Monday, June 15, 2009

Books, Libraries, and Print Culture in Puerto Rico

Books, Libraries, and Print Culture in Puerto Rico: A Report (June 2009)
by Anthony J. Elia (for

On Sunday, June 7, 2009 I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico where I was to teach a workshop on designing online educational environments. I arrived late that night into the open embrace of San Juan's sea-spelled warmth and humidity, and readied myself for the week's activities. To my delight, I would also discover a trove of book environments, many fine libraries, and an historically significant exhibit on early print culture in Puerto Rico. This entry will detail some of my visits to libraries and archives, meetings with Puerto Rican librarians, and chance encounters with other interesting individuals relevant to book and print culture.

My own airport reading was Catch-22 and The Penguin History of Latin America. Both held my attention, until I arrived in Puerto Rico, at which point I was more interested in all that was around me. I suppose that is usual.

DAY 1 (Monday):
University of Puerto Rico: English Literature Seminar Library
Caribbean and Latin American Studies
The Book in Latin American Culture and Liberation Theology

To my surprise and delight, the University of Puerto Rico is located directly across the street from the Seminario Evangelico, where I was staying and working. On the first morning of my visit, I went for an early morning walk to the lovely campus. As I walked in, I tripped over rotting mangoes, dried coconuts, and other tropical fruits that had fallen from their respective trees, which inhabited the campus grounds. The great Roosevelt Tower dominates the campus, decorated in glazed terracotta and bright blues and golds.

After getting my requisite cup of cafe con leche, I discovered that the university had several libraries apart from the "Main" library. I happened to find myself in the English language department, which has a seminar reading room and library, but this library is not technically a library according to the university staff. But it had a fine collection of classics in English language literatures--the typical 19th and 20th fare: Dickens, Faulkner, Woolf, et al.

After leaving the English language seminar library, I went back to explore the Main Library (image above shows Pablo Casals "In Exile" exhibit, just above the main entrance), which had been closed when I'd passed by it earlier. I found on the first floor the prestigious Caribbean and Latin American Studies Library (, and met both the director and catalog librarian. We had a brief discussion about information access and the nature of the collection, which had originated in the southern Caribbean. According the the pamphlet (image below), which the director gave me...

"The Caribbean Regional Library was established in 1946 in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The Library belonged to the Caribbean Commission, Caribbean Organization, Economic Development Corporation (CODECA), and the North-South Center.

In 1965 the Library was transferred in trust to the Puerto Rican government. Since 1975 it is located at the Jose M. Lazaro Building in the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Pedras Campus. In 1980, the Puerto Rican Legislature transferred its administration and organization to the University of Puerto Rico.

The Latin American Studies Collection and Caribbean Regional Library merged in 1985 and since then, it is known as the Caribbean and Latin American Studies Library."

Of interest too, is the observation that many, if not most, library collections in Puerto Rico, at least in the University, are closed stack circulation. There are historical reasons for this, but it would be interesting to examine this phenomenon further.

Later in the day, my host drove us out to the sea side town of Dorado, where we had dinner. Part of our conversation was about books and liberation theology in Latin America. The discussion turned to the history of violence in El Salvador during the last thirty years. Both my host and I had traveled to El Salvador at different times, and we spoke of our experiences there.
One in particular struck a common chord and dealt with books--two books specifically. At the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, when you visit the center where the famed university president and liberation theologian Ignacio Ellacuría was murdered with five other Jesuits, you are immediately greeted by the caretakers, who show you two books: one is a photo album of pictures showing the massacred priests and housekeepers--including the most gruesome photo of the slain Jesuit's head bashed open; the other is a theological tome soaked in blood. Though this has nothing to do with Puerto Rico itself, the conversation was a reminder of the significant semiotic value that books such as these have in both Latin American and other contexts. Here, though, it made us recall the book as artifact of violence, as well as history.

