Topography, Topology, Typography: The Library as Place, Text and Tool in Caribbean Digital Research Classrooms

Below is the text of a talk I delivered at the ACURIL Conference in June, 2017. Although I was not able to attend the event in Puerto Rico, I was able to create a screencast and participate live. I’ve included the here as well. 

When I left the United States and an Assistant Professor position to move to Dominica and re-start my life as an independent scholar, I couldn’t yet imagine what form my scholarly work would take but I knew from the summer research experience the year before that the library and archive space would be central to whatever projects or employment opportunities that I would pursue. My research interests focused on reading practices, reception, and the communities created by and through various forms of literary encounters in the Caribbean. I sought out the archives in Dominica as a way to explore how literary and debating societies played a critical role in middle-class social development and their upward mobility. It was through that experience that I began to understand the benefits and the needs of the libraries in the smaller islands of the Eastern Caribbean. I had spent all of my adult life up to that point within college campus environments and always had access to academic libraries. I didn’t understand the idea of access until such time as I completely moved out of the United States and permanently out of a position of “affiliation.”

I have spoken elsewhere, including on dLOC’s webinar series “Caribbean Scholarship in the Digital Age,” about the pleasures and pressures of my journey to founding Create Caribbean Research Institute as an active place of digital humanities work with a focus on preservation of heritage. Central to that journey was the sense that I had the opportunity and right timing to create my own affiliation. Create Caribbean was established on the Dominica State College campus to elevate the place of research in the college’s agenda, to engage students in service learning and innovative experiences with technology, and to pave the way for different research possibilities at the institution.

At Dominica State College, primarily a two-year college with a growing number of four-year programs, disciplinary research methods are treated as advanced skills meant to supplement students’ introduction to research skills acquired in basic composition courses. Such research courses are not offered for all majors but do exist for most humanities and social science programs. As a result, terms like digital humanities would not make their way to academic or popular discourse in Dominica at all. In that context, designing and delivering a digital humanities course (the first course of its kind to be offered in the Eastern Caribbean) revealed a complex web of challenges that I had to navigate to successfully have students re-think their relationship to Dominican and Caribbean history.

The context of the college within the national education context is also significant. Beyond the Associate degree, most students choose to migrate to complete higher education at the Bachelors level and for advanced and professional degrees. This is a practice carried over from the colonial era when even high school education was competitive and extremely selective. As a result, the country has faced significant brain drain over the past forty years and experts suggest that there are Dominicans living in the wider diaspora – especially North America and Europe – of more than twice the current population of the island.

Dominica State College has itself transformed from the colonial and postcolonial models and is now 14 years old in its current structure modeled on North American colleges. Before the community college offered the University of Cambridge Advanced Level examinations, another incredibly selective enterprise. It is against this backdrop and with knowledge of its challenges that I established Create Caribbean Research Institute. Originally the intent was for me have a center where I could create relationships between libraries and archives, local communities and cultural and literary archivists. But with a clearer understanding of the needs of the nation in regard to cultural development and the potential of DSC to play an active role in that development, the College then felt like the right place to engage an accessible audience and to create longevity for the work of Caribbean studies in Dominica.

But the success of Create Caribbean and its partnership with Dominica State College relied on one important task: demystifying the concept of digital humanities. Trying to convince policy makers, educators and artists that digital humanities was indeed a significant field of study that could shape the direction of Caribbean education and cultural practice was difficult because the term itself was too academic and the methodologies were not yet part of academic or popular discourse. I found myself selling the technology and research elements of the work separately, as if their connections were somehow too esoteric for my audience. Well, the use of technology for education gained traction with policy makers interested in improving student engagement with information and communications technologies and the research element won me points with the College and government agencies looking for a think tank. These were motivations for me to continue the groundwork but certainly were distractions from the mission of Create Caribbean, which was to focus on culture, history and heritage. I would eventually have to accommodate a healthy combination of all these elements to move the institute forward and engagement with libraries and librarians certainly made that possible.

