Archives and national libraries

Little has been heard about culture in the narrow sense since the new government took office. Of course, there was our participation in Carifesta, but that is in a sense an ephemeral exercise which for obvious reasons provides mostly a showcase for the performance arts. In any case, this time it was held in Haiti, and would have been seen by very few Guyanese. In general, of course, developing countries, especially small developing countries, struggle to find the resources to devote to cultural concerns.

The two in particular which get largely forgotten because citizens do not see their relevance to everyday life, are archives and those libraries devoted to a nation’s antiquarian heritage. The story of our archives is one of the tragedies of this country. Earlier in the twentieth century the Essequibo and Demerara archives used to be stored in the dome of the Public Buildings – hardly an ideal location. As increasing numbers of records were generated, the dome became more crowded so periodically some of the records would be taken outside and burnt.

Many of those relating to the maroons of Demerara were burnt in the 1945 fire, because a researcher had removed them and attached his notes, following which they were packed in tea chests and left on the floor of the RA&CS library pending his attention. One presumes his intention was to return them eventually, but before that ever happened, Georgetown’s most devastating fire consumed them.

It should be added that the Berbice archives arguably did worse, being subject to repeated flooding in the basement of the old Colony House in New Amsterdam.

Matters did not improve when Independence came along, for by that time the collection was housed next door to the Stabroek fire station in a fragile wooden building, parts of which were exposed to the elements. The only virtue of this particular structure, perhaps, would have been its serendipitous location in the event of a fire. It was Minister Frank Campbell under Burnham’s government who tried to do something about the archives by transferring the main volumes to a vacated bank building in Main Street. The newspapers were lodged in the rebuilt RA&CS library, which while it was cool, was also far too breezy for the brittle early papers.

The main problem, however, came with the transportation of the documents to their new home, which was accomplished by piling them onto draycarts (among other forms of transport), the actual movers being the uniformed services who had not, to all appearances, been advised about handling. In any event, portions of Guyana’s historical records fragmented in the wind en route.

When the PPP/C government came into office, there was at first some effort to improve conditions in the Main Street location, and the air conditioner was mended, and an archival committee formed, among other things. But the committee did not survive and there were a variety of administrative problems. In addition, no archivist was ever appointed. It was when Mr Bharrat Jagdeo was in office that the next major move occurred, after the Main Street site was exchanged for the building of a new archives in Homestretch Avenue in 2007. No one knows even now whether it incorporated the standard features recognized internationally for the preservation of historical documents, or whether the expansion of the collection was catered for.

After such a long history of misfortune, perhaps this new government could turn its attention to the matter of the archives, so that this generation preserves what it has to pass on to future ones. There are the physical and technical issues relating to the accommodation and conservation of documents, and there are the human ones, pertaining to staffing and the like. We have no conservation laboratory, for example, a particularly serious deficiency in a tropical climate. In addition, some bureaucrat needs to dust off the Archives Act again, and see about implementing its provisions, which also cover material currently being generated in ministries, state agencies and the like.

Where the National Library is concerned, that was the product of an unhappy graft in Burnham’s time on an existing public library. The concept of a national library, with its emphasis on collecting all Guyana imprints as well as writing on Guyana or set in Guyana, including antiquarian works, is not the same as the notion of a public lending library. While national libraries do give access to bona fide researchers, they are, in the first instance, intended as collection centres to preserve the printed heritage of a nation. The public lending library, in contrast, has more of an educative aim.

A public library infrastructure with its limited staffing arrangements cannot support a national library, and given our circumstances, it is hardly surprising that serving the needs of the public has taken precedence over conserving the printed patrimony – which is not the same thing as to say an underpaid staff has not tried over the years to discharge its variegated functions to the best of its ability. A national library, however, like an archive, needs some specialist skills, including conservation skills.

Exactly what the state of the antiquarian collection is in the National Library is uncertain, but it should at a minimum be kept in air-conditioning, which as far as is known, it currently is not. Perhaps the new government might give some needed attention to this institution too, in addition to reviewing the structure of the entity.

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