Op-Ed: …missed opportunity…

Enid M. Baa Library (Submitted photo)

The plan to repurpose The Wallace Williams and Archives represents what could be a missed opportunity.  These are the utterings of a librarian, and they are expected.  In the 30 plus years as a librarian in the public library system of the Virgin Islands and as a runner, an important goal has been constant, to develop the capacity and capability of libraries and to develop running and the capacity and capability of the Virgin Islands national team.

The announcement of the plan to repurpose the Enid Baa Library and Archives in St. Thomas wasn’t shocking or a surprise.  One recalls over the years an ongoing effort of a movement in the Charlotte Amalie business community through the Friends of the Library to repurpose the first floor of the library with commercial shops aligning the historic location with the “all important Main Street Commercial Sector.”  The plan did not gain traction until now.

The Baa Library situation reminds me of one similar regarding The Chicago Public Library where I began my career back in the 70s.  The plan was to repurpose the existing main library on Michigan Avenue to fully designate it The Chicago Cultural Center.  That was in 1977, my last year in Chicago and my first in the Virgin Islands.  In 1991 the new Harold Washington Library Center a few blocks away was dedicated.  It is an iconic facility with one of the largest book collections in the USA.  For the 14-year interim, the main library was housed in a repurposed commercial facility.  The impact of these maneuvers was offset by the fact that there are 70 plus regional and neighborhood public library branches in Chicago for people to use until the new library was realized.  It took a while, but the project became a success.

It appears that considerable thought has gone into the proposal for The Enid Baa Library and Archives.  Of concern is the absence of input from sectors of the library community.  It is the opinion of this librarian that The Enid Baa Library and Archives can possibly meet the needs and desires of the current proposal while it can include the following:

[A] retain the name of the building and its mission as designated by Virgin Islands Legislature statutes (The St. Thomas public library was renamed the Enid M. Baa Library and Archives in her honor by Act 3668 in 1975, and the institution was so dedicated on March 20, 1978).

[B] retain and expand the children’s library within the facility,

[C] strengthen the user service capacity between the Charles Westley Turnbull Regional Library and The Enid Baa Library and Archives.

[D] retain an archive component in the facility.

Note: Communities all over are continuing to build public libraries (yes! Libraries are relevant!).  There was a growth of 8.2 percent, in the sale of books, the highest year-on-year increase since 2010 (no! The Internet, the World Wide Web, social media i.e. Facebook, Instagram do not replace books!). (yes! The information science sides of libraries are sure to keep up to speed with emerging technology which evolves on a daily basis!).

Libraries will be there for children the new readers, the new adult reader as well…for all readers.  They will continue to be free! There is a desperate need in the territory to facilitate the retention and management of personal/private archives that people would like to donate to an archive (yes! The Enid Baa Library and Archives can continue to function as an archive…this week alone I have received two inquiries from two prominent Virgin Islanders seeking advice on what to do with their precious and valuable archives). The above components can be scaled to accommodate all without eliminating the library and archives.

If one child walks into The Enid Baa Library and Archives and through that contact becomes a productive citizen instead of entering the penal system, which can cost over $225 thousand dollars a year per person, we all win. If documents in a private archive threads a needle of Virgin Islands history, we all win.

The FEMA Disaster Recovery funds were appropriated to the Government of the Virgin Islands to make repairs to the public libraries in the territory due to the impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 totaling $6 million plus, of which over $700,000 is designated for The Enid Baa Library and Archives. Perhaps those funds can be used to repair and further improve our public libraries if approved and help make all this possible.  The fact of the matter is: the library/libraries don’t need to be repurposed; they need to have their capacity maximized.

“Miss Opportunity” was the name of a barge in St. Thomas back in the 70s, so the story goes…

Wallace Williams, MALS, OLY

Editor’s note: Wallace Williams MALS, OLY is the Territorial Librarian/Director (Retired) of Virgin Islands Libraries, Archives and Museums.