June 27, 2011

My Love Affair With Libraries

During the launch of Marcus and the Amazons at the Anancy Festival, which was simulcast between the South Regional-Broward College Library in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the Tom Redcam Library in Kingston, Jamaica, I couldn't help but feel a nagging sense of betrayal. The festival, now in its third year, brought together two places that are very dear to me. 

The first, the South Regional-Broward College Library, has hosted several readings by Caribbean writers and has become a second home for many of us. The Tom Redcam Library, one of the first libraries I visited when I lived in Jamaica, was one of my favorite haunts during my adolescence. My mother would leave me on the steps of the library ostensibly to read and borrow books. But when I began attending high school at Jamaica College, Tom Redcam was the place where I would try and meet girls. Interesting girls. At that age, I didn't know what I was going to do after I met them; I only knew that I wanted to meet them. So the library became not only a place to hone my intellectual skills, but also my social skills, and this has served me well in my growth as a student and writer.
I practically lived in the library during my first five years at Jamaica College. And during my last year at Jamaica College, I thought I was in heaven. After a series of complications in the life of our librarian, Mrs. Valentine (I swear I'm not making up her name), I became the de facto librarian of Jamaica College. It was a position of trust, which I will now admit that I abused.
I gave myself the privilege of increasing the amount of books I could borrow at one time. Instead of the customary three, I gave myself the permission to borrow five at a time. Oh, the guilt wracked nights! I also had access to the books that had not yet been catalogued. I still remember the new book smell when I opened one of the boxes, and sitting on top of the pile was Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. Ah, the thrill! I lived between 813-820 Dewey Decimal and every evening would emerge from those dusty corridors, my mind swirling with ideas in my attempt to read every book in that section of our small library. This experience became the foundation for my readings in Caribbean literature and the basis for my work as a writer. This, I thought, was going to prepare me for the vocation I would enjoy in Jamaica for the rest of my life.
Boy, was I wrong.
Everything changed after I left Jamaica College. My family and I were swept up in what is now called the Jamaican Diaspora. After I came to South Florida, I enrolled at Miami Dade Community College and spent most of my time in the library's media collection catching up on episodes of Roots that I hadn't seen in Jamaica and, of course, meeting girls. But now I knew what to do.
I spent days, weeks, and months in the libraries of Miami Dade Community College, and when I graduated, what seemed like years in the stacks of the Otto G. Richter Library of the University of Miami. I re-read In the Castle of my Skin, which helped me to understand the direction of my first novel, Benjamin, my son, a coming of age novel that takes place during the time of Jamaica's undeclared civil war, and Florida Bound, one of the first collection of poems to explore the Jamaican Diaspora in a South Florida setting. But I couldn't have done it without the help of those librarians.
I owe a great deal to librarians. During my undergraduate days, I met librarians who assisted me with finding books by a then obscure Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott. But librarians are like that. Wherever I've travelled, I've always found them to be kind, courteous professionals who are always willing to help anyone who shows a little initiative. And, perhaps, I've been a little naïve. For whenever I've given readings in the South, I've always stayed in the library rather than my hotel room until it was time to leave. It just felt safer.
So, during the reading of Marcus and the Amazon when I looked at the faces of librarians such as Nancy Ansley and Valrie Simpson, I felt I was betraying them: I had published my work in a format that some have said undermines the necessity of libraries and librarians. In these hard times, I felt as if I was trying to put these two wonderful women out of work. But then, I had to ask myself it is that dire? A few days ago while doing some research, I took comfort in a post, by Seth Godin, The Future of the Library
The next library is filled with so many web terminals there's always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don't view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight--it's the entire point.
Wouldn't you want to live and work and pay taxes in a town that had a library like that? The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information? There are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.
We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don't need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.
For the sake of my friends, I hope you're right, Seth. I hope you're right.

No comments: