History this week No. 18/2009

Celebrating 100 years of public library service:

A Historical Perspective of the National Library of Guyana

By Gwyneth George and Gillian Thompson

This article is the first installment in a two-part series that gives a historical perspective of the development of the Public Library Service in Guyana. The second installment will look at the rural library service, the library as a social and cultural entity, library education, the work of the Public/National Library service as embodied in the Act of 1972 and how the library has responded to change.

The advent of libraries in the West Indies and Guyana

The era in which public libraries developed was marked by underdeveloped economic resources, limited educational facilities, a high percentage of illiteracy in the adult population and restricted development of the cultural and artistic influences.

In this economic, social and cultural environment, libraries were restricted to the odd commercial and subscription libraries, for which subscription rates were too low to sustain them.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, governments were prevailed upon to pass enabling laws to provide for a different type of library in the form of public and free libraries.  However, government aid was always too small to support these libraries and for a while, various mechanisms had to be used to ensure their survival.

Organised library expansion in the West Indies started in the early twentieth century, with the donation of the now famous and beautiful Carnegie buildings.  It was Andrew Carnegie who donated the funds for the first library building in Georgetown, British Guiana in 1909.

The public library in perspective

To understand and appreciate the work of the National Library, formerly called the Georgetown Public Free Library and the Public Free library, one must place the public library in its proper perspective.  The first quality of the public library is that it is publicly owned and supported by the taxes of the clientele it supports.  It is therefore established, supported and funded by the community either through local, regional or national governments or through some other form of community assistance.

Consequently, the second quality of the public library is that it is everybody’s library. It provides access to knowledge, information and works of imagination through a wide range of resources and offers equal accessibility to members of the community regardless of race, nationality, gender, religion, language, disability, economic and employment status or educational attainment.

According to the UNESCO public library Manifesto (UNESCO 2000), the public library is a product of modern democracy and a practical demonstration of democracy’s faith in universal education as a lifelong process.

The public library is however, more than an educational institution.  It is also a social and cultural institution as its roles include not only providing avenues to meet the information needs of people but for civic and cultural activities of groups and organisations and to provide recreational opportunities for constructive use of leisure time.

Another major role assigned to most public libraries is the preservation and dissemination of the cultural products of the nation.  This role is facilitated through the enactment of legal deposit laws, even though these laws suffer from some deficiencies regarding enforcement and are rarely observed.

The Public Library in British Guiana

Writing in 1947, G.E. Wilcock (Sunday Chronicle, May 25, 1947) noted that the modern library is an integral part of the social welfare services provided by all progressive countries.  It should not only be frequented by the intellectual minority, but should be a cultural centre which belongs to all the people and used by all sections of the community.

Organised library service began in 1909 with the endowment from Andrew Carnegie.  This library was, and still is, managed by one centrally controlled library authority, the Public Free Library Committee, an autonomous statutory library body with operations financed mainly by central government.

The structure of the public library is based on the English County library system with a Central library and headquarters responsible for the central acquisition and processing of books.

Initially called the Carnegie Free Library since it was Carnegie who in 1907 made a grant of £7,000 towards the building of the library, it was later renamed the Georgetown Public Free Library.

During the Golden Jubilee celebrations, Mr. E. O. Pilgrim, member of the Library Committee noted that the history of the Public Library can be divided into two main periods, coinciding with the regimes of the two librarians, Ms. Emily Murray and Ms. Ruby Franker who were in charge of its destiny for the first 50 years.  The first of these two periods was described as Victorian and reserved, and the other modern and eager to interest the public in discovering the resources of their library. This change occurred as the need of the early library was to become more visible and by doing so, to increase its readership across the length and breadth of the colony.

The Development of the Public Free Library, 1909 – 1959

The Public Free Library now called the National Library, is situated at the corner of  Church and Main streets in a beautiful two-storied building designed in the form of an inverted cross with spacious grounds  edged with tropical shrubs and flowers.  The interior consists of an ornate iron grille-work dividing the lobby from the main library on the ground floor and partitioning the departments on the upper floor.

Rodway, in his Story of Georgetown notes that before the beneficence of Carnegie, there were only private libraries, circulation libraries or coffee houses in America Street and Robb’s town where newspapers were kept for the convenience of customers.  It is no wonder that the Georgetown Free Library was a welcome development to the 57,000 inhabitants of Georgetown and its environs in 1909.

On 23rd December 1907, the first meeting of the Provisional Committee appointed by the Governor Sir F.M. Hodgson was held to give effect to the proposal to establish a Public Free Library for Georgetown in a building to be erected from the funds provided by Andrew Carnegie.  Since the Governor himself presided over this and subsequent meetings, decisions were swiftly acted upon.

In September 1909, the Library with lending, reading room and reference facilities was opened to the public.  An ornamental iron grille separated the public from the books. On the outer side of the grille was a table with a printed catalogue chained to it and books were borrowed by consulting the catalogue, writing the titles and numbers of the book required on a request slip and handing it to a Librarian through a small window in the grille.  This was the closed access system and the Librarian, Ms. Emily Murray, demanded the care of books and their prompt return.

Ordinance No. 12 of 1908 called the Georgetown Public Free Library Ordinance was enacted on July 8, 1908.  This Ordinance provided for the maintenance of the library to be undertaken jointly by the Combined Court and the Mayor and Town Council of Georgetown.

In 1909, there were 57,000 books and 1500 members.  The initial book stock was selected by Mr. Pacy, Librarian of the Westminster Public Libraries at the request of the Crown Agent for the Colonies.  The initial sum allocated for this purpose was £900 or G$4,320.00.

From the inception, it was recognised that children were to be an important clientele of the Library and the juvenile books were kept separately in order to form the nucleus for a children’s library.

Its Lending Department was opened on April 4, 1910 with a stock of 5,700 books.

Three significant developments were to impact on public library development in British Guiana. Firstly, in 1932, Mr. Ernest Savage, Honorary Secretary of the Library Association of Great Britain and librarian of the Edinburgh Public Library, was requested by the Carnegie Corporation to survey the libraries in British and American possessions in the Caribbean.  In 1934, the British library Association published the Savage report after his tour of the West Indies. Every where he found antiquated subscription libraries, a carryover from the  more affluent days of the 19th century, inadequate to meet the pressing needs of that century.

Savage’s observations included the need to alter library legislation to make libraries public as that term is understood in Britain and the United States.  He also urged greater financial support and a successful scheme of recruiting educated and trained librarians and assistants.  However, it is the recommendation concerning the administration of all libraries as one service for the whole area, or of groups of libraries united as services within the present governmental boundaries that would give a fillip to public library development not only in British Guiana, but in the West Indies generally.

As a result of Savage’s report, US$10,000 was voted for a Central library scheme in the Eastern Caribbean and British Guiana.  The agreement was that after the first four years of the scheme, the government would take over the funding of the library service.  This was also based on the concern that no individual territory was large enough to warrant the establishment of more than one central public library authority.  As early as 1934, Savage recommended that regionalisation and closer cooperation seemed to be the outstanding needs of public libraries in the mid-twentieth century.

The second significant development that gave an impetus to library development was the introduction of The Open Access system in 1940.  Readers were now free to go to the shelves and choose books.  This stimulated library use and the number of registered users increased significantly.

The third significant development occurred in 1950.  Public Free Library Ordinance (No.13 of 1950) was passed by the Legislature.  The title read “An Ordinance to amend the Georgetown Public Free library Ordinance in order to provide for the establishment of branch public libraries and other public library services at any place within the colony”.  Prior to this Ordinance, statutory provision existed only for the establishment and maintenance of library service in the Carnegie Building in Georgetown.  In keeping with this new role for the library, the amended ordinance also changed the name from the ‘Georgetown Public Free Library’ to the ‘Public Free Library’, to show clearly this new responsibility of expanding library service outside of Georgetown. Additionally, the Georgetown Town Council was relieved of the statutory obligation to contribute precisely one-half of the cost of running the library and left free to provide a subvention at a sum agreed to by the government.  This set the stage for expansion into places other than Georgetown and particularly into rural areas.

In 1951 also, the library took over occupancy of the entire library building when it was vacated by the Museum.  In 1933, through a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the building was enlarged to provide accommodation in the upper floor for the British Guiana Museum.  The Museum would occupy this space from 1935 – 1951, after which the library would benefit from the acquisition of this additional space to facilitate the required reorganisation and expansion of the service.

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