I ask my students to think critically about why and how they use or have used any library in the past few years of their academic lives. Although the average age of freshman students is a year or two younger in Dominica than in North American colleges, the students have some academic experience prior to entering college with reports and research papers of some kind. Their use of the library, however, is hardly any less sophisticated than their American counterparts. They know where the library is and that they can use that space to study.

But their interactions with librarians, or with circulation material is almost negligible outside of textbook checkout for specific course work. Even when assignments are tailored within a very limited scope of Dominican or Caribbean topics, the ultimate relationship to research for most students remains the Google web interface. Therefore, it was important to me to design a course that placed history and heritage at the center of their learning while creating connections with the national libraries and archives.

The history of libraries in the Caribbean is important context to understand the unique relationship of the Dominican public to their libraries, and what sets the Dominican students apart from their North American counterparts. Many of the region’s libraries were gifts of the colonial era. For instance, Andrew Carnegie donated the library to Dominica in 1907. The building has changed very little from its original construction as in the picture you just saw. Even Jamaica Kincaid describes the artifact and artifice that characterize libraries of the region, as they engender nostalgia and reverence for the material objects of knowledge rather than the production and dissemination of knowledge itself. Further, the scarcity of academic libraries in the region and the inadequacy of research resources in college libraries in the contemporary Caribbean reveal the relegation of knowledge production (as opposed to acquisition) in nation building of small island states.

With this history in mind, I proposed and designed the Digital humanities course for the college general education curriculum after working for about a year with a small student research team at Create Caribbean on digital research projects that would make visible for the college and wider community the expected outcomes of such a course.

With a small group of student interns at Create Caribbean, I initiated a number of digital research projects that would be made public and would put the research institute on the national map. We did encounter some challenges including the bureaucracy of the library and information service, especially at the time of a change in management and the resistance among Archive and Special Collections staff to have students interact with archival material.

I worked hard to build relationships with the library staff and management and with the projects we designed squarely focused on Dominica, we were able to capitalize on primary source material at the National Archives. The result was a number of successful projects including a partnership with the Division of Culture for a Dominica History Web Resource series for the country’s annual History Week taking place during Independence.

I capitalized on that success and designed and proposed the digital humanities course for the College’s General Education curriculum. It was the first of its kind to be offered in the English-speaking Caribbean and although, we met with some resistance it has been largely successful. This past semester was my 5th time teaching the course, which I began in September 2014. The capstone digital research project has taken many forms including individual projects, small group projects and a single collaborative project for the entire group. This last model worked well with the first full cohort of Create Caribbean interns to take the course as a requirement for the Institute internship program.

So what happens in the digital humanities classroom in Dominica that brings together the formal conventions of academic research, the use of libraries and the formation of knowledge about the region by late adolescents? It begins really with the personal engagement with place. One of the methods that has been really effective in teaching the course is the reminder to students that they indeed are Dominican and that local knowledge about their homeland is vital to their academic and professional success.

It also begins with an acknowledgement as a classroom of learners that it is indeed easier, if not just less laborious, to find information about foreign lands than it is to find about their home. Much of this realization in grounded in conversations in the first unit of the course when we discuss the advancements made in technology and the digital age, while acknowledging the ways in which parts of the world are excluded or disproportionately impacted by these technological advances. For instance, they must face the reality that there is still a significant digital divide in the country with about 40% of the population remaining without internet broadband access, even when mobile penetration surpasses 100%. Moreover, the students take special issue with the difficulty they face in accessing academic material – in print, at low cost and with little restrictions. The debate over the nobility of piracy, including what they view as “Robin Hood” access to information becomes critical to the theoretical discussions about open source and open access that form the earlier units of the digital humanities course.

