Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1998
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H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

Battle to Preserve Cuba's Heritage
Story and photos by Joanne P. Cavanaugh

Picture at top: At Cuba's National Archives, the conservation of history is a daily struggle against time, deterioration, and lack of resources.
Jeanne Drewes is standing in the middle of a library crying.

Strapped to her sundress is a purple-capped pen that tests for acidity, a deteriorating element found in common paper. She's used it several times this day to gauge the life spans of books, maps, photos, and other materials stored in Cuba's National Archives in Havana.

Drewes, a Hopkins preservation librarian, is frustrated after a tour of the central archives, a regal stone building pockmarked with pollution. She knows its contents--a country's patrimony--is dying.

"I care about these materials. It's just. . . ." she pauses, choking up and trying to talk past it. "It's just so big a problem. Why didn't I bring more?"

That was in May. Since then, Drewes, head of Hopkins's Preservation Department, has raised $10,000 in donated materials. She's talked people into storing the goods stateside for free, then found space for them in empty cabinets being shipped to Cuba late this fall. She and Hopkins history professor Franklin Knight are also applying for grants to bring new conservation techniques to archives staff. Drewes plans to return to Havana in January to lead a five-day seminar.

Knight had told Drewes about the problems he saw while researching slave trade documents in Cuba: "The archives are in the most atrocious and precarious condition as any in Latin America," Knight says. "And Cuba is an entry point for training-- [archivists] there do a lot with other archives in Latin America."

Working with Hopkins's Cuba Exchange Program, which tries to foster changes in the island's present and future, Drewes wants to help protect that nation's past from insects, time, and other enemies. Cuba's archives hold works dating from the 16th century, some relating to U.S. history.

"I have this information, this skill. I know how people can conserve their father's love letters and their grandmother's wedding dress," Drewes says. "I want to share that with people. For Cuba, it's the same thing.

"This is the history of that country and it's being eaten by bugs," she says.

Built in 1944, the Cuban National Archives building lies in the industrial section of Old Havana. Close neighbors include three old electric plants, an oil refinery, and two flour mills, along with blocks of crumbling tenements.

Inside are records dating from what Cubans call the Colonial, Republican, and Revolutionary periods (the last two refer to before and after the 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro). The collection includes about 25 linear kilometers of documents: letters, military orders, official papers of the Spanish government, newspapers, 60,000 photos, and legal registrations for weddings, births, and deaths. "This is a record of the common life of the people," says Reinaldo Ramos Hernandez, a Cuban archivist. "We need this record to know how life was in the country."

For Cuba's 130 trained archivists, chemists, rare book librarians, photo curators, computer specialists, technicians, and other staff who work to maintain such history, the wish list is long: they need acid-free paper and folders, book linings, linen thread, needles, tacking irons, right angles--all items Drewes collected to send under the U.S.-licensed shipment. She also sent deacidification chemicals and new humidity-testing digital hydrothermographs.

The problems Cuban archivists face--many of which trouble collections in the States and around the world--are made worse by deep-rooted issues here: a perpetual lack of money, an inefficient government bureaucracy, and, Cubans complain, a 38-year-old U.S. embargo that makes the shipping of photographic chemicals and equipment difficult.

Drewes visited Cuba in May to speak at an International Conference on the Preservation of Paper and Photographs, which was attended by participants from 15 countries. I also went as part of ongoing research on Cuba and took a tour of the archives alongside Drewes. The scene is overwhelming: Because there's almost no air conditioning (it's expensive and electricity is limited), windows are often kept open to circulate air and minimize temperature changes--a preservation problem because books and other materials could contract and expand, causing damage.

Yet that means dust, humidity, and pollution migrate inside, settling on 200-year-old maps. On windy days, archives staff use blocks of wood to keep treasures like a 1747 hand-tinted map of colonial Havana from blowing away.

In this building, and in regional archives across the country, window screens or other barriers are also costly, scarce, and hard to maintain, so insect infestation is common. Bookworms bore holes through manuscripts, including 18th-century records on slave trading in Cuba and the United States.

