Beyond the Revolution: Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne Collections, Bringing Nineteenth-Century Haitian History to the World (EAP1024)

Aims and objectives

This project aims to preserve a portion of the most significant repository of nineteenth-century Haitian newspapers in the world, which is held by the partner archive Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Frères de l’Instruction Chrétienne (BHFIC) in Port-au-Prince. It will assist library staff in cataloguing and digitising ninety-one Haitian newspapers published between 1813-1913. The BHFIC is in the heart of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince and is one of the oldest active libraries in the country, founded in 1912. Prior to the current National Library's founding in 1939, it served as Haiti's primary "depository" library. The library’s executive director, Marie-France Guillaume, is currently supported by a small staff, including an administrative assistant and a library technician. Given its central location and the importance of its collections, BHFIC receives a regular readership of Haitian students, professional scholars, and community researchers, as well as researchers arriving from abroad.

The material which comprises of two collections, series AN-1 and AN-2, have already been identified by the library staff as vulnerable to degradation. BHFIC’s staff called attention to the vulnerability of these materials by publishing a call to action, “La bibliothèque haïtienne des FIC appelle à l’aide pour préserver les documents en état de ruine” on 14 September 2016 in the country’s most widely-read paper, Le Nouvelliste. Because of their fragile state and the library’s limited digitisation capabilities, these newspapers are currently not publicly available for consultation.

The papers date from 1813 to 1900, a period when Haiti, just emerging from a revolution that ended slavery, was organised into an agricultural society with considerable distance between town residents and its peasant majority. At present, a rich and expanding international scholarship engages with the central impact of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), an event that was integral to other Atlantic revolutions and slave societies and the foundations of modernity itself. In sharp contradistinction to this rich body of research, however, scholarship on Haiti’s history after the revolution declines precipitously, creating a catastrophic gap. There is not a single English-language work that systematically considers state making in Haiti from the 1810s through the 1870s. Sources are at the heart of this lacuna. Due to high publication costs in Haiti in the nineteenth century, book production was limited and newspapers provided the central forum for intellectual production in the newly independent state. Yet these sources remain widely unavailable, and their long-term future is in doubt.

This newspaper collection documents a period in Haitian history that scholars have yet to fully explore -- precisely because of the dearth of materials and limited access to what sources do exist. The papers in this collection span much of the nineteenth century, from 1813 to 1900. While the majority of the papers have short runs of two to three years, at least three papers had a longer publishing history: Le Télégraphe (1813-43), Feuille de Commerce, (1827-60) and Le Moniteur Haïtien (1845-72 with gaps). In contrast to the majority of available materials from this period that are published exclusively in Port-au-Prince, these periodicals represent journalism from cities and towns throughout the territory, from the south (Les Cayes) to important political centres in port towns of the north (Cap-Haïtien). The geographic range of these papers will bring to light a period of Haitian history where intellectual production was distributed throughout the country, rather than concentrated almost entirely in the Haitian capital.

The newspapers at the heart of this project are in fragile physical condition. The library’s building is not climate controlled, and the documents have weathered centuries of heat and high humidity. They are shelved in open metal bookcases and, though held in the back of the library, are susceptible to humidity. Moreover, they are exposed to fungi, insects, and dust. The ninety-one newspapers vary in condition, with the majority demonstrating environmental damage including faded print, deteriorating paper, decomposed bindings, torn pages, and evidence of insect infestations. More generally the documents are endangered due to the country’s vulnerability to natural disaster and lack of infrastructure, as seen most recently with Hurricane Matthew. BHFIC’s current building was renovated in 1994 and underwent minimal repairs after the 2010 earthquake, despite damages that imperil the collection. We are trying to ensure the preservation of what survived this disaster. The materials are also endangered by Haiti’s political instability. Haiti’s history of tumultuous cycles of political change has had an impact on the library. For example, the library used additional storage in a building that also housed the cars of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. When he left office in 1986, protesters looted the building destroying the cars and the stored documents. Moreover, given its limited means, the Haitian state has never prioritized preservation of historical documents. Haitian archival materials have also been taken from institutional repositories and sold to private individuals, adding urgency to our efforts to digitise.