21 May, 2004
Library conditions and solutions
The clever and thought provoking letter by Benton Henry published recently in the Chronicle (7th May) on the state of the Public Library raises a number of serious points about the conditions under which both the staff and the clientele of the library operate.
Next year, that same building into which the computer literate Dominican students of the 21st century now cram themselves, will be one hundred years old. Except for the addition of a storage basement some years ago that building which was opened in 1905 has not increased in size for the whole of the century. The available floor space is the same as it was at the time of its opening when there were only two small high schools on the entire island. The reading public was also limited and there was nothing like the mass demand for information that there is now. The same building from the horse and carriage age is trying to deal with the computer age. It is quite a remarkable state of affairs.
As someone who is constantly being called upon to provide instant information for students and parents from all over Dominica, I am most concerned. The library at the State College is still inadequate to serve the needs of its students. Therefore State College students depend heavily on the Public Library. The building across the grounds is library property and it could have housed the childrens library but was taken over by DBS as their sales office. This has further constricted space.
My sympathies lie both with the desperate students at all educational levels who are often at a loss to complete the increasingly complex assignments set for them, and with the library staff, who have to face the onslaught under outdated conditions. Go to the Public Library between two and five oclock on a weekday afternoon and see the chaos for yourselves. Maybe the electric generators of the neighbouring hotel, placed close by the library windows, will be on full blast as well so you can get just the right atmosphere for study.
This is not a condition that emerged yesterday. Back in 1998 I was asked to give the feature address at the SMA graduation. Instead of dwelling on the usual platitudes of the youth of today are the citizens of tomorrow, I chose to focus on the conditions of the Library, suggesting, somewhat tongue in cheek, that we take over State House for the Public Library. It shocked no one into action and apparently fell on deaf ears. Sa pou fè? I suppose can be our alternative national motto.
But there is a solution to the cry of where do we put it. If we cannot afford a completely new library we could simply go up one floor. A one hundred year old sketch plan for such a building exists and a copy of it is attached. The original was sketched out by the Administrator of the day, Henry Hesketh Bell, when he was seeking funds to build the original library. He designed the present library himself in 1903. He had hoped to produce a two-story building and although he was successful in his appeal to the Scottish - American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the grant of £1,500 that he obtained was only enough for one story. The heavy-duty walls of solid cast concrete were however designed to support another floor. A group of us have had a site meeting with personnel of the Ministry of Communications and Works about this matter. By doubling the size of the building, conditions at the library could be greatly improved. Perhaps the Chinese, who in 800AD produced the first printed books in the world, could spare a million or two for this enterprise of national importance.
And while I am at it, who was the crazy engineer who designed a sea defence wall for the library grounds that has no barrier for a drop of almost two hundred feet? There was one once, a solid concrete wall some three feet high. Should we not replace it before some child breaks their neck falling onto the beach below? But then forward planning has never been one of our strong points. In spite of this let us not wait another one hundred years before doing something about conditions at the Public Library.
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