Caribbean Libraries in the 21st Century: Changes, Challenges and Choices

Alison Harling (Calderdale College, Halifax, UK)

Program: electronic library and information systems

ISSN: 0033-0337

Article publication date: 25 April 2008




Harling, A. (2008), "Caribbean Libraries in the 21st Century: Changes, Challenges and Choices", Program: electronic library and information systems, Vol. 42 No. 2, pp. 206-208.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Anyone interested in “how the other half lives” in the world of libraries and librarians should take a look at this book. Even from an aesthetic point of view the book cover is cleverly designed – with reds, yellows and sea greens. These reflect not only some traditional colours of “the Caribbean”, but also the contents, which, in turn, reflect the colourful and diverse mix of contributions from the authors. They are academic librarians, information managers and others practising in the field who, when faced with challenging environments, limited budgets and a technological world to compete with, still manage to remain optimistic, forward looking and proud of their achievements. The “developed world” for all its technological advancements may be surprised to find in the struggles faced and dealt with by those in the “developing world” a real sense of “alive and kicking” professionalism, which makes for a refreshing and uplifting, as well as informative read.

The personnel responsible for assembling this work (some 40 in all) make for an impressive biographical list – helpfully positioned at the end of the book. Their credentials leave the reader in no doubt as to their authenticity and academic research capabilities in the field, many of them being contributors or writers of scholarly works already in their own specialised areas. Bringing this selection together, however, makes for a significant achievement in publishing. As stated by the editors in the Preface – not since 1981 when Daphne Douglas wrote British Caribbean has there been anything of a “similar” nature produced. This book is therefore long overdue.

Critics might remark that the title is all too encompassing and not strictly accurate. In fact its coverage is limited mainly to the English‐speaking Caribbean region (with the exception of Suriname and the Dutch Antilles). No mention is made of libraries on other islands of the Caribbean such as Cuba, Haiti, Puerto, the Dominican Republic to name but a few. The editors say in their introduction to the work, that the definition thought appropriate is that used by Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL) in its guidelines for membership – i.e.:

Any library, archive, organization or individual in any country that borders the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea is eligible for full membership of ACURIL. Institutions or individuals in other countries are eligible for associate membership (ACURIL, 2008).

A quick search on the ACURIL website did not reveal a comprehensive list of current members, so suffice it to say that the final decision on fulfilment of criteria for the purposes of this work rests with the editors.

Within each chapter throughout the book, consistency of style, spelling (British or American) and referencing is maintained, whilst a handy list of acronyms at the end of the book assists the reader. Indeed there is such a liberal sprinkling of acronyms that such a list is indispensable! There is definitely a Caribbean “lilt” to the narratives within the chapters, some of which display terminology strange to our Western European eyes (e.g. those who use a library are described as “patrons”), and a distinct lack of prepositions or definite articles within some sentence structures is apparent, but again, the editors make no apology for this, stating in their preface their wish to “maintain the influence of the Caribbean”. Having said that, the excellent content soon overrides any transient irritations of style, and a well‐constructed index provides the reader with an easy system of cross‐referencing.

The 25 papers finally selected by the Editors (out of a possible 36) are collections of research covering a fairly wide range of topics pertaining to this multicultural, multi‐ethnic and multilingual region, ranging from the historical perspective starting in the 1940s to the technologically driven issues of today. Human interest is provided with some delightful glimpses into the past (e.g. the account of rural libraries in Trinidad and Tobago), challenges of solo librarians operating in under‐funded branch libraries in Jamaica, the realities of delivering a meaningful information literacy programme, and managing human resources in a fast changing environment. On the practical side, collection management (including valuable ephemera) and outreach services (e.g. for the blind and print disabled) are given interesting coverage, whilst collaboration and partnerships with relevant stakeholders are also fully discussed as the key ingredients to progress, both professionally and across the “digital divide” (see a description of dLOC – Digital Library of the Caribbean – in Chapter 18). A cause for concern is aired in a paper devoted to the H. D. Carberry Collection where one is invited to debate whether it is right, in terms of access and integrity, to remove an indigenous collection of books and other artefacts from its originating country for its own safety (a reminder of the “Elgin Marbles” debate?). Finally, but by no means least, is a discussion on the maintenance of scholarly output in the field of library and information science and the themes running through it in the last ten years, focusing on librarians from the University of the West Indies – the “publish or perish” scenario – by Tamara Braithwaite and Niala Dwarika‐Bhagat.

Although the authors frequently describe themselves as operating in the “developing world”, the “changes, challenges and choices” they present still find an echo in some parts of the so‐called “developed world”. Changing with the times, managing with outlook and vision, meeting the expectations of changing clientele, facing challenges presented by new technologies, and choosing how to embrace these changes and challenges are issues common to library and information (LIS) professionals not just in the “developing world” of the Caribbean region but throughout the world. The economic platforms will vary of course, but with each stage of change, the process of facing the challenge and making an informed choice is a common theme in many professional publications today.

That LIS professionals are the common denominators in determining how to successfully embrace changes in their physical, financial and socio‐cultural environment, however, makes practical sense. Many of the chapters conclude on this note. Campaigning for adequate resources – a perennial and ubiquitous concern – is addressed in Chapter 8 for instance (a study on school libraries in Jamaica), where the author Cherell Shelley‐Robinson describes the success of Trinidad and Tobago in achieving better equipped school libraries through government policy and funding, in contrast to “other countries” (presumably including Jamaica – her own study) whose plans “remain largely on paper” due to lack of central funding. In the case of Jamaica, 73.6 per cent of school libraries get no funding – a real challenge. In conclusion she states that in the absence of indigenous government support, to achieve any degree of success in attracting a sustainable level of funding, “librarians will have to form strategic alliances with pressure groups (e.g. IFLA/UNESCO) to strengthen their case”.

Each of the 25 papers selected will have a clearly defined audience – mainly in the library and information world, but the final chapter of the book (“Change management in Caribbean Special Libraries” by Sandra E. John) speaks especially to all managers beyond this field because it tackles directly the question of “what if we don't change in response to a changing environment?”. For guidance John gives a toolkit for the practitioner based on an eight‐point plan devised by John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen of the Harvard Business School, citing as a success story the transition of the Caribbean Documentation Centre to a Knowledge Management Centre. In summary she says, “change is inevitable. Unfortunately, the survival of librarians is not” unless they “articulate a vision and commit to acquiring the skills necessary to lead and manage”. Not to do so, she warns, may relegate the practitioner to irrelevance. Stark words indeed, and ones that any professional (including LIS) ignores at their peril.

In providing us with material which will build on the “core body of knowledge of an established profession”, in addition to some practical lessons learnt by library and information professionals through addressing the myriad challenges in “developing” environments, the editors have fulfilled their aim of producing “a work that informs, educates, and stimulates discussion … about future strategic directions” (Preface). It is to be hoped the story does not stop there, but continues to grow and enrich that “core body of knowledge” and experience.


ACURIL (2008), “Membership page”, available at: (accessed 20 January 2008).

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