With the laying of the cornerstone of the Public Free Library (now the National Library) on April 28, 1908, following funding from US philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, this two-storey building constructed in the form of an inverted cross was the foundation for Guyanese building their reading skills for the next hundred years.
The National Library has been and is still today our Mecca of learning, our Golden Gate, our ‘Open Sesame’ to Ali Baba’s treasure trove of knowledge, and the catalyst that ignited our maturation to icon status today!
Many of you reading this attended this same Cathedral of Reading, although worshipped in different decades and sat in different pews (no collection required), but what a service the National Library rendered! I record for posterity my adventures in reading that probably paralleled yours.
During World War II, growing up in a tenement yard, reading was limited to the Daily Chronicle and Argosy, (which we couldn’t afford) plus our primary school texts – West Indian and the Royal Reader. My initial intro to reading was Bedtime Stories, Swiss Family Robinson in a 4×4 inch pictorial format, every other page illustrated, and a Captain and the Kids comic – all treasures in my grandfather’s living room. The Graphic became a daily after the Argosy printery was destroyed by the Booker’s Black Friday Fire, Feb 23, 1945.
At Smith’s Church Congrega-tional Primary every Friday, the school’s collection of books was available to pupils for one hour to read in the classroom. By Fifth Standard, expanding our reading was a must as we prepared for scholarship class where a written essay, précis and comprehension were pre-requisites.
The Public Free Library was our ‘grail.’ Every Saturday was a pilgrimage of learning; a safari to downtown Georgetown collecting nuggets of knowledge along the way. The journey started with visits to the city’s book stores – Chasberth, off Bourda Market, to Stan Headley’s Midget Book Store west of the present Freedom House on Robb Street. Then over to Argosy on Regent Street, and finally, at least a two-hour worship in the Public Free Library. Returning your last ‘borrowing,’ one hurried to find a Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Billy Bunter, Biggles or Tarzan adventures. If there were two you hadn’t read, you hid the second one on the bookshelf, hoping next visit it would be there.
Checking out your prize, your next journey of learning would be up the wide mahogany staircase to the second floor, to be greeted by a five-foot balata statue of a pork-knocker, pipe in mouth, haversack on the back, with machete protruding over the left shoulder. Hell, the BG museum was also destroyed by the Booker’s fire in 1945, but the ethnological part of the collection had been stored in the Public Free Library, so that portion survived, and the library was then our own local Smithsonian.
Endless hours there fascinated our young minds with pictures of our native Amerindians in their forest habitat – their villages, feathered headdresses, intricate weavings and artifacts that included the matapee, long bows, blow guns with feathered arrows conjuring up survival adventures in our majestic jungle forest. The colourful stuffed birds, eagles, and macaws, and an armadillo and a giant anteater scavaging, were highlights that ignited our spirit of adventure, folklore, and exploration of life’s mysteries.
Leaving the library, the next stop was SPCK Bookshop, and finally a ‘look see’ of upcoming movies displayed on lobby cards at the Astor, a corner away. From the early fifties the book section of Fogarty’s and Bookers Universal were re-opened after the Black Friday disaster. Later the Cosmopolitan Book Store, destroyed at Harel and High Streets, was re-opened on High Street towards the Public Buildings and became another oasis to browse.
Stanley travelled to darkest Africa to find Dr Livingstone. We visited the library to find our diamonds of learning. The British Council Library kept us up to date with the Royal Family and happenings in the British Empire.
By high school in the fifties, bitten by the reading bug, which earned us distinctions and credits in English and Literature, many of us became sub-editors of our annual school magazines which honed our writing skills. Published writings by Edgar Mittelholzer and other local authors were now available and piqued our interest in reading. The journal Kyk-over-al came out in 1945 to rival other popular magazines such as Caribia, Guyana Times and Christmas Tide. The Chronicle Christmas Annual which was first published in 1915 emerged to be our most popular annual with its art and jazz reviews, short stories, essays, photographic competitions and poetry contests.
The sixties were our Golden Age of Reading. We read even sitting on the ‘throne’ where newspapers were our Charmin wipes. We read and read during the political upheavals of the early sixties.
Meanwhile Hollywood’s production of major literary works into movie classics whetted our appetite for reading even more. Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic Gone with the Wind in 1939 was followed by Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Grapes of Wrath, Jane Eyre, Dr Zhivago, Giant, Long Hot Summer and The Sun Also Rises. Our nation’s literacy rate matched any in the world.
The paperback revolution reached Guyana in the early sixties as the hard cover classics were then available at affordable prices. Ian Fleming’s first three James Bond adventure flicks, Dr No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball created a stir for fiction adventures and a nationwide surge of reading of the works of Alistair McLean, Harold Robbins, Louis L’Amour, Sidney Sheldon, Jack Higgins etc. Time-Life and Ebony were eagerly awaited and souvenir magazine issues of President Kennedy’s assassination were instant sell-outs.
And for those who couldn’t afford their own copies, the services of the library were always there. At the time of our rebellion in the early sixties as we prepared for Independence 1966, a wiser, learned population embraced the struggles for nationhood.
Political publications such as the Mirror, New Nation and the Sun were popular; Percy Armstrong’s Guyana’s Times, and Peter Taylor’s Town Talk, Seymour’s political cartoons Peter Palaver and the Preacher were all part and parcel of the people’s learning as we moved to republic status in 1970. The Catholic Standard, Evening News, Berbice News and the Graphic Annual Year Book all added to our reading fare.
There was no TV locally so that apart from the written word we grew with radio commentaries – canned soap operas of Portia Faces Life, As The World Turns; Francis Farrier’s Tides Of Susanburg; the comedy of Sam Chase and Mrs Snodgrass; the commentaries of Uncle Stapley; John Fernandes Snr; Basil Hinds; the Pilgrims, etc. Popular news editors and columnists included Harry Harewood, Clarence Kirton, Charles Chichester, Julian Mendes, Herman Singh, Quintin Taylor, Paul O’Hara, Rickey Singh, Cedric Wiltshire, Carl Blackman, Monty Smith, George Willock, Kit Nascimento, Sharief Khan and David de Caires.
The library extended its services to New Amsterdam in 1953 and McKenzie in 1955, and when it introduced the bookmobile in1965, I even tried to have a ‘drop off’ stop at Howes and Lyng Streets. But then, I was just being ‘big-eye,’ as I was Manager of the newly formed Graphic Book Store and a reading Czar.
I never understood the mad fanaticism when the PPP bookshop on Robb Street and the US Library on Main Street were both bombed in 1965.
In the early seventies when Ian Camacho (Stephen’s brother) introduced me to Ludlum’s Scarlatti Inheritance, his other works Gemini Contenders, Holford Covenant became 24-hour readers. Wilbur Smith and Jack Higgins were companions for every spare moment from sports and sharking. Ya think it easy? Can you imagine ya on a hot date and reading Helen Gurley Brown’s The Unfair Sex?
In 1972 the National Library was formed by legislation, growing in strength to serve the nation, expanding literacy needs. A Ruimveldt branch was opened in September ’75; a toy library for pre-schoolers in 1981; plus branches in Albion, Uitvulgt and Corriverton. Today the National Library continues its mandate to empower the community as it strives for literacy. In the new millennium, the library, in addition to lending and reference services added photocopying, a music library, a prison service, conference facilities and inter-library loans. Its collections include bound newspapers, the collections of AJ Seymour, Ian McDonald, Carmen Jarvis, PAHO, plus Centres for Aids Resources and Environment.
The overseas diaspora extends its congratulations to the National Library on its centenary celebrations. Bouquets to the present staff and all the past contributors to whom the nation owes so much.