Ex Libris: Bookplates from the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí

The Biblioteca Nacional José Martí (BNJM) is Cuba’s national library in Havana, founded 1901 by military order after the United States hijacked Cuba’s war of independence against Spain and turned it into the Spanish-American War. It’s not the first library in Cuba; that distinction goes to the Biblioteca de la Sociedad Económica de Amigos del Pais, or Library of the Economic Society of the Friends of the Country, founded in 1793. After the revolution in 1959, BNJM’s shelves swelled with books from private libraries nationalized by those fleeing the new society. It’s a crucial public repository. Interestingly, the United States—unlike most countries in the world—does not have a national library. Most people assume that that’s what the Library of Congress is, but that’s not true. “The first priority of the Library of Congress is to make knowledge and creativity available to the United States Congress,” reads its mission statement.

In February 1999 I visited the BNJM as part of a research project with the Cuba Poster Project to determine the best way to digitize their enormous collection of posters. Besides the actual posters themselves, another archival attraction was the fact that all of their posters had been cataloged, revealing crucial details such as artist, publisher and year of publication. My original idea was to scan the cards from the BNJM catalog and convert the data to machine-readable type through an optical character recognition program. After dragging a laptop and scanner from the United States to the library in Havana, it quickly became apparent that the type on the cards was too inconsistent and uneven to be readily understood by any machine, so I ended up scrapping that plan. But I had a scanner and some time on my hands. After a long conversation with Eliades Acosta, then-director of the BNJM, he told me about a special collection of bookplates, or “ex libris” (“from the library of”) ownership markers. The BNJM was able to supply some of the catalog data; others remain a mystery awaiting further research.

Gathered from books in the library’s possession, the range of bookplates is amazing. Some of them were hand-painted parchment from two centuries ago; others were whimsical artists’ works from the mid-1960s. And they included locations and names unexpected for Havana—George Washington, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. All are little jewels of literary art, and the director felt that they merited more attention. Rightly so.