Mon | Oct 15, 2018

RJRGLEANER Honour Awards | For Art and Culture: National Library of Jamaica - Storehouse of the nation's treasures

Published:Saturday | January 27, 2018 | 12:00 AM
National Librarian Beverley Lashley
National Librarian Beverley Lashley

National Librarian and Chief Executive Officer of the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ) Beverley Lashley has described the institution as the "storehouse of the nation's treasures".

"We are really the storehouse, the memory of the nation," she emphasised during an interview after being told that the NLJ was selected as the 2017 Gleaner Honour Awardee in the Arts and Culture category.

Lashley is excited about the likelihood that the award will help to raise the profile of the institution, which has been educating generations of Jamaicans for more than a century but which has, seemingly, gone off the boil in recent years in terms of its prestige.

Its current location at 12 East Street in downtown Kingston, which it has long outgrown, may be a factor.

Lashley, on the job for just six months, plans to do something about it. The career librarian has her sights firmly set on a new purpose-built building fit for a national library and the priceless treasures that it contains.

"The biggest challenge we have is a lack of space," Lashley told The Gleaner, noting that the library's history goes all the way back to 1879 when it was a public library as part of the Institute of Jamaica, with which it still shares a building today. She said when the Legal Deposit Act was passed in 2002, it mandated all Jamaicans who publish any literary work, to include books and films, to deposit two copies of said work at the NLJ, which operates in a cramped space of roughly 13,500 square feet on several floors.

A brief tour of the facility by the Gleaner team revealed shelves which are spilling their contents, packed from floor to ceiling and drawers, which cannot be closed, stuffed with maps, manuscripts, and other historical documents.

"We are almost totally out of space," Lashley lamented. The chief librarian said that based on projection, over 400,000 square feet of space is needed. "So we really need a new national library because this library was actually the house of Mary Seacole (famed Jamaican nurse), so can you imagine this was a house and we now we have a national library here? We need a new purpose-built library with the proper facilities, in which Jamaicans can really showcase their creative works," stressed Lashley.


Documents being damaged by air


With regards to the new building, Lashley said that she was in the process of preparing a brief to take to Cabinet. And that can't be too soon as the proximity of the library to the sea is presenting other challenges. Exposure to the air is damaging some of the very sensitive documents that are stored in the building, and water gets into the basement whenever it rains.

"It (the award) gives us the opportunity to showcase what we have here. Persons will now really know what is happening at the national library," Lashley said. She added: "Our treasures here are nowhere else in the world. Jamaica and the wider public need to know this."

With the recognition, the NLJ now joins a prestigious group of individuals and organisations that have received The Gleaner Honour Award in the Arts and Culture category. They include legendary musician and actor Jimmy Cliff; author Marlon James; and the Calabash International Literary Festival, the 2016 winner.

"So this award is actually now repositioning the national library and giving us such great visibility. It will serve to let Jamaicans better understand the difference between the national library and the Jamaica Library Service (JLS)," noted Lashley.

She explained that the NLJ was a reference library, meaning that its contents can only be used for research inside the building and online. On the other hand, persons can borrow materials from any of the various libraries that are part of the JLS.

Just what treasures are contained inside the NLJ? Among the priceless gems are the letter written by National Hero George William Gordon to his wife, Lucy, just about an hour before he was hanged in October, 1865, for his alleged role in plotting the Morant Bay Rebellion.

There is a copy of one of the country's first newspapers, the Jamaica Courant, which was first published 300 years ago this year, in 1718. There is also a crumbling copy of the Jamaica Watchman from 1831, a publication that preceded The Gleaner by three years. It must be handled by persons wearing gloves.

The NLJ also contains the so-called 'shark papers', which were reportedly recovered over 200 years ago from a "shark's maw". The papers were instrumental in the 1799 conviction of the captain and crew of the brig Nancy in the old courthouse at the corner of Harbour and Hanover streets in Kingston. Housed in a document box, the collection includes letters, legal cases, receipts, bills, and other correspondence.