The National Library

Stabroek News
January 26, 2001

Last week the National Library opened its long-awaited new wing. It is an impressive structure, not incongruous, architecturally speaking, with the original building, and including features like a conference centre, which hopefully will earn some much needed income for the institution. Aside from its special steel frame, an important component which was donated by the United Kingdom as long ago as 1973, the remainder of the building was made possible not through aid, but as a consequence of a $56M subvention from the Government of Guyana in 1997. It is a positive sign that finally, a government of this country has recognized the importance of a National Library to the life of a nation.

The National Library of Guyana has always had a difficult task, because it has been called upon to fulfil two quite disparate roles, which in other countries are separate. The first is that of a Public Library, which goes back to its original mandate in 1909, when it lent out books free of cost to the general public. Over the course of nearly a century, it has done a remarkable job in making available reading matter to Guyanese - and not just in Georgetown - and in encouraging the reading habit. As an extension of that, it also provided a reference service for all age groups, from primary school children on the one hand, to tertiary level students on the other. If it has been constrained at various points in the past in terms of the variety of books it could offer for loan and reference, that has always been a consequence of a dearth of funding.

Its other function is quite distinct. A national library is not a lending library; it is a deposit library. It systematically collects and preserves the printed heritage of a nation. Perhaps the two best-known national libraries in the world are the British Library and the Library of Congress. Up until recently, both of them attempted to collect all printed works, whatever their place of publication. As a consequence, if one were seeking a particular eighteenth-century book on Guyana, for example, one would first turn to these two institutions. (As a point of interest in passing, it might be noted that while both these libraries have excellent antiquarian collections relating to Guyana, they do not duplicate each other.) In the early 1970s it was finally recognized that any self-respecting nation had to have its own deposit collection of printed and manuscript materials relating to its jurisdiction, which would be augmented over time, and preserved for posterity. And so the National Library was born, grafted on to the existing Public Free Library. Among other things, it was made the official legal depository for all works printed in Guyana, and was charged with producing a national bibliography and with acquiring works on this country, wherever published.

As an extension to the last part of this mandate, it was decided in 1975 to repatriate some antiquarian works on Guyana, for which money was voted by Cabinet. Purchases were made in London and Amsterdam, the most important and valuable of which went to the National Library, and the remainder to the Caribbean Research Library of the University of Guyana. The library also benefited from the addition of Guyana works - some of which were early imprints - from the remarkable Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society library after it was closed down. In addition to books both antiquarian and modern, the national collection (or closed collection, as it is called) was enhanced by the papers of A.J. Seymour and Ian McDonald.

By the 1980s, the National Library like other institutions in this land, had fallen on hard times, the closed collection suffering as much as the public lending section from the paucity of funds. At the opening of the new wing of the National Library last Friday, President Jagdeo promised money for the acquisition programme of the national collection. That is a move which can only be commended. However, as matters stand, the closed collection is not to find a home in the air-conditioned new wing, although no doubt more space will be accorded it in the original building. Whatever arrangements are finally settled upon, one hopes that the nation's printed heritage will be accommodated in a temperature-controlled environment, conducive to its preservation. There is no point in the President making resources available for the building of the collection, if it is not housed in optimum conditions. The older works, including some very valuable ones, have already suffered deterioration owing to the local climatic conditions, and one hopes that from here on matters of conservation will be given some attention. After all, a national library is part of the definition of nationhood, and should never be neglected.

And finally, perhaps the Government could also be induced to review the salaries paid to the staff, so the institution could attract and retain trained personnel.

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