A chance meeting can lead to unexpected outcomes. When librarian Anne Marley visited St Lucia, she could not have foreseen how a visit to Castries Central Library would lead to an eventful year. Anne Marley explains.
In January 2002 I went off on a Caribbean cruise as a reward for getting through a Best Value Review of our School Library Service (if you don’t know what one is, just be grateful!). I never dreamed when I disembarked from the P & O cruise liner, the Arcadia, one beautiful sunny day in St Lucia that I would be back within the year, only this time with 86 boxes containing almost 4,000 children’s books and a cheque for £6,000 for the librarians of St Lucia to spend on whatever they wanted for their children’s libraries.
When I first arrived in St Lucia, all I intended to do was visit the capital, Castries, have a quick look round the Carnegie Library in Derek Walcott Square, and then go off and explore a little of the rest of this wonderful island. That was before I met Agnes Alcide, one of the librarians there.
I am always fascinated by how library services are provided in other parts of the world and I like to see what we can learn from them. I learned a lot from Agnes. I saw when I went into the children’s library that it was well used – there was a group of children from the ‘Happy Moments’ Playgroup and quite a few other children and their parents in there. I could also see that the books had been loved to death – a sure sign of a popular and well-used library – but that they could do with a bit of a boost in terms of new books.
Setting up the project
We chatted for quite a while – over an hour – and that time changed my life. I have always believed that all children in the world are entitled to education, information and pleasure from books and other resources and I thought it was about time we gave something back to St Lucia, an island that lots of British people go to on holiday. My gift was to be something that I hoped the children of St Lucia would benefit from educationally, but also enjoy – books. Agnes thought this might be OK, so we said goodbye and she went back to work and I went off to explore.
Back in the UK, I was determined to do something and I am very privileged in that I know quite a few people in the children’s book world. So, I wrote to all the authors, illustrators and publishers I knew – in fact anyone I thought might be able to give me books to send over. I wanted new, up-to-date books – not used or inappropriate to their needs. Throughout this time, I liaised with Brenda Paul, Acting Head of Libraries in St Lucia, on the best way of working together. The British High Commission got involved, as did P & O Cruises, who generously agreed to freight the books out there.
Nearly 4,000 new children’s books poured in from everywhere in the UK. Anne Fine, Philip Pullman, J K Rowling, Terry Jones and Jacqueline Wilson, to name but a few, supported the project by donating copies of their own books. More than 50 authors and 15 publishing houses and reviewers offered books, which was absolutely wonderful and quite overwhelming.
Jane Ray, Ian Beck, Michael Foreman, Anthony Browne and others donated original artwork, which raised money at YLG, SLA and ASCEL Conferences – so the librarians played their parts too! Children in schools in Hampshire, including Hook-with-Warsash Primary and Admiral Lord Nelson schools, had raffles and cake sales. Terry Pratchett, a recent Carnegie medal winner, donated part of his prize money, and he and a number of others, including Bob Swindells, Jane Nissen and Hugh Montgomery also made cash donations. The £6,000 thus raised was for St Lucia librarians to spend on books themselves.
Delivering the books
The Oriana left Southampton in November and a group of children from Hook-with-Warsash School in Hampshire gave the Captain, Rory Smith, a special parcel, containing Carnegie Medal winning books and Christmas stories to give to children from Castries library when the ship arrived in St Lucia as a Christmas present. They also sent letters as they hoped to find pen pals – an opportunity to find out more about each other and to share information about the books they like.
I flew over on holiday at the beginning of December and was there when the ship docked and the books were unloaded. We had an official handover on the ship, with the Captain, the British High Commissioner, a Senior Officer in the Education Ministry and of course Brenda Paul and Agnes Alcide of the library service. We had a second ceremony at the library with children from two local schools in Castries, at which the Governor General, Mme Pearlette Louisy, accepted the cheque for £6,000 and I in turn received a gift of – yes – books! Mine, however, were a beautiful full colour guide to St Lucia and some St Lucian picture books, which will go to Hook-with-Warsash School.
A tour of the libraries
I went on a tour of the seventeen libraries with Brenda and one of her colleagues. Though the island is quite small in area, the roads are often very twisty and often in need of repair and the trip took a whole day. The scenery is breathtaking. From the coast, with its blue seas and warm breezes, we went inland, climbing ever higher on the road through the tropical rainforest. Then down again, on badly rutted roads to small villages, which, because of their isolation, need their own libraries. Though there is affluence on the island, not everyone benefits from the tourist trade and education and books are vital if the children are to progress in life.
The tour was fascinating, because, of course, I got to see the island with people who lived there. The libraries vary in size; some are no larger than a room in a house, others are quite spacious but they all had three things in common: the staff was friendly and welcoming, the children who used the libraries valued them and the opportunity to learn but crucially, the stock was desperately in need of editing and revitalising.
Continuing the project
4,000 books sounds a lot, but they don’t go very far when there are 17 libraries to provide for and children who need to feed their reading habit. The provision for pre-school children was particularly in need of re-stocking. I received a call from the Head of a Montessori Pre-School, who had seen a piece they did on St Lucia TV about the project, asking if we could help provide books for them. This set me thinking about continuing the project, but this time, focusing on books for under 5s. So I contacted the Chair of the Hotel and Tourism Association while I was still there to see if they might offer sponsorship to provide kinderboxes and picture books for some of the libraries on the island. We’re working on that at present.
Transport is always the most difficult aspect of any scheme like this, but P & O Cruises have generously offered to help again and will ship books and furniture out to the island. I have in mind some of the wonderful kinderboxes that Peters Bookselling Services sell in their Kit Shop. They are bright and attractive, and when full of picture books, will be a great asset to the libraries over there. All I have to do now is raise the money, and persuade publishers to send me books!
It was a wonderful year – people’s generosity was extraordinary and I found it a very emotionally rewarding enterprise. The best parts, though, were meeting the St Lucians, a very warm and friendly people, visiting their wonderful island and being able to give something back to them from the children’s book world in the UK – something that hopefully will help their children in years to come.
Anne Marley is Head of Children’s, Youth and Schools Service, Hampshire Library & Information Service. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org