In this digital humanities course and in other practice-based research exercises with Dominica State College students, positioning libraries, archives and special collections as a symbiotic triad of place, resource and primary text presents an opportunity to remind students of their Dominican-ness and their Caribbean-ness amidst technological persuasions that make them feel more connected to neoliberal capitalist material of popular culture via social media. Creating an analogy between the geography of Dominica and the experience of navigating archival research allowed students to physically and psychically occupy physical and historical spaces from which they had felt disconnected.

The students’ explorations of libraries, in person and online, or their visits to archives, museums and special collections bring to life the intersection of academic and archival research, Caribbean social and cultural practices and the influence of slavery and colonialism on literacy, teaching and learning, and knowledge production in the Caribbean. Even when their encounter with their local knowledges happen through digital platforms like DLOC, they are uniquely aware of the significance of that historical preservation, and even more importantly, the significance of the visibility of Dominica and Dominicans in the vast Internet space. Through Create Caribbean’s collaboration with other literary and cultural units of national importance, there is a growing relationship between the Research Institute and the Library Service.

Students then share their experiences with navigating the archives and building relationships with the historical record within and outside of that space through their weekly blog entries. For this exercise, we use the Tumblr platform, whose revolving door format allows the students to comment and share in a way that extends the reach of their writing beyond the classroom group and creates additional visibility for Dominica and its rich history and heritage.

The work of building a digital research project in this course indeed mirrors the concepts and terminologies of the library system and further works to connect the students to the process of making history, not just encountering historical artifacts. Their own attempts to curate, digitize and create exhibits of their primary sources on the Omeka software platform requires the discipline, care and attention to audience they see in the work ethic of the librarians they encounter as they conduct their research. Students have to be metacognitive about organizational choices, audience and possible setbacks in the process of preserving their nation’s history.

Through the analysis of pedagogy applied in the Dominica State College Digital Humanities Research course and the project management practices of Create Caribbean Research Institute, I have offered in this presentation a model and methodology for the use of digital spaces and tools to perform critical inquiries of Caribbean history and society. The outcomes of this model include the increased value of local and indigenous knowledge to scholars and students in the region, an increase among students in civic engagement of local and regional politics and policies, and the intellectual and sociological transformation of the Caribbean humanities classroom. Moreover, I hope that my experiences in building a platform for the digital humanities will resonate with other scholar-teachers and result in both popularity and diversity of digital humanities pedagogy and praxis in the region, with the focus in building up rather than setting aside the fortresses of knowledge that are the region’s libraries and archives.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s The Orchid House: returning home to a new generation

I was asked by Polly Pattullo of Papillote Press to contribute the introduction to Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s 1953 novel The Orchid House. For me, this was a special request because it came from someone who I admired personally and professionally, and who had also done so much work in recovering the image of Allfrey here in Dominica. I discovered Allfrey’s writing during my college and graduate school work, although her name had been mentioned while I was growing up. Including The Orchid House in my doctoral dissertation on reading practices introduced me to new ways of reading Caribbean literature and, more importantly, new lens through which I could view the complex history of my island home.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was a Dominican-born white West Indian literary writer, journalist and politician. Despite living for most of her life in Dominica, writing poetry and fiction featuring the island and its people, and actively transforming the political environment on the island, Allfrey had been made invisible in the creative community of the West Indian literary boom, primarily because of her race rather than her writing. This was largely a result of the time in which she is writing, when Afro-caribbean aesthetics, black nationalism and decolonization movements are beginning to take shape in the region. However, returning to her work with a broader and more contemporary world view is critical. Papillote Press, through its publication of this new edition of her only published novel, has given us this opportunity and I am thrilled to have such a special role in making that happen. I wrote a few words on that experience for a Dominican audience, which was published in The Chronicle (April 22) that I share below…

Most people of my generation must have come to know the name Phyllis Shand Allfrey when, during our school years, we were fascinated by the buzz of film crews and British accents during the shooting of The Orchid House mini-series for BBC television in 1990. The name Phyllis Shand Allfrey was not a popular name during my time in school, despite the contributions of this politician, journalist and literary writer to Dominica’s advancement in both politics and the arts.

