, 1794. Today, it covers an area of 126 square kilometers, and is home to 42,600 residents. It is one of the 19 municipalities which make up the province of La Habana, as determined by the Nueva División Política Administrativa of 1975, and is located 26 kilometers from the capital of the province, Havana City. [4]

People from this area are called Ariguanabenses, since it is believed that their early tribal ancestors came from the Ariguanabo River, which originates and ends within the boundaries of the province. Cuban aborigines gave the river its name, which, in their language, means Río del Palmar, or "river in the palm grove." The waters of this river gained fame among the wealthy classes of Havana, who believed them to have medicinal qualities, capable of healing various ailments, and in some cases, even producing miraculous cures. Hence the name, San Antonio de los Baños, Saint Anthony of the Springs (or Baths).

The fertile plain produces a very high–quality tobacco, which supports a large portion of the country's production of Havana cigars. Because of its river and forests, it has been designated as a restricted natural wildlife area, protected for its native Cuban flora and fauna. The cultivation of tobacco, the wild species of flowers, its culture and proximity to the capital—each represents an important facet of San Antonio's regional identity.

The people of San Antonio de los Baños participated in various revolutionary plots for the independence movement during the nineteenth century, and many residents of the town who fought with the troops of the "mambí" army were promoted to very high military ranks.

In San Antonio de los Baños, as in all cities in Cuba, there is an active cultural life, an educational system, and a health care infrastructure which insures that no resident is ever without medical coverage.

 Health Care

The health system in this town depends for primary care on a network of medical clinics in each neighborhood, and a regional hospital which offers services to five townships of Havana province in internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery (including maxillofacial), neo–natal care, and orthopedics, in addition to training medical and nursing students. On top of these services, add the blood bank, the maternity hospital, the old–age home, the stomatology clinic, and the Municipal Office of Hygiene and Epidemiology.

 Education and Culture

Education is supported in San Antonio de los Baños by 39 centers, and more than 600 teachers and professors, who prepare more than 10,000 graduates at different level, including several thousand urban students in the city of Havana. These figures mean that this township is considered to have the highest educational potential in the country.

Also established within the township are a provincial academy of plastic arts and a provincial school for art instructors, in which roughly 400 students are trained as instructors and future artists; a vocational school of exact sciences, and a vocational school for teaching.

The artistic and literary culture of San Antonio de los Baños is particularly rich, as exemplified by the agenda of socio–cultural development of various institutions which promote the spiritual enrichment of the townspeople, including the municipal museum, the International Museum of Humor, the Cultural Center (Casa de Cultura), the municipal library, the art gallery, and Radio Ariguanabo. Also very important is the International School of Film and Television, which was established in 1986 in order to train specialists in the different fields of the "Seventh Art."

Because of its rich tradition of popular humor, San Antonio de los Baños has become one of the comedy centers of the country, and headquarters for the International Biennial of Humor, as well as home to various humorous publications at the beginning of the twentieth century. The town is also the birthplace of two of the great Cuban cartoonists: Eduardo Abela, creator of El Bobo, the famous character of the republican era; and René de la Nuez, whose character, El Loquito, personified national opposition to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Bautista.

Cultural life in San Antonio de los Baños is colored by well–established cultural events such as the International Biennial of Humor, Culture Week, and the Festival of Ariguanabense Song, as well as the artistic high points of the municipal museum and the art gallery. The tourist center of the town, Hotel Las Yagrumas, accommodates visitors from all parts of the world.

 The Municipal Library

An integral part of the ambitious and humanistic agenda in which Cuba is deeply involved is the library of San Antonio de los Baños, with a collection of 32,974 books, and 1,743 users. The library, founded in 1975 in the province of Havana, is a reading and research center for the area that helps to satisfy the informational, recreational, and cultural needs of residents through the creation and administration of diverse cultural projects.

Among the projects which take place in the library are reading initiatives, designed to promote reading among children, such as "I'll Tell a Story and You Draw," "The World of the Image," and "Let's Learn About Our City."

 I'll Tell a Story and You Draw

The idea of broadcasting the program on Radio Ariguanabo arose from the desire to use a fresh, new approach to encourage children to read, and to reach a much wider audience of children than ever before.

The program objectives were:

a) To awaken the child's interest in reading and art at an early age
b) To develop the child's creativity and imagination
c) To communicate the educational message of the stories
d) To promote books which were of high quality, but not very well known
e) To identify new library users
f) To strengthen the cooperative relationship between the school and the library in order to stimulate reading

The program, "I'll Tell a Story and You Draw," is a segment of a children's radio show, "Come Fly With Me," aired on the first Tuesday of the month by Radio Ariguanabo, the local station heard in various towns in the province of Havana. The project librarian chooses a story to read on the air, and as she reads, the children listening at home make a drawing of their interpretation of the story. The children send their drawings to the library, and the best ones are announced during the first week of the following month. The librarians make the awards, which include a special prize consisting of a diploma illustrated with the first–prize drawing.

Every month, the library receives some 500 drawings from different towns in the province of Havana, among them many drawings made by preschool–age children in nursery schools who cannot visit the library on their own. From home, they have a chance to hear the story and enter the contest, while at the same time they are developing their creativity and showing us their innocence and spontaneity.

The project successfully increased motivation on the part of the children towards reading and art. In many cases, children who had not visited the library before came to the library to take out the book that had been read to them, which suggested that the objectives of the project had been met.

Acting out children's stories on the radio, and imitating the voices of the different characters and the sounds they make bring children closer to the marvelous and educational world of children's literature. They understand each story more clearly, and come to identify more completely with the characters.

 The World of the Image

Realizing the importance of developing and encouraging a vocation at an early age, the Municipal Administration of Culture and the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños formed an agreement to introduce children and teenagers to film–making and to using a camera.

