When public libraries are being shut down, when cultural research centres and museums go up in flames, when national archives are ignored or relegated to musty vaults, when successive governments repeatedly promise to build and upgrade our cultural and intellectual institutions and keep failing to deliver, cultural workers have a critical responsibility to break silence and speak truth to power.

We must speak out collectively for transformation from culturally apathetic leadership to culturally immersed stewardship sustained by a clear and complete understanding of what culture does for a nation when its stewards possess a sharp vision and serious commitment to secure the people’s heritage and the nation’s memory.

We must speak up louder against those development proponents of economic constraints who do not view cultural institutions like our libraries and archives as immediate priorities in the post-Hurricane Irma recovery and development plan. How dare they misinform and misguide our people about the outdatedness of building libraries and archives in this digital age? Of course, we know that libraries are changing. We also know that these same experts would never sacrifice the national, metropolitan and university libraries that supported their own success.

Yet a crippling absence of vision worsened by indifference to the advice of our cultural practitioners would have it appear through silence, neglect or innuendo that libraries are obsolete.


Speaking out

We must speak out boldly on behalf of our children, students, scholars, educators, researchers, librarians, documentarians, creatives, cultural workers and other citizens who are being woefully cheated of our patrimony and the promise of that smarter, better future we have been encouraged to create. To be smarter and better is to expect the same today for our nation and our coming generation.

This is why I want to join my voice to that of the esteemed writer, librarian and archivist Verna Penn Moll, and stand in solidarity with cultural champions, beleaguered workers, and patrons and friends of public library services here in the Virgin Islands and everywhere, who are fighting for the building and restoration of our libraries, especially in the wake of natural and manmade hazards.


‘State of emergency’

I submit without exaggeration that a nation or territory without the services of a public library is a disaster in itself, and hereby make a desperate appeal to our government and private sector leaders and all who truly love the beautiful VI and its people, inclusive of their minds and their spirit, to treat this as a state of emergency.

The main library branch in Road Town was closed long before hurricanes Irma and Maria. Except for one or two community libraries and the library at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, both of which have limited offerings since the 2017 hurricane, our library service is homeless and our territory is virtually “libraryless” to use a term coined by friends in St. Martin fighting the same struggle.


Temporary high school

The location previously earmarked for a new library — a vacated hardware store and warehouse — now houses the largest high school. Our librarians have been demoralised and deprofessionalised, some huddling in cramped quarters upstairs a small, closed store in East End, and several others deployed to other government departments. Meanwhile, volumes of rare books, documents and records (or what’s left of them) are boxed in moulding storage, possibly in a room among the ruins of a hurricane-damaged school.

Our libraries and archives are sacrosanct cultural spaces housing our memory, our spirit, our dreams, our struggle, our sacrifice, our resistance, our victory, our resilience, our liberation, our humanity, our heritage, and our creative and intellectual energy.

We are reminded by a Caribbean high priest of poetry and history, Kamau Brathwaite, that the plantations did not allow or encourage libraries and archives. Heaven forbid we ever forget why. Save our public library. Let us give our public library a good home.