DAY 2 (Tuesday):
University of Puerto Rico: Education Library

Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art
Borders Bookstore, "Mall of the Americas" (aka Altar of Mamon)

Silencio! That was my introduction to the Education Library at the University of Puerto Rico (at left). Despite the announcement to keep quiet, there were no "shooshing" librarians. In fact, the librarian (Marisol Gutierrez Rodriguez, MLS CLA--the "Bibliotecaria Jefe") and her staff, including the most friendly Hector Torres (Bibliotecario Auxiliar), spoke with me for a while, and even gave me some gifts for visiting! --including a calendar from the UPR and a paper clip container. I also found some great books on the history and philosophy of education here...some interesting titles I copied down included:

The Proustian Quest
, by William C. Carter (1992)
Degrees of Control: A Sociology of Educational Expansion and Occupational Credentialism,
by David K. Brown (1995)
The Origins of Composition Studies...1875-1925, ed. by John C. Brereton
The Organic Philosophy of Education, by Frank Wegener (1957)
Popular Education and Democratic Though in America, by Rush Welter
Great American Degree Machine, by Douglas Adkins

Next, it was off to the Museum of History, Anthropology, and Art, where I met the director, Flavia Marichal Lugo. We spoke a little bit about the exhibit that was now running called "De la pluma a la Imprenta: La cultura impresa en Puerto Rico (1806-1906)." This exhibit, literally "from quill to press," was a documentary history of printing in Puerto Rico during its first hundred years. The exhibit, though moderately small, was outstanding. It was curated by Dr. Lizette Cabrera, a specialist in print history in Puerto Rico, and is well worth visiting. I highly commend the work that both Dr. Cabrera and Directora Lugo and her museum staff have done. It is very well organized, interesting, and engaging, and presents the visitor with a slice of Puerto Rican and, more broadly speaking, Caribbean print culture that is not very well known. The image to the left is the informational brochure that is handed out at the Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte and is very well documented and historically rich. A larger art and documentary book was availabel for sale (~$25.00), but I did not purchase it.

The image at the left here is the advertisement banner that was hung outside of the Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte. It depicts an antique printing press with a flowing swirl of letters spinning out from the press itself.

Perhaps one of the most interesting experiences and observations on this trip, was a visit to the Plaza las Americas--the "Mall of the Americas" in San Juan. It is a gigantic super-mall, with over 300 shops, and is affectionately known to Puerto Ricans by its moniker "Altar of Mamon." But the great observation of the night was the passing through the massive BORDERS bookstore, which was bigger than any I've seen in the USA. Even more striking was the number of people standing up and reading among the bookshelves of mostly English books, though the Spanish books were to be found in large quantities too. Most readers were in the magazine sections, but there were still several hundred people in the store when I passed by the first time on the way into the mall, and on the way out a few hours later. Reading and Book culture are far from being dead on this island--that is for certain! Mamon or no Mamon!

DAY 3 (Wed.): San Juan and Ponce
Seminary Library, San Juan
Folklore Institute, Ponce

The first part of the day was spent in the seminary library, where we completed the course I was teaching in online education. Later in the day, my host and I drove to the southern city of Ponce, which is in a drier climate. Though there are libraries there, including those that are part of the Pontifical University, we didn't visit any, partly because it was so late by the time we arrived, so many places were closed. Included in this was the Folklore Institute, but I did take photographs of its entrance.

This was the group of participants in my workshop. We were on break in the Reference Section of the Seminary's Library.

While in Ponce, we happened upon the Folklore Institute, but it had just closed a half hour prior to our visit. I knocked on the door to see if they had a brochure, but they didn't. Too bad. Here is the full name of the institute: Centro de Investigaciones Folklóricas de Puerto Rico, Casa Paoli (Ponce, P.R.).

DAY 4 (Thursday):
The University of Puerto Rico: Rare Books and Manuscripts/Archives

Seminario Evangelico Archives

The Sociology of Airport and Airplane Reading
(First Try!)