The School of Film and Television, a cultural institution unique in Cuba and, in fact, in all of Latin America, which trains people from all over the world as directors, producers, screen writers, photographers, camera operators and other film professionals, was identified as an ideal center for these cultural enrichment programs.

The objectives are:

a) To introduce children to a new cultural experience
b) To bring together two different types of institutions (a library and a film school) on a project for improving the cultural level of children and teenagers
c) To develop a vocation for children and teenagers
d) To discover future talents
e) To show children that libraries have other functions in addition to instilling good reading habits in them

Participants for the project—children and teenagers in elementary and high school—are chosen on the basis of an interview with professors of the Film School, in which the young person discusses his interest in, and sensibility towards, different aspects of film production. Once the students have been chosen, they are divided into groups of 8–11 year–olds and 12–14 year–olds, with twenty in each group.

On Saturdays from January through March and October through December, the student groups attend classes given in cycles by professors at the Film School, which include: theoretical classes on the history of film, classes on different areas of film production such as script writing, and apprenticeships in operating film equipment.

By the end of each term, the young people have made a film, carrying out the functions of director, script writer, cameramen, and actors.

These young people develop a vocational interest in film, greatly enriching their knowledge and cultural understanding. At the same time, they show a greater interest in doing research on a subject, which has meant new patrons for the library.

In addition, Film School students often ask alumni of the youth programs to assist in making films, and to take part in various festivals and events, thus continuing and reinforcing the training of future cinéastes, directors, and other film specialists.

Certain alumni—both children and teenagers, who have excelled in these classes, have made films of some of their school activities. They have also participated in the films made by Film School students for their theses, and have worked on some of the feature films and documentaries made at the center.

 Let's Learn About Our City

This project is based on the idea that children, at an early age, should learn the history of their city, and its important figures. As José Rafael Lauzán, city historian of San Antonio de los Baños, points out: "It's necessary to know history, because if you don't know where you came from, it's hard to know where you're going." [5]

It is important to know our roots, and to be familiar with indigenous values in order to preserve our cultural identity. The all–round education of our children and young people, the satisfaction of their cultural necessities and aspirations, is the responsibility not only of the school but also of the home and of all social and institutional forces.

The objectives are:

a) To teach children the history of their birthplace
b) To help children learn about indigenous values and their cultural roots
c) To instill cultural and patriotic values in children
d) To encourage reading and bibliographic research

Focusing on themes of the city, such as its history, its important persons, the origin of the International Biennial of Humor and its significance, cycles of classes and field trips to monuments, parks, and historical sites are organized in town schools in order to teach students about local history.

From 2000 up to the present, the program has been centered in two elementary schools, Livia Governeur and Julio Antonio Mella, with a total of 360 students each year divided into six groups of thirty. Over the past five years, then, this program has reached a total of 1800 students.

The classes meet once a week over the course of six months. At the end of the term, students are tested to evaluate what they have learned, and the best ones are awarded prizes.

The program has helped to instill cultural awareness in the children, and has brought new users to the library for research and documentation of many different subjects.

The results have been so encouraging that a Children's Committee on Local History was formed, with the city historian as advisor, in order to offer information to individuals and groups visiting the town. A video has also been made, documenting these experiences.


Being familiar with the cultural patrimony of their home town, understanding the historical process that shaped that environment, knowing how it has changed over time, and how it has come to be the way it is today, learning its traditions, customs, beliefs, and independence movements: all of these things allow children or teenagers to center themselves better in reality, to understand reality as a process of becoming, and to act with greater sensibility and solidarity. They awaken in them feelings of love and respect, and a sense of belonging to a community and a country.

The places where young people spend each day take on new meaning, affording them an opportunity to understand themselves better and to feel that they are part of a community which shelters them and expects them to contribute to its future development. In order to do this, young people must have a good understanding of the roots of the past which shape their present reality.

The experiences described here illustrate how the library makes it possible to fulfill the formative, informational, recreational, and cultural needs of the community.

To succeed in building and making accessible the type of institution that brings culture—in the broadest possible sense—closer to people, allowing them to participate in it, and enjoy it, this is a daunting challenge for any nation, and especially for Cuba, which has been suffering difficult economic conditions for four decades.

The children and young people of today represent our generation's hope for relief, and their successful patriotic, esthetic, and cultural formation is the guarantee that will assure the future of our country.

The impressive economic and social development achieved by Cuba, in spite of its many well–known adversities, shows that it is possible to build a society whose greatest resource is its people, those who contribute productively to society and, in turn, derive from it their own personal benefit.

In this sense, a nation's culture determines decisively how its citizens will participate in the tasks and decisions of community life, and overcome its difficulties. In doing so, they will both reaffirm their personal identity, and transcend it, by helping to shape the cultural and national identity of the Cuban people as a whole.

Translated by Jane Carpenter


1. Ambrosio Fornet, En blanco y negro.(La Habana: Instituto Cubano del Libro, 1967), 94.

2. La lucha ideológica y la cultura artística y literaria.(La Habana: Editora Política, 1982), 71.

3. La lucha ideológica y la cultura artística y literaria, 32.

4. Atlas de Cuba (La Habana: Instituto cubano de geodesia y cartografía, 1978).

5.José Rafael Lauzán, Historia colonial ariguanabense(La Habana: Editorial Ciencias Sociales, 1994), 1.

About the Author

Maricela Corvo de Armas is a librarian the municipal library of San Antonio de los Baños in La Habana province, western Cuba.

Jane Carpenter is Cataloging Librarian at The Newberry Library.
Email: carpenterj [at] newberry [dot] org

© 2005 Maricela Corvo de Armas

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