Despite her integral role in forming the Dominica Labour Party and the West Indies Federation and her prolific bibliography, Mrs. Allfrey remained a mere speck of dust in our history lessons. As much as the sparkle of the film gave a glimpse into her life and showcased our beautiful scenery, the story of The Orchid House and the work of Mrs. Allfrey did not make an impact in Dominica.

However, in the last several years, a committed few have reintroduced Allfrey to Dominica. In 2012, for example, the Nature Island Literary Festival (NILF) screened a couple of the episodes during its annual weekend activities and the audience was indeed excited by the recognition of scenes, extras and featured actors from right here in Dominica. One of the actors was Dr. Lennox Honychurch, Allfrey’s friend and the curator of her political and literary works, who was also a member of a discussion panel on her work during that year’s festival’s proceeding.

Another member of the panel was Polly Pattullo, publisher of Papillote Press, who had worked to package Allfrey’s writing for a local and international audience – the collection of short stories, It Falls into Place and the collection of poetry Love for an Island. The work of Papillote Press and Ms. Pattullo in increasing Allfrey’s visibility is immeasurable and the impact has been invaluable. Allfrey’s biographer Lisa Paravisini-Gebert worked closely with both Honychurch and Pattullo and wrote the introduction to an American edition of the novel as well (printed 20 years ago).

allfrey panel
Photo Credit: Gwen Whitford

My first reading of The Orchid House was that American edition, which would eventually led me to be one of the panelists on Allfrey at that 2012 NILF. It was only during my doctoral study, several years after leaving Dominica that I got to explore this classic novel and get to know this woman who had so much influence on my country in ways no one had ever taught me.

The novel, The Orchid House, is an autobiographical account of Allfrey’s experience of growing up, leaving and returning to Dominica. The novel captures the lives of a family with three sisters, and much of the actions of the novel are presumed to take place between the two “great wars.”

First published in 1953, the work is a real portrait of a shrinking class of white and wealthy Dominicans who faced the changing social conditions of the Caribbean post-slavery with both anxiety and excitement. And yet, in 1953, Allfrey would not yet have had the kind of career that would leave its mark on Dominican politics for decades to come, but charted out her trajectory in politics and journalism in the almost prophetic plot of the sisters’ adult lives in Dominica.

The nuances of those experiences at such an important period of social and political change for Dominica cannot be captured in textbooks or Powerpoint slides. Strong storytelling, like in this novel, give depth to the thoughts and feelings of those experiencing these changes. With this novel, Allfrey captures life for whites, creoles and black people as their worlds collide and they must change their thinking from being separate classes to being one nation.

The timing couldn’t be better to bring this novel to a local audience, especially a school-age readership. With so much technology at our fingertips, the world closer seems to us and it is easy to forget to keep our own histories and perspectives as alive as the foreign stories that the Internet offers.toh cover

Moreover, it is important for our students to understand the complexity of Dominican life – the various personalities and backgrounds of our people – in order to cultivate their tolerance and humanity. It is important for them to see the impact of our struggles for independence and modernization through narratives rather than just memorized dates, so that they can value the freedoms we now enjoy. It is important for them to learn Allfrey’s name and appreciate the paths she paved for women, for workers and for writers to exercise freedom of expression.

I’m elated to be part of this new edition and hope that parents, teachers and students will join in revisiting our rich history through this wonderful adventure story set right here in our homeland.

Literary Festivals

Literary Festivals: Culture Mining or Culture Making?

(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, June 2012)

The summer months are a hot season for those in the business of culture. The literary festival, now a signature event in many islands, has become an attractive way for book connoisseurs, culture enthusiasts and local businesses to capitalize on their imdividual and collective interests. For the past several years, Trinidad’s NGC Bocas Literary Festival, the Bim Lit Fest in Barbados amd Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival have lured the most influential names in the region’s literary, academic and performance fields from all around the world and juxtaposed their gravitas with the promising and rejuvenating work of local and mostly underrecognized writers, thinkers and artists.