In the mid-1980s, Havana archive directors tried to kill the bug problem by fumigating the building. But, archivists say, they needed to use so much gas that families who lived nearby were in danger of being poisoned. Directors ended up sealing the building for a month, and then found the fumigation was too expensive to do again.

Across Cuba, archives staff are college-educated professionals, yet much of their training is based on Russian techniques, which are out of date. "They don't have access to the newest research," Drewes says. "It's not that they are doing it wrong and I'm showing them right; I'm showing them different."

Among the methods Drewes will discuss in January: how to do more durable paper mends using Japanese tissue and wheat paste, both materials that are expensive and scarce in Cuba (such materials have been donated for use).

The island's regional archives also need help. In the city of Matanzas, about two hours east of Havana, shelves are heavy with court documents packaged in acidic paper and tied up with string. "We know it has acid, but we have to protect the papers from the dust," says Graciela Milian Martinez, director of the Matanzas Provincial Archives. (Students from Hopkins's Cuba Exchange Program are set to volunteer there in January, re-wrapping documents in acid-free paper.)

Acidic paper, a plague for archives worldwide, became common in the mid-1800s with the advent of mass production--a process made possible by using cheap wood pulp instead of cotton. Wood fibers are tough, so acid is used to break them down. Yet traces of acid remain in the paper and keep breaking down the material. Such wood-fiber paper is still used today, though acid-neutralizing chemicals are now applied.

In Cuba, however, paper mills often use sugar cane, a coarse fiber that requires lots of acid (other paper is wood fiber-based). With little to no chemicals to reverse damage, such irreplaceable documents as the 1895 personal letters of Cuban military hero General Maximo Gomez are crumbling like corn flakes.

The archives staff works hard to protect the Gomez letters and other materials. There's a lab for restoring decayed documents (paper pulp is used to fill holes via a modern Leafcaster machine). Technicians copy photos onto microfilm or scan them into computer databases, though both methods are limited by lack of materials. Archive holdings are catalogued and some documents filed in acid-free folders or kept in one of the few air-conditioned rooms. Highly valued materials--letters written by Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Castro's personal writings--are kept in a special archive building with air conditioning and other amenities.

Yet water damage, rats, bleaching sunlight, dirt, mildew, and human handling still remain daunting problems in this Caribbean nation, where poverty and humidity meet and mingle with pessimism, inertia, and politics.

Back at central archives in Havana, a copy of the 1899 Cuban census is laid out on a mahogany table. Its binding is broken. Across town, a small lab at the University of Havana repairs such books. But technicians there are running out of materials: they use a cigar press and animal glue to bind books, and ration plastic-based covers. "We've had this one yellow roll of paper for 15 years," says technician Lazaro Pazos. Then he pulls out a jar of methyl cellulose used in book-spine repair, a common adhesive much like wallpaper paste. He's had the jar for two decades.

Picture at right: At Ernest Hemingway's estate near Havana, books and other historic artifacts are rotting in the sunlight.
In some cases a small thing can make a big difference. Drewes is sending a $26 hydrothermograph to the Ernest Hemingway Museum at the late American novelist's ranch outside Havana. The device will help conservators measure humidity in the home to know when to close it up, and when to leave it open. That equipment, as well as the other donated materials, could help slow some of the deterioration.

Despite such efforts, the situation will likely remain grim.Visitors can't enter the Hemingway house because of security and damage concerns, so French doors are often thrown open as gateways for onlookers who stand outside. Yet many of the 9,000 books in Hemingway's library, some of which carry his notations, are rotting in sunlight. Window filters could help. Air conditioning, expensive to install and run, could cause more damage if done improperly.

For Cuban archivists, any sense of hope is tempered by skepticism. Says Felix Dominguez, conservator at the Hemingway Museum, "No matter what you do, good or bad, there's not all that much that can drastically help a collection exposed to these conditions."

Danilo Arrate Hernandez, the museum's director, subscribes to a view no doubt shaped by Cuba's communist doctrines. Public access to the nation's history should take precedence over preservational purity: "Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is outside looking through closed doors. How would that be? It is part of our heritage. I don't have the right to prevent this."

For more information on Drewes's efforts to preserve Cuba's National Archives, visit