St. Johnians Fed Up With Library Inaction

Scores of St. John residents plan to take to the streets later this month, protesting the continued closure of their lone public library.

Scaffolding around the Elaine Ione Sprauve Public Library and Museum of Cultural Arts in St. John. (Photo: Carla Sewer)

The Elaine Ione Sprauve Public Library and Museum of Cultural Arts has been shuttered since September 2019. Although there is plenty of scaffolding around the building, increasingly vexed children’s literacy advocates said there is little if any work being done.

Carla Sewer, the collection’s one-time librarian, helped organize the protest. She was driven to near tears Friday afternoon, describing her frustration with government officials’ inaction.

“Why do you exist if not to serve the people,” Sewer asked. “Waiting for the government? You’re waiting in vain, as Bob Marley said.”

The protest comes at a time when the Department of Planning and Natural Resources has recently opened the doors on the Charles Wesley Turnbull Regional Library in St. Thomas. The next library scheduled to reopen is the Athalie McFarlane Peterson Libraries on St. Croix, according to Amy Parker De Sorbo, the territorial director of DPNR’s Division of Libraries, Museums, and Archives. Equipment delivery delays had kept it from the Aug. 1 opening date Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol had promised the Senate, De Sorbo said.

The Turnbull library was opened with little fanfare, however. Surprised patrons groped for answers on social media about its hours: 9 AM to 4:45 PM Monday to Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday.

Sewer, who holds a master’s degree in library science and a doctorate in family studies, left her post at the Sprauve library because decision makers were more interested in a substandard status quo than creating meaningful changes, she said. She claimed DPNR is more interested in collecting grants for St. John’s library than spending on it.

She alleged DPNR had no business running the libraries and did so to the detriment of the territory’s students.

Sewer said the library was in disrepair long before the hurricanes of 2017.

“They waited for Hurricanes Irma and Maria to straddle that storm, to go call for FEMA, to cry for help to fix the library,” Sewer said. “All my fight for library services fell on deaf ears.”

She said she reached out to the territory’s top political leaders for help but found little to none. Sewer felt St. John was seen as not as important to them as St. Thomas and St. Croix.

Former Senator-at-large Steven Payne spoke highly of Sewer in 2019, saying his former student was “one of the most caring and nurturing persons I have ever met.” But Sewer said her former teacher was no help in getting the library reopened.

While she has hopes for Payne’s replacement, Sen. Angel Bolques Jr. has his hands full, she said.

“The new senator is inundated with trying to fix what the former senator has done to St. John,” she said.

Sewer said libraries are more than book lenders; they’re foundations of community where children learn not just to read but to interact with their peers, their elders, and the very institutions of government. Such knowledge is key to keeping young people involved, productive, and positive, she said.

As of Friday afternoon, a social media post showed more than 75 people said they would attend or were interested in attending the Aug. 27 protest.

“These people are frustrated. They are angry that their tax dollars are going to the government that does not care about them. And it’s shown every day,” Sewer said. “It’s out of sight; it’s out of mind. But the community on St. John has to pass the library every day. They see it every day. But the stakeholders who have the power — and the governor has the executive power to change this — have not done it.”

In keeping with the literacy-first theme, attendees are encouraged to bring their voices and protest signs, as well as books to share and exchange. Sewer, the volunteer founder of Nagus Education in Coral Bay, plans to lead a children’s story time at 10 a.m., followed by a trash pickup at 10:30.