They owe their presence, surely, to Jamaica’s Calabash Festival, begun in 2001 by Colin Channer and a few other notable Jamaican writers, who after ten years, were forced to indefinitely suspend the event because of financial troubles. And while Calabash managed to resurface for Jamaica’s 50th Independence anniversary celebrations with no clear plans to stay on, still more islands push the literary culture campaign, with the example of “Anguilla’s Literary Jollification,” held in May. The contradiction between the ever-emerging interest in the business of creative arts and the struggle to keep these events afloat with money and public interest leads many informed and lay critics to ask the question: What’s the point? Some people are attempting to answer that very question.

Following the NGC Bocas Festival, a scathing op-ed in Trinidad’s Guardian newspaper definitely made some of us “culture makers” squirm in our seats just a little bit. Raymond Ramcharitar’s indictment from the May 2 piece entitled “Caribbean Literature: Publishable or Rubbish?”[1] is that no substantive body of literary work can currently be produced in the region, by people living in the West Indies, and that the display of culture embodied in literary festivals is simply a guise for a select few to sustain their social elitism. All in all, Ramcharitar thinks of festivals as another self-congratulatory enterprise with no viable business model and no long-term future: an all-around waste of time.

Alas, this skeptic must have missed the point that people who choose to live and work in arts and culture very rarely approach the field with an eye or gaining massive wealth from their work. Those who gain fame and financial success often do so after years of dedication and labor, reaping their long-deserved rewards for commitment to their craft. The production and consumption of “culture” in the Caribbean has historically been tied more closely to constructions of national identity and pride, reminding West Indians of their complicated and sometimes unfortunate past, while praising the resilience of the human spirit – expressed uniquely in music, literature, dance, and art. Moreover, the majority populattion of African-descended people in the Eastern Caribbean implicitly understand the idea of West Indian culture, particularly literary culture, as an issue of property, ownership and inheritance, reclaiming the discourses of ownership and mastery once long ago endured by their ancestors under slavery.

I return to Ramcharitar’s assertions, then, to pose an important response about the business, financing and publishing dynamics of the culture that is captured and produced in such literary festivals. Access to publishing houses, to in-house editors that are competitive on a global market and to a widespread leisure reading audience across and within the islands must exist for the featured aspiring writers to gain the kind of traction that Caribbean writers in the diaspora have achieved via their massive publishing houses like FSG, Vintage, and others. So Ramcharitar is not entirely wrong. In fact, in this regard he may be quite right.

The question of literacy and literary enthusiasm remains the key to address a question about where and how to find investors to revitalize a West Indian literary publishing domain. Regional academic publishing houses survive on the necessity of the curriculum and, in this way, they become a public service that justify investments. However, most creative works are published under very small presses, and now self-publishing becomes a more popular route with the ease and low cost of digital technology. Ramcharitar cites two presses in his article, Peepal Tree Press based in England and Lexicon Press out of Trinidad that have great potential to man the publishing ship and consolidate the stellar writing being produced in the region to counter what he sees as messy and problematic images of the West Indies perpetuated in the Diaspora writings on metropolitan presses. However, the issue is much larger and complex than the publishing and writing end of the business. What about the reading part? Who are these writers producing work for? Who are these publishers marketing to? Where will the books go? Who is the reader of the “literary culture”? Who should be attending the “literary festival”?

