By Fabian A. Badejo.
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten – Books, books and more books! That's what libraries are made of. The Philipsburg Jubilee Library (PJL) housed over 60,000 volumes before Irma. Books in English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento. Books for preschoolers to research fellows. The bookshelves are mostly empty now, with the vast majority of the publications sealed off in cartons where they obviously don’t belong. The cartons also contain a sizeable collection of DVDs (feature films for all ages, documentaries, etc.)
One of the most valuable collections in the library are newspapers that go back to the 1970s, in order words, to the beginning of modern print media on the island. Thank God the collection is, at least, partly digitized.
The Windward Islands Opinion of pioneer Jose Lake Sr., the Newsday of his son, Junior, the New Age of Mervin Scot, the Chronicle, The Guardian, The Caribbean Herald, and Today that became a casualty of Irma, are among the newspapers that have ceased to exist but whose pages contain invaluable information about the St. Martin they were writing about.
Can we afford to lose this treasure trove of historical information? I think not. How then do we ensure the continued existence of the Philipsburg Jubilee Library in a sustainable, structural and efficient manner?
Let me state that in my humble view, the present misfortune of the library offers a golden opportunity to address the foregoing question boldly, creatively and with a clear vision. What do we want the library to be, especially in this age of internet and Google? The answer to this question should lead us to consider whether the Philipsburg Jubilee Library should be turned into a real “public library” or even a “national” library. What is the difference, you ask?
Well, in its current form, PJL is a private library, in the sense that it is “owned” and run by a private foundation even if it is subsidized by government. As a public library, government would have to fund it while the librarians and other staff would become civil servants. As a “national library” it would have to be the principal repository of information about St. Martin, including acting as an archive for rare, valuable and important manuscripts, and establishing a national bibliographic record.
I recall that former Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports, Dr. Rhoda Arrindell had begun discussions in this direction when she was in office, however, there is no evidence that this continued after she left.
“Libraries are everyman’s free university,” stated American writer, John Jakes. If that is true, then, like free universities, libraries should be funded by the taxpayer. And if we see the library, as novelist Doris Lessing does, as “the most democratic thing in the world (because) what can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants,” then we can no longer continue to ignore the dismal state in which the Philipsburg Jubilee Library finds itself.
Action is needed, not tomorrow, but right now, because as best-selling author, Sidney Sheldon said, “libraries… open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.”