School libraries
Stabroek News
November 2, 2001

One of the body blows to literacy in this country came when in the 1970s the Burnham regime nationalized the importation of books. It was done for the most misplaced of reasons: the Government wanted to control the mark-up on textbooks. All it achieved was the destruction of a flourishing private book trade, and the consequent disappearance of a wide variety of reading matter. Within a very short period of time, a highly literate populace which had been accustomed to read as a pastime, found itself starved of literature of all kinds.

Mr Burnham was also responsible for another related catastrophe - the decision to provide free text books in the schools. There would have been nothing wrong with this had it not been for the fact that the Ministry of Education lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure to implement the scheme efficiently, and most important, the country lacked the economic resources to sustain it. Inevitably, therefore, parents eventually came to be asked to buy at least some textbooks for their children.

Nowadays, of course, no one pretends any longer; parents with children in the public school system are as likely to be required to buy textbooks as those with children in the private education sector.

By the time the Government abandoned its monopoly on book importation, the damage to our traditions of literacy had already been done. Something else had happened too; in the interim the cost of books had risen quite substantially, while the value of the local dollar had declined quite substantially. The result was that even although one or two privately owned bookstores made a come-back, a generation of semi-literates had grown up in the meantime which was uninterested in books, and those people who were interested often lacked the means to buy them.

In the past it was the public library system which made volumes available to those - both adults and children - who could not afford to buy books; however, the attempt at a free textbook programme was such a drain on the budget for the time it was in operation, that the National Library, among other institutions, was starved of funds, and found itself offering an ever declining range of titles.

The National Library was not the only one to suffer. The school libraries in institutions like Queen's College were also left to languish. Free textbooks effectively meant no other reading matter was now provided for pupils, and even when textbooks ceased to be free, many parents thought that these were all that was required if a child was to succeed. The literature to which the majority of children became exposed in consequence became narrower and narrower, and educational standards in turn dropped lower and lower.

Those in the education business have always known that exposure to a wide variety of books is the foundation of a sound education. The best way for students to access these is through libraries - if not public libraries, then school libraries. The $2.5M library project by the Guyana Education Access Project and the Canadian International Development Agency for a school library at Tagore Memorial Secondary School is therefore an especially welcome development. One can only hope that following this the Ministry of Education is going to come up with plans for the resuscitation of school libraries throughout the education system. A reliance on textbooks alone will not revive our educational standards.