The concept of the literary festival, much like the music festivals already held in several islands, can become an important site for building a tourism market. In many islands like Dominica, it has gained much credit in the area of social and civic engagement by building programs and competitions that reach out into the community and make every level of the social landscape understand that a literary culture exists. But in my experience with research and observation of such festivals elsewhere, too much emphasis is based on having the thing exist and not on what to do with it. So many workshops on how to be a writer of various genres and so many guest writers talking about writing their work cast a suspicious shadow over what this work actually means and how it can positively impact our community. The experience of reading literature is the point to tap into if literary festivals want to become a long-standing institution. People should actually understand why and how the literary festival isn’t a show of pomp and circumstance, and can indeed become a way to help shift the culture economy in significant ways. In Britain, a national reading campaign has been successful in reviving attitudes towards literacy and literature across socio-economic classes, while successfully marketing many of their authors in the global marketplace.

Many such festivals in the United States use the language of the “book” festival rather than the “literary” festival. As I reflect on the function of this entity in local and regional communities, I think this distinction is a significant one. The “book” invites curiosity. The “literary” still, particularly considering the historical and socio-political space we occupy, invites skepticism and distance. This is a perfect moment for social entrepreneurs to lock minds with the best thinkers in the “world” of culture, and work towards a solution that draws dividends and not disdain. It’s worth exploring how more attention to reading and finding meaning in texts might be a saving grace for the economic and social future of culture in the Caribbean.

[1] Ramcharitar, Raymond. “Caribbean Literature: Publishable or Rubbish?” The Guardian. Trinidad. May 2, 2012.

This Thing Called Culture

This thing called Culture, and why we need to preserve it

(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, December 2012)

Ask anyone in the Caribbean region if they are proud of their culture and the likelihood that the answer is yes is very high and not at all surprising. Ask many of those people what they think culture means – whether West Indian culture, Caribbean culture, Trini culture, Lucian culture, Bim culture, DA culture – and the populist response, while nuanced, will also prove unsurprisingly similar. Most people will talk of the food and conversation, the tropical location and warm air (a major token of nostalgia for the emigrants in Northern metropolitan cities). They’ll talk of Carnival, the costumes, dance, and the overwhelmingly vibrant, colorful and musical melting pot. Most of all, across age, class, gender and personal interests, from Caribbean person to Caribbean person, within and outside of the region, a sense of national and regional pride in a history of individual and collective resilience and resistance takes primacy in the contemporary definition of Caribbean or West Indian culture.

That national and regional pride stands firmly in a persistent, almost naturalized, awareness of the conditions of slavery and colonialism and the effects of those histories of systemic violence on the performance of everyday life in each nation. That’s why celebrations of independence and carnival take prominent positions in the vernacular or commonplace definition of culture. Even according to major government initiatives and policies, a clear definition of that term is elusive,[1] leaving it always already understood according to the sum of its various elements, those elements that get included that is. For example, countries like Dominica and St. Vincent devote many of their cultural resources to awareness, preservation and promotion of the still-remaining indigenous people – Karifuna/Garifuna and Kalinago – who were the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the land. Other projects linked to the physical preservation of forts and other monumental edifices comprise some of the historical reflection on slavery, mercantilism and colonial settler culture as well. Then we have the things that sell: music, beaches and food. All these aspects of culture present a vision of the region that is at once rich in history and variety, but also marketable in a global tourist economy. Such a dynamic leaves Caribbean culture scholars, like myself, to ask some sobering questions about the definition and value of this thing called culture. What pieces of life matter in the cataloging of our history? And what tools and people make a reflection on collective consciousness possible?

For the past six months, I’ve spent a lot of times wandering through university and national libraries and archives in the Caribbean trying to uncover symptoms of a culture of reading being alive in the early 20th century Caribbean. As I worked so diligently to compile archival material from before World War 2 that would elucidate communities’ attention to reading, I was reminded more and more about why I was drawn to advanced study and professional life in a humanities discipline and in Caribbean literary and cultural studies. I wanted to know more about the place and the people that had so strongly shaped my own personal and intellectual perspectives. As I moved through different islands, including Barbados and Dominica, through university collections or national archives, I noticed that while the officials responsible for the preservation of Caribbean culture were ardent and genuinely invested in the contextual value of the work they preserved, that attention to ways to both collect and continue to preserve those collections into the future, especially in the digital age, were grasping for a more clearly defined vision, and increased resources, knowledge and excitement. I saw the source of this struggle in two dominant areas. First, institutions charged with the preserving and disseminating national and regional history must become more technologically in tune with long-term access and preservation methods.

