Sat | May 25, 2019

Joyce Robinson: institution builder

Published:Thursday | May 23, 2013 | 12:00 AM
LIBRARIANS CONFERENCE: Joyce Robinson, the first Jamaican director of the Jamaica Library Service, addressing the inaugural meeting of the International Association of School Librarianship in the New Arts Lecture Theatre, University of the West Indies (UWI), in 1971. The association, which is under the aegis of the World Confederation of Organisations of the Teaching Profession, met at the UWI.

Louis Marriott, Contributor

The late Honourable Joyce Lilieth Robinson (nee Lawson), who died on Sunday, May 12, aged 87, was essentially two persons - the dedicated public servant who stamped her brand on empowerment through education, and the devoted family member and friend for whom no favour was too difficult or inconvenient to grant.

She was born in St James on July 2, 1925, and moved to St Elizabeth at an early age. Migrating to Kingston in 1938, she unknowingly joined the pantheon of outstanding graduates - including Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, Archbishop Samuel Carter, cultural icon Louise Bennett-Coverley and Bank of Jamaica Governor G. Arthur Brown - of the remarkable private secondary school named St Simon's College, by its Guyanese founder and principal, 'Prof' E.B. Hazlewood.

Teacher and librarian

Immediately following her studentship at St Simon's, Lawson taught at her alma mater and then at Black River High School from 1944 to 1949, and also served as a volunteer librarian at the St Elizabeth Public Library in Black River from 1946 to 1950.

The quality of her voluntary librarianship was obviously impressive. In 1950, she returned to the Corporate Area to take up a job offer as library assistant at the nascent Jamaica Library Service (JLS). Awarded a British Council scholarship, she pursued a two-year course (1954-56) at North Western Polytechnic in London, earning the Associateship of the Library Association of Great Britain. She was appointed deputy director of the JLS in 1955.

On January 15, 1957, she married Leslie Robinson, whom she had met on a banana boat. He was a Jamaica scholar and renowned mathematics professor, who became principal of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI). They would become the first married couple awarded separate Orders of Jamaica. The marriage yielded a son, Leslie Anthony Robinson, and a daughter, Dr Lilieth Ann Robinson Bridgewater. With their respective spouses, over time, Anthony and Ann gifted Joyce and Leslie Robinson with six grandchildren. Professor Robinson died on April 4, 2007.


Mrs Robinson was promoted to the post of director of the JLS in 1957, at a time when it was reckoned that there was a glass ceiling retarding women in organisations from rising to the top. Robinson was a trailblazer in the cause of upward mobility for women. She returned to North Western Polytechnic in 1958 and in 1959, was awarded the Fellowship of the Library Association of Great Britain.

On her return to Jamaica, she immediately set about establishing the JLS as an exemplary public agency. She encouraged bright young women to enter the librarianship profession and was, herself, the mentor of several young librarians. One of the ways in which she built the JLS into a strong institution was by developing a winning team - comprising herself, Leila Thomas, Dr Hazel Bennett, Sybil Iton and Gloria Salmon - to drive the institution.

Administrator and strategist

Robinson was the quintessential administrator. She always insisted on proper and adequate documentation, especially relating to matters of discipline. She made herself thoroughly conversant with government-service regulations and procedures so that negative senior officers could not hoodwink her into accepting inaction because of some restrictive rule where a more positive option could be legitimately applied.

She was not only very knowledgeable of the rules, but also a smart strategist. While no one knew better that the most important resources in a library were books, she would sometimes order shelving units ahead of books for two reasons: (1) when the books arrived, there was no problem storing them, and (2) powerful guests could be invited on visits and lured into the space with empty bookshelves that spoke eloquently of the need for books.

JLS growth

In the 16 years that elapsed between Robinson's appointment as director of the JLS and Prime Minister Michael Manley's call on her to proceed post-haste to the National Literacy Programme, the JLS had grown from 60 libraries to 442 libraries and service points. She had initiated the rural bookmobile programme, which was serving 242 areas. The Schools Library Service had expanded from 333 to 853 libraries in primary and junior secondary schools. The professional staff training programme had accelerated to achieve an increase from one qualified librarian in 1955 to 37 in 1973.

In 1973, Robinson was seconded for two years from her substantive post of JLS director to restore the National Literacy Programme from ruin caused largely by machismo-induced rivalry among severely disunited senior managers, who were consequently discarded. She adopted a no-nonsense approach to her administration, sometimes ruffling feathers but leaving no doubt regarding the programme's locus of authority.

Under the chairmanship of R. Danny Williams and her directorship, the programme was transformed and rebranded as the Jamaican Movement for Adult Literacy (JAMAL). She was formally appointed executive director in 1976 and held the post until 1981, when she became general manager of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC). In that role, she administered the transition from black and white to colour television and sought to give a better deal to rural listeners in the orientation of JBC Radio.

HEART Programme

Prime Minister Edward Seaga called on Joyce Robinson to direct the establishment and development of his 1980s Human Employment and Resource Training (HEART) programme, which included eight specialised academies, private-sector on-the-job training, and the micro-business self-employment programme dubbed 'Solidarity'.

After her retirement from the public service in 1991, she provided consultancy services in adult education and library planning and development through Joyce Robinson Associates Limited (1992-1996). She was subsequently training coordinator (1996-99) of the Government of Jamaica/United States Agency for International Development Uplifting Adolescent Programme.

Organisational connections

Throughout her busy career, Robinson was active in a large number of voluntary service-related organisations. She was a member and for several years chairman of the National Council on Libraries, Archives and Documentation Services; president in 1964 and 1973 and executive member for several terms of the Jamaica Library Association; executive member of the Jamaica National Commission for UNESCO; council member of the Institute of Jamaica; member of the board of governors of the Excelsior Education Centre, St Hugh's High School, Girls' Town of Jamaica and other educational institutions; vice-chairman of the Foundation for International Self-Help; president of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) of Jamaica and chairman of the Kingston YWCA; president of the Soroptomist Club of Jamaica; chairman and board member of the National Library of Jamaica, the establishment of which she had strongly advocated; vice-president for several years of the International Council for Adult Education; executive member of the Jamaica Council for Adult Education; executive member of the National Book Development Council; Fellow of the Jamaican Institute of Management; and member of the Extra-Mural Advisory Council of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and of the University Women's Club.

Special assignments

An expert in time management, Robinson had a full slate of important special assignments over the years, starting in 1962 with a USAID-sponsored Foreign Leaders Programme, comprising tours of 16 cities over 60 days. She was deeply involved in events relating to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Year of Human Rights. She participated at various levels in a dozen international events that took her to the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Israel, India and other countries.

She wrote numerous published papers and received many Jamaican and international honours and awards, including honorary doctorates from Dalhousie University and the UWI, and the Order of Jamaica for outstanding public service.