The National Library

Stabroek News
January 30, 2000

Those who have passed by the National Library in recent times would have noticed that a large extension is under construction. Nothing wrong with that. For many years now even the most casual observer could see that the building was far too small to meet the needs of the reading public. In particular, the reference section, the standby of so many schoolchildren, could not accommodate in comfort the large number of patrons. Size, however, was only one of its problems. For many years it has been unable to retain staff - particularly trained staff - owing to the low levels of remuneration, and this has impeded the delivery of services to the public, and slowed up cataloguing, among other things.

The National Library was originally conceived of as a public library; that is, it was intended to make accessible to the ordinary man and woman a selection of reading matter at no cost. For many decades, it performed this function admirably, and is remembered fondly as a consequence by several generations of readers. Economic stringencies, however, began to take their toll from the 1970s onwards, and eventually, the library started to lose its reputation as an institution, because readers who went to the shelves year after year could find little that was new. This coincided, of course, with the disappearance of books generally in the society, and the decline of a reading culture. Paradoxically, however, the reference room took on a new lease of life with the eclipse of school libraries and the shortage of text books, and as noted above, on a weekday afternoon flocks of pupils from the city schools could be seen converging on it.

In 1972, however, what had been the Public Free Library became the National Library. This involved more than just integrating all the public library services throughout the country; section 10 (1) (c) of the National Library Act stipulates that the library committee shall "collect, receive and preserve all books required to be deposited in the library by the Publications and Newspapers Act."

What this means is that the National Library is the official repository of all works published in Guyana, and is bound to preserve them.

Every nation with any self respect has a national library. In England it is the British Library and in the United States it is the Library of Congress. Those two libraries have traditionally collected works from all over the world, but national libraries in smaller nations attempt to acquire all editions published within their borders, or written by their nationals but published outside, or written about their country by anyone and published anywhere. The aim is to have as complete a collection as possible, going back as far as possible. A national library operates not as a lending institution, but as a repository to preserve a nation's written heritage; readers are allowed to consult books (and in some cases manuscripts) in reading rooms, but under no circumstances can those works be taken out of the building. The larger repositories also maintain conservation departments.

In the mid-1970s, the mission of the local National Library was not so dissimilar from this. In 1975, Cabinet voted a not ungenerous sum of money for the acquisition of antiquarian works on Guyana in order to provide the foundation for a true national collection, so that the National Library could eventually live up to its name by boasting the largest and best deposit of books on Guyana in the world. Needless to say, that dream fizzled, and aside from the books in the Caribbean Research Library of the University of Guyana, anyone seeking a really good antiquarian collection on this country had better take themselves off to Britain or the U.S.

In fairness, the National Library has never had the resources, the qualified staff nor the space to function as a true repository of the nation's heritage. It has also never reconciled its functions as a public lending institution on the one hand, with those of a national library on the other, and after years of hardship, the former have taken precedence over the latter. The current state of the valuable antiquarian collection which was handed over to its care in 1975 is not too clear, but what is clear is that now that the library is undergoing rehabilitation, it is time that the Minister of Education and the committee which oversee the institution look again at the word 'national' in National Library. If they decide that with the current constraints it is not possible for the library to function as a custodian of the nation's literary heritage, then they must come up with an alternative solution, and return to the appellation 'Public Free Library.'

If the 'national library' is to continue to be welded to the 'lending library,' however, then it must be given adequate resources, proper accommodation and specialized staff to carry out its true functions. After all, the last thing the country needs is a pretence National Library.