Preserving the book heritage

Stabroek News
August 24, 2001

The great library collections of the world have become great simply because their custodians have adopted the position that no printed material, however seemingly trivial, was not worthy of their efforts at conservation. If the British Library, for example, had been more cavalier about preserving the books, pamphlets and manuscripts entrusted to its charge, not only would the printed heritage of the world as a whole have been a great deal poorer, but Guyana itself would have suffered an irreparable loss. In this great reference library reside antiquarian works on this country which are simply not duplicated anywhere else on the planet.

In fact, much of the totality of Guyana's book heritage can be found deposited in various institutions abroad, one of the more interesting being the Schomburg Center, a closed collection within the New York Public Library. The collection, which specializes in the history and culture of Africans in the Americas, has its origins in the efforts of a Puerto Rican named Arturo Schomburg. According to tradition, he

was motivated into embarking on his life-long work by an off-hand and ill-informed remark from a school teacher that "Negro history [does] not exist."

Now the Center which bears his name boasts such rarities as manuscripts relating to the revolutionary period in Haiti, the records of the central and New York divisions of the Marcus Garvey movement, the papers of Claude McKay, and some of the correspondence of Nicolas Guillen. Some years ago there were estimated to be around 87,000 printed works in the Center, in addition to photographs, posters and sound recordings.

Schomburg died many decades ago, but the New York Public Library built on his core collection

by pursuing an aggressive acquisitions policy. The institution, like the British Library, has also over the years invested in the conservation of the works acquired.

And what about Guyana? Shouldn't we have our own equivalent of the British Library or the Schomburg Center holding as complete as possible a collection of works pertaining to this country? In theory we have. It is the National Library, which is saddled with two quite different functions - that of a public borrowing institution, as well as that of a national repository for the nation's book heritage.

In addition, there is the Caribbean Research Library (CRL) of the University of Guyana Library, which is also committed to acquiring printed and other materials on Guyana.

During the 1970s, in particular, there was a national policy in place to build up public collections of printed, manuscript, map and visual materials in the two institutions mentioned above. The National Library, of course, is the legal deposit institution for all current works produced, but in 1975, the Cabinet granted money for the purchase of antiquarian materials on Guyana from abroad. The most valuable printed materials from this exercise went into the National Library, while the maps bought at the time went to the University of Guyana.

The problem was, of course, that the National Library had no special area designated for preserving this material, and it went into locked cases in the general reference collection, where presumably it still is.

The CRL was a bit more fortunate, since it was air-conditioned, and after the building of a new library wing, was given part of the top floor of that wing with a Rare Book Room for antiquarian materials. Even during the difficult years which followed, the University of Guyana Library for a time found various means of augmenting its collection.

Both the National Library and the University of Guyana Library have since fallen on hard times where their special collections are concerned. Despite a wonderful new wing for the National Library opened earlier this year by the Government, nothing has been done for the Guyana materials, which continue to languish in an all too humid climate. As for the CRL's Rare Book Room, its air-conditioning broke down years ago, and has not been replaced. Its unique materials, therefore, cloistered in a closed environment, may conceivably be even worse off than those in the National Library which at least have some exposure to the air.

It is time, surely, that the Ministry of Education which has responsibility for the National Library and the University of Guyana too, look to reviving a policy for building and preserving the printed and visual heritage of this country. In the immediate term, could it not investigate in conjunction with the librarian and the library committee the possibilities of air-conditioning some corner of the National Library to house the Guyana works - particularly the antiquarian ones? And why can't the Government give the University of Guyana enough funds specifically tagged for the repair or replacement of the air?conditioning in the Rare Book Room of the CRL? That is not a huge expense.

Why is it, that thirty-five years after Independence we are still more reckless about our own heritage than are institutions like the British Library or the Schomburg Center?