The morning of my fourth day, I went to explore more of the University Library and especially to revisit the librarian at the Caribbean and Latin American Studies Collections, but she was not there. So I went to the second floor of the University Library and discovered other collections, including the Literature Collection (Zenobia and Juan Ramon Jimenez Room), again arranged by Dewey Classification (boy!--they love Dewey here! I even had a heated discussion with one librarian, who insisted Dewey was better than LC because "he was an educator!") and more interestingly, the Colleccion Josefina del Toro Fulladosa Libros Raros y Manuscritos, which is overseen by Aura Diaz Lopez, MIS. Ms. Diaz Lopez was a very generous and kind hostess, who showed me around this phenomenal collection. In fact, she described the collection cataloging protocols (organized mostly by size, not subject) and told me that she'd written her Library School Masters thesis on the history of the cataloging of this Rare Books and Manuscripts Library! A wonderful treat, indeed! The image to the upper left is part of the Coleccion Alfred Nemours de Historia de Haiti. This collections, as can be deduced, is one of the great Haitian French collections. In fact, during my visit, we went into the inner sanctum of the rare books vault, and Ms. Diaz Lopez openned some archival boxes containing Haitian artifacts, including an antique flag, administrative reports from the 1790s and 1800s, and even handed me a finely preserved letter of Napoleon! She along with two other scholars published bibliographic access controls and information about the collection in the July-December 2004 issue of the Caribbean Studies Journal published out of the University of San Juan.

The link to the UPR Archives can be found here--

I continued my exciting morning among Haitiana and Napoleona and returned to the Seminario Evangelico, where I had another surprise waiting for me. The Academic Dean, Prof. Jose Irizarry, asked me if I wanted to see the Archives of the seminary, after I had told him my story about visiting the University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. And I certainly jumped on the opportunity.

The unique items in the seminary archive collection included journals of early missionaries, manuscripts of Puerto Rican faculty, who served the seminary (including individuals, who were students of Tillich), and even materials relating specifically to Martin Luther King, Jr., who visited the Seminario Evangelico half a century ago. I was told by my host that the Cuban-American Church Historian Justo Gonzalez served as MLK's translator! There are also materials dealing with West Indies and Antilles Missiology from the earlier part of the 20th century, as well as Puerto Rican philosophical and theological journals dating back mid-20th century.

After my tour, it was time to finally head home. I had an afternoon flight, and sat next to a young woman who was reading the Diary of Anne Frank. I ended up reading a magazine article--among the dreadfully countless popular articles on this subject!--about the Kindle. It was by a man, who described himself as "never finishing a book," but that he loved the Kindle
because it was technologically interesting. He was fixated over being able to download James Joyce's Ulysses, and then hit the search function, subsequently looking up the word "book" in the text. Apparently, according to the Kindle, the word "book" appears 103 times in Ulysses. (By the way, as I write this today, June 16th, "Today is Bloomsday, the 105th anniversary of the events of the novel," as NY Times Op-Ed Contributor Colum McCann writes in his magnificent piece "But Always Meeting Ourselves" today, which I highly recommend--that was a rather Joycian sentence: I used "today" 3, now 4 times!) The point, though, is that the author of this article, Adam Sachs, in United Hemispheres magazine, is obsessed with the technology, and its ability to look up instantaneously obscure words in a big book he's not even going to read--like the word "oxter," which means "armpit" in Scottish. Alas. I'll just give up on this one. I should have after the title caught my eyes: "The Page Turner: E-book readers like the Amazon Kindle 2 can fundamentally alter the experience of travel. Especially if you read between the lines."

Unfortunately, the plane never took off. It broke down on take-off. No more Kindle articles. No more teen-agers plodding through Anne Frank. I was sent to an airport hotel, and put my books on furlough.

DAY 5 (Friday):
More sociology/anthropology of Airport and Airplane Reading (Part 2)

I finally got off the ground. I really did no reading today, except for my plane ticket, where I had to search my departure gate. But on the plane, I discovered that the woman next to me was fairly religious, and was reading a Spanish language Bible--Santa Biblia--as well as some prayer books in Spanish. We didn't speak much on the five hour flight, but I knew she must have been a somewhat devotional woman. We could have had a fine conversation on religion and the Bible, but I let the symbolic value of these books tend to themselves. I'd already had a pretty expansive and educational experience this week when it came to books, libraries, and print culture in Puerto Rico. I needed a rest.


  1. Thanks for sharing your trip. I was struck by the idea of libraries as collections (ie Caribbean and Latin American Studies Library) - a whole that is greater than its parts and driven by a vision greater than satisfying individual needs. Maybe this is obvious but in the age of Google, WorldCat, etc. it strikes me as helpful to think of the value of building an intentionally bounded group of resources. One that may attract biblio tourists such as yourself.

  2. Ha! So good, Matt. It is interesting. I'm going to have to credit you with that great phrase or term: biblio-tourist and tourism! It's so apropos! -ae