The quake that irreparably damaged the building housing the Antigua Public Library (a building located on lower High Street on what is now …a car park?) shook Antigua in 1974.
This means that for some of us when our mothers talk about the library’s glory days we can only imagine, since my generation forward grew up in a country where a library had no such pride of place much less a home of its own. The library was temporarily housed upstairs the Silston’s Library with scaled back services given the size. Even that is something many of us will not remember. Though I remember being told of it by Ms. Phyllis Mayers, herself a library institution, and my former boss since I once held a summer job at the library during my high school years; and by the library, I mean the space above Lolita’s on Market Street into which the library and its services have been cramped since 1978.
The public library building project with its attendant stops and starts has been on our collective radar since the 1990s when the area was identified, the model was presented, and the building began the start and stop dance to construction.
It’s worth noting that the lack of a building of its own did not mean that the team – headed by Mayers (who in the words of her successor “played elegantly the hand she was dealt and kept the library going during most trying times”), later Dorothea Nelson (who succeeded Mayers in 1999), later Ryllis Mannix (since, and I stand to be corrected on this, 2011) – have not worked to provide service to the community. The stacks have been there for readers like me to discover; there have been progressive moves like the digitization of library resources and outreach such as AV Thursdays and the annual summer camp programme which blossomed through partnerships with the likes of the New York based Friends of Antigua Public Library. Think what they could do with proper facilities? No more need to curtail library hours due to vermin or heat; no longer being so cramped neither books nor bodies have enough space to breathe.
I wasn’t in Antigua when the new library opened though I saw many mocking references on my facebook to the “soft opening”. It’s the silly season but it’s also important not to play politics with the record, so I wanted to write something on this from outside of the bubble. I dug around for some dates (as referenced in this blog) and reached out with a few questions to the retired former library chief Dorothea Nelson, who was gracious enough to respond.
Me: Can you remember when the building committee was formed and when construction actually begun?
Ms. Nelson: “Ground was actually broken in the 1990’s. I wouldn’t want to state a specific year for I am uncertain.”
Me: Can you estimate what we have lost as a community not having a home for the library for the past 40 years?
Ms. Nelson: “I think we lost Antiguans experiencing the true value of a library to the all-round development of both the individual and the society. The majority of Antiguans have a very poor perception of the library’s role and value to society. Almost every time someone talks of the library especially of donating to the library, the automatic response is books. People will make comments like I can go to the Internet to get any information I want. A library is much more than a storehouse for books. I hope that the library will be staffed by people who know how to build relationships with the community, plan meaningful programmes for people on every strata of society, and reach out to previously unreached members of society such as people with disabilities. There is so much that can be done.”
I also asked Ms. Nelson for her take on where the blame lies for our lack of a home for our library for some four decades. She said, “I am not about casting blame or pointing out who is most responsible. After all, as a citizenry we all collectively allowed it to happen. So blame can be shared all around. After all we are part of a participatory democracy. What we need to do now is look toward and plan for the future.”
What, I wondered, should be the benchmarks going forward. Ms. Nelson had an answer for that, too: “I am sure you realize that I firmly believe in training for staff. Training is essential if staff is to function efficiently and effectively. I would like to see the national library service bill put to parliament and passed. It includes the establishment of a national library board. I put the bill together years ago based on similar bills passed in other countries and had it vetted by a lawyer. The bill should be on file at the Ministry of Education. At the time it was presented it was to be sent to the Ministry of Legal Affairs for further scrutiny. I never heard about it again. I would also like to see branch libraries developed all connected to the main public library and each other via the Internet. A virtual library is needed as well. Items that represent our history and culture should be digitized and made accessible online. We already have the capability at the library. I left a vibrant automation department staffed by well-trained people. All that is needed is certain specialized equipment and that process can begin before all these artifacts are lost to us. I would also like to see the development of a genealogy database. It is past the time when we should be able to trace our individual histories. I know that some of this is ground breaking for the Caribbean, but why can’t Antigua be a trend setter? These things are not beyond the reach of the library.”
Recently, I saw this guest post on the library’s facebook page: “I was reading the book A Small Place – Jamaica Kincaid, she had mentioned the library being located above a dry-goods store on Market St., where is it now?” This was about a month old when I saw it. At this writing, I don’t have the witness of my own eyes, and everything I’ve read indicates that there is still a gap between the formal opening and the actual opening but I’m hoping that finally, finally we’re moving in the right direction and that we can finally, finally say, the library is located in its very own home, X marks the spot.
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