Second, nationally-supported institutions, like libraries and museums, have yet to fully embrace and enact a view of history that is truly public and accessible to all types of communities[2]. I’ve written before about the ways that the classed access to literacy in West Indian colonial life has impacted the ways people engaged with literature and leisurely reading. The community’s experience with valuing elements of our political and cultural history is no different. Those working to draw attention to the influence of trade unions or the West Indies Federation on contemporary public service system (or events like uprisings in Dominica (1979) and revolutions in Grenada (1983), or the impact of the migration of West Indians to Latin America, or the impact of Marcus Garvey on islands that are not Jamaica) are among a minority of scholars, intellectuals, and enthusiasts who promote a broader definition of culture that wrestles with the populist version I’ve described earlier.

What can be done about this? Two words: technology and money. Both scholarly and corporate environments have models for digital preservation that create not just long-term preservation options for documents, but also generate opportunities for the public to become engaged with the process and products of historical preservation. UNESCO is a leading global organization spearheading site preservation, and supporting individual nations in their archival venture through initiatives like World Heritage Sites and Memory of the World in the Digital Age.[3] Very recently, the papers of renowned Caribbean author Sam Selvon, housed in Trinidad’s National Archives, were accepted into the Memory of the World Register, providing much-needed awareness to the author’s contribution to Caribbean and postcolonial literary and political development.[4] Given that some of Selvon’s titles may be in danger of out-of-print status, this is both a financial and marketing move that highlights the singular power of a small-island writer to modern British and Caribbean culture, but ignites renewed investment in teaching and learning about the author in CXC classrooms and US graduate school seminars alike. Yet works of lesser-known visionaries like Dominica’s J. Ralph Casimir, a pan-Africanist and poet who was closely aligned with the Garvey movement, are housed thousands of miles away from where locals can access records of his contributions. The prestige and rigor of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies in New York City is surely a privileged position for the Casimir collection that validates his contribution to black culture.[5] However, the fact that his name remains largely unfamiliar among the Dominican public, outside of the cultural elite, means there are questions about access and dissemination of history that require attention and commitment from those with the intellectual and material resources.

But attention to the archives – whether in government documents, slave registries, newspaper collections or small family or personal photos and letters – need not begin with a massive initiative like UNESCO. There is a role for the private sector to play in helping the relevant government and local units to build their collections from the ground up and to host events that ask for community contributions to various collections. Moreover, the investment in digital preservation technology, paired with programming and library science and archival training for existing and incoming staff, is the most important type of investment in which donors should look to support. It is critical to recruit a team of cultural scholars, IT specialists and community activists to collaborate on the vision and mission for saving cultural artifacts in national and regional contexts. It is imperative that this team has the structural and financial means to create a complex and nuanced narrative of our local histories – where do we come from, who are our unsung heroes, what stories have been forgotten, and how can we re-tell them. It is most important for the business community to help make it a truly public endeavor, helping each person in every household find some part of herself reflected in this history and use it as motivation to participate in future Caribbean development.

[1] See Bully, Anita et al. National culture policy of the Commonwealth of Dominica. Dominica: Ministry of Community Development, Gender Affairs and Information, 2007. Accessed at Digital Library of the Caribbean, December 8, 2012.

[2] See “The Future of Caribbean Reading.” The Analyst. April 2012.

[3] For more information, see

[4] “Sam Selvon Collection placed in Memory of the World register.” The Trinidad Express. December 7, 2012. Accessed December 8, 2012.

