Information on La Casa del Libro in San Juan, Puerto Rico
We had the honor of directing La Casa from 1988 to 1992, following upon the directorships of its founder, Elmer Adler, and his protégé David Jackson McWilliams. All of the rare books were donations to the tax-exempt Amigos de Calle del Cristo 255, Inc.; some of the ancillary, scholarly books were purchased through funds from the legislature, coming through the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, which owns La Casa’s two buildings. According to the legally declared wishes of Adler, the collection of rare books is owned by the People of Puerto Rico and is under the control of the Amigos. The problems of dilapidation, mold, and poor operational budgets began in the early 1960s while Adler was still alive and became so dire during the time of McWilliams that the books had to be brought to the General Archives, where they were stored mainly in two rooms. When we arrived, one room was without dehumidification, the odor of mildew was immediately detected, and mold and foxing were beginning to devalue some of the books. After Hurricane Hugo the Archives were closed—but when we stopped by to check, we found its back door and the door to La Casa’s collection unlocked: there was no guard, and anyone could have walked off with a million dollars’ worth of books.
The culprits in all this? The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, its architectural arm Zonas y Monumentos Históricos, and an illegally constituted and inept Amigos’ boards of directors. We were fired one and one-half years short of our five-year contract for insisting that the Amigos’ members meet annually, as required by the By-Laws (they never had, not once in forty-four years). During our tenure at La Casa, the heads of the Institute and Zonas y Monumentos attempted to hinder our work at every possible opportunity; repeatedly made promises they did not keep; failed properly to supervise the construction contractor, and overpaid him; and caused remaining moneys available for reconstruction to dwindle from $32,000 to $24,000 to $3,000 without one bit of work being done. Though a contract was signed in December 1990 to have the balconies restored (rotting and infested with termites, pieces of the railings were falling into the street), the order to proceed was never signed by Zonas y Monumentos. During the summer of 1991, beams began to fall from the ceiling on the second floor, making it and the beautiful exhibition/ activities room on the first floor unusable. The Institute was called in, bids were procured, promises were made—but, again, nothing was done and this dangerous situation continued. The extermination of termites was delayed for five months.
We had returned the books to a safe environment within La Casa and catalogued almost all of them—certainly all the rare books; we presently retain a copy of the catalogue in our office. At the time we left Puerto Rico, the books were valued at around eight million dollars. We sincerely hope that the magnificent, wholly integral collection put together by Adler and McWilliams is still untouched and complete— but we have reason to believe otherwise, and fear that a number of the books may have been sold off or used as collateral.
At the time of this writing (August 2007), La Casa del Libro is closed for repairs. We can state with complete certainty that, had the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, Zonas y Monumentos Históricos, and the Amigos’ board of directors done their jobs properly from 1988 to 1992, La Casa del Libro would be open today, its beloved books would all be safe, and the beautiful island of Puerto Rico would be the richer!
La Casa del Libro was one of the jewels of Governor Luis Muñoz Marín’s Operación Serenidad, but the library/museum has never known a very serene time.
R. John Blackley