GUYANA: WHERE LIBRARIES ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES
By Rosa Jordan
Library Journal, April 15, 1990
If I walked into a coffee shop, threw $300 on the counter, and said, “Anybody who wants that can have it,” I would expect pandemonium. I certainly didn’t expect it when what I tossed on the counter of my hotel coffee shop in Guyana was a paperback novel. Only later did I learn that the local price for that book was $300. No wonder the novel brought the waitress, who earned $90 a week, and the busboy, who earned even less, so close to blows.
After learning of the scarcity of books in Guyana, I donated the rest of the paperbacks I had brought with me to Guyana’s National Library. I was told that before being put into circulation, they would be taken to the library’s bindery. There, in the absence of modern equipment, all paperbacks that the library receives are carefully hand-stitched to give them a longer life.
If the price of this cheap paperback is startling, try to imagine how alarming the cost of an average textbook. One priced at US$40 would cost $1200 in Guyana—more than the monthly salary of a librarian or a schoolteacher.
Guyana, South American’s only English-speaking nation, is a country with universal education and a very high literacy rate. Conveniently situated within the capital city’s main traffic circle, there is nothing about the National Library’s dignified Victorian architecture, magnificent rose garden, and exotic tropical blossoms that suggests a crisis. But as days pass, you notice that the big blue bookmobile parked in the driveway never moves. You ask why and learn that it has a flat tire that must be replaced. Tires, like books, are import items; foreign exchange is needed to buy them. Guyana has little, its libraries even less.
At the time of Independence (1966), Guyana operated a small publishing facility. But foreign exchange was required to purchase materials and spare parts for the equipment—foreign exchange that dried up when the price of bauxite fell, political tensions rose, the sugar quota was cut, and the United States consistently vetoed International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to the new nation. Internal publishing became a luxury, and finally, impossible.
“Guyana hasn’t enough foreign exchange to buy what it nees of the most basic import goods,” explains Anne Persaud, acting chief of Guyana’s National Library. “Books are recognized as basic in theory, but in practice, the government feels compelled to allot its limited foreign exchange to those operations that produce more foreign exchange. Libraries hardly fall into that category.”
For Guayanese librarians, the crux of their careers is coping with the shortages. At times it must seem hopeless. In Bartica, a remote town on the Essquibo River, Olive Defreitas presides over a small branch library with broken windows that has not seen new books in over a year.
“What do you need most?” I askd Defreitas.
She replies, without hesitation, “Something for the children.”
The reason for her response is obvious. The one-room library is closed for lunch but despite its pathetic selection of books, at least a dozen children are hanging around outside, waiting for it to reopen.
Maggie Harewood, a 30-year vetran of the National Library and director of its Adult Lending Section, says that donations from foreigners and from Guayanese living abroad have been critical to maintaining book lists. “Demand is rising but circulation keeps dropping,” says Harewood, who promptly donated the books I’d brought her to the library. “Unless we can get new titles, there’s no reason for people to come back. They’ve read everything we have.”
“One thing we have done,” says Chief Persaud, “is develop our own source of foreign exchange—small but at least it’s something—by doing genealogy searchers. They are popular among expatriate Guyanese, and we have a very good collection of primary source documents.”
“We have also had to learn what I believe you call grantsmanship,” says Yvonne Stephenson, director of the University of Guyana library, which circulates over 1000 titles daily.
In an attempt to obtain materials needed to support the university’s seven faculties, Stephenson has left no stone unturned. Most recently, she obtained an InterAmerican Development Bank grant to be used for updating materials, ordering journals, and filling the most glaring gaps in their collections.
“You can’t plan services around grants,” she admits, “but they help. I suppose you could say that through grants we’ve been able to meet our most basic needs, minimally.”
However, Stephenson is not the kind of person who is satisfied to run a “minimal” operation. As a result of her creative foresight, and years of determined effort, at least one section of the University library is a dramatic success.
“Twenty-three years ago I realized that because we were a new country, under-funded and just starting out in so many areas, it would be a long time before we could realistically aspire to the development of a first-rate library. The one unique thing we could do, I felt, was to develop a collection on Guyana that would be second to none.”
By concentrating on primary resource material, Stephenson and her group at the university were not so inhibited by the lack of foreign exchange. Soon the collection included not only books and manuscripts, but maps, pictures, and oral history tapes. In 1972, a grant from UNESCO allowed Stephenson’s team to begin a program of repatriation of documents, either in the original or on microfilm, from Guyana’s colonial mother countries: France, Holland, and Britain.
“Historians who previously had to go abroad to get access to collections from colonial offices in Europe now find what they need here,” says Stephenson. “Furthermore, our collection has become so extensive that we are now able to cross-reference sources and identify historical inaccuracies.”
The most valuable document in the Guyana collection, Stephenson believes, may be the 1763 diary of former Guyana Governor Van Hoogeighn, which gives a day-by-day account of Guyana’s most famous slave uprising.
“What began as a single file 23 years ago grew to fill a cabinet and now this room. The progress we’ve made, knowing that in this one area we have the best collection in the world, has helped us put up with so many frustrations.”
If anything has kept Guyana’s libraries going through more than two decades of economic hardship, it is this determination by its librarians to find ways to keep their services alive, and somehow, somehow, inch them forward.
Doolarie Hopkins, librarian at the National Agricultural Research Institute, thinks that in the case of her specialty facility, the key is to develop a computer link with the Center for Caribbean Agriculture in Trinidad, which in turn is tied into the international Agricultural Research Information System in Rome. With free software from UNESCO, and United Nations grants available for some equipment and training, it would seem that she is on the right track—one that will increase access to information while reducing dependency on the foreign exchange they still don’t have.
The “brain drain” remains one problem that no one wants to discuss, perhaps because, as long as wages remain low and the price of essential goods high, it seems insurmountable. In Guyana’s current economic situation, where a librarian’s entire weekly wage won’t buy a single book, it is impossible to stem the flow of trained personnel to more lucrative jobs abroad.
Tending and plugging the holes in their threadbare collections, dedicated librarians can only hope that the conditions that have created this crisis for Guyana’s libraries will not last forever—and that while it does, there will be enough outside support and local creativity to ensure that books continue to be available to a people who, for the most part, do not yet have access to television and for whom reading is still the most popular pastime.