January 30, 2004
Amid all the rancour and tension in Georgetown, there are little nuggets of good news to be had, although these hardly receive the kind of attention they deserve. One of the nuggets comes from the Mayor and City Council (M&CC) of all places, that bastion of local government which is under constant siege by citizens complaining about poor drainage, inadequate garbage disposal and improper road maintenance, among other things. But this time, the council has got something right.
In today's edition of Stabroek News there is a report on the rehabilitation of the municipal archives. Few residents of Georgetown perhaps realize that the city authorities are the custodians of records relating to the municipality which go back well into the nineteeth century. As in the case of the National Archives, the story of the municipal archives is an unfortunate one. The only difference, perhaps, is that the city records, while victims of neglect, were less the targets of deliberate destruction than were their governmental counterparts.
They were originally kept in city hall itself, although conservation was hardly a concept in the forefront of the minds of the municipal powers-that-be of the time. All that can be said about the area where they were stored is that at least there was some circulation of air - which is important where there is no form of artificial dehumidification - and they were not exposed to too much direct sunlight, which has a deleterious effect on paper. Having said that, however, they were subject to the visitations of the normal tropical pests, and as said above, there was no active attempt at their preservation. As such, therefore, they deteriorated undisturbed.
A more sudden catastrophe came some years ago, however, when the M&CC of the time (not the current administration) decided it needed the space where the archives were housed and unceremoniously shunted the collection off to the cleansing department in Water street. Conditions here could not have been worse for the storage of documents; while there was certainly no direct sunlight to do damage, there was no circulation of air either. They were dumped higgeldy-piggeldy on a windowless mezzanine floor of the building, to which the hot air rose, and where the humidity levels were inimical to the preservation of paper. It is these records primarily which the M&CC has transferred to a special area in the training complex, although this newspaper was told that papers from various other departments will also join them.
Many of the historical records were in appalling condition, and would require the ministrations of a professional conservationist to restore. Whether any of them are beyond rescue, we were unable to discover. However, the important thing is that the first essential step has been taken by the M&CC, and documents pertaining to the past of Guyana's capital have been transferred to a more acceptable setting; are in the process of being sorted and organized; and are receiving the kind of basic attention which they have not had for decades. Stabroek News was assured too that twenty-four hour air-conditioning is also envisaged, an absolute pre-requisite for maintaining documents in this climate.
Perhaps too the city council might consider casting around to see if any of the overseas agencies would be prepared to fund an official to go on an archival training course, as well as bring down a conservationist on a short-term assignment to give advice on basic maintenance of records. A full conservation programme is not possible at this stage, because there is no conservation laboratory in this country, let alone the qualified technicians to staff it.
As will be seen from today's report, we were told that the plan is to open the archives to the public. Laudable though this aim is, the council has to be very careful in the case of fragile older records, which may simply fall apart if they are handled. Before the M&CC embarks on this step - at least in respect of those documents in poor condition - they should seek the advice of a professional conservationist.
Finally, let us give credit to all those who have played a part in rescuing the municipality's archives: Mr Royston King, with whom the idea originated; Ms Debra Lewis, who is in charge of the project; Town Clerk Beulah Williams, who took the idea on board; and lastly, the Mayor and City Councillors, who had the wisdom to vote in favour of the proposal, and who were prepared to have the cost met out of the municipal budget. Where this matter is concerned, it is appreciation and not flak which they should receive from citizens.