[5] The catalog record for this collection is available at

The Future(s) of Caribbean Reading

The Future(s) of Caribbean Reading

(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, March 2012)

The current debates circling the possible effacement of the book by digital media, especially e-books, reflect a significant transitional moment in the worlds of literary production, dissemination and reception. American writer Jonathan Franzen, author of bestselling novels including Freedom, recently referred to the onslaught of the e-book as surely a threat to civic discourse, the permanence of the book object and to our stable conceptions of pleasure and leisure.[1] However, Franzen’s concerns, while timely and relevant, should be taken with a grain of salt and a dose of history. Film and television did not replace radio or print culture either. What simply happened in the history of communication technology was that each medium transformed and adapted its practices to accommodate and respond to new and innovative ways to engage real and fictional worlds.

However, the evidence of disappearing bookstore chains and the increasing ubiquity of e-readers prove that the waning life and livelihood of print culture should be taken seriously. In the United States, chains like Borders have been hollowed out of the popular paperbacks and bustling cafés that once epitomized middlebrow culture. Now, the Barnes & Noble chain features their Nook brand e-reader at all stores with front entrance displays laden with every possible digital accessory. The device lures in customers, while reminding them everywhere else in the store that novels, magazines and the café reading scene are very much still alive and welcome. Barnes & Noble seems to be currently walking a tightrope, balancing the old and the new: the result could go either way.

Most of the conversations about the fate of the book have centered on the publishing industry and from the point of view of writers, who either see it as a benefit or impediment to their craft. Also, metropolitan spaces have monopolized this conversation for the obvious reason – the immense size of their market. However, those of us concerned about smaller, regional markets like the Caribbean should think strongly about what the new medium means now and can mean for the future of literature, writing, and most importantly reading. With their functionality, convenience, portability and low price, tablets and e-readers have become the electronic device of choice for consumers across the islands. Particularly, smartphones, especially the explosive Blackberry device, have made it possible to read, work and play with a simple telephone data plan. As a result, Caribbean consumers have more access to literature in any format and from anywhere around the world than ever before.

The colonial history of the Caribbean has made literacy and formal education means through which select groups acquire upward mobility, while others without access to those resources become marginalized from cultural citizenship, leisurely reading embodying the achievement of that aspiration. The high costs of printing and publishing texts have throughout the twentieth century made the Caribbean’s market predominantly academic in nature, leaving small publishing houses and self-publishing authors to remind residents of the islands that there are people who live here who still write. The last ten years have given rise to a pleasant and welcome shift in the paucity of leisurely reading by Caribbean people of Caribbean books written by Caribbean people.

Jamaica’s Calabash Literary Festival should be given credit as a pioneer in making visible strides to bring together an active creative and academic community of readers and writers in the North America and Europe with “home-grown” writers, artists and cultural critics. This year, more and more islands are embarking on their own festivals, Bim Literary Festival in Barbados, Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad & Tobago, and the Nature Island Literary Festival in Dominica are only a sample of the successfully planned and executed events that have re-energized the culture of reading for all people on the islands, and not just those who can afford to get buy books at the once-overpriced rates of island booksellers.

This delightful development in attitudes towards reading should be embraced. The renewed energies in literature through the ascension of digital reading formats present strengths and opportunities for an expanded market in the region that emphasizes its literary products at home and in the diaspora. How can Caribbean-based publishers, big and small, capitalize on the e-book to globalize Caribbean authors who are shut out of mainstream metropolitan publishing houses? How can local entrepreneurs meet the increasing instantaneous demands for reading through book sales and innovation of e-readers while creating a stronger market and network of support for their “home-grown” authors? How can this vibrant moment in the business of reading, writing and publishing be used to effect positive social change? Attention to bridging the gaps between those with access to literacy and literariness and those who remain denied of such cultural fluency should continue to be a priority for those interested in the culture and the business of reading.

[1] See Sheehy, Christine. “Are e-books a threat to society?” Fiction Addiction. Accessed Feb 13, 2012.