Trinidad Workshop Review

Fourth workshop:  The politics of location

Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, March 25th/26th, 2014

The workshop in Port of Spain, the fourth and penultimate meeting of the Network, focused on the politics of location.  As with previous workshops, we had planned for a diverse mix of delegates both from different locations and from a wide range of academic and professional perspectives. In this instance, given the focus on how location influences the ownership, access and interpretation of literary manuscripts, it was particularly important to gather papers speaking from both the global south and north, with discussion sessions allowing dialogue and collaborative potential to come forward.

Following words of welcome by the workshop organisers, Helena Leonce of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and Alison Donnell of the University of Reading, the project’s Principal Investigator, David Sutton, opened the workshop with a short introduction outlining the network’s origins, goals, and achievements to date.

The opening paper was given by Professor Kenneth Ramchand, emeritus of the University of the West Indies Trinidad and a prominent figure in the history of West Indian literature and literary manuscripts, who stressed the vital role that academics and scholars play in communicating the importance of literary manuscripts to the study of an author’s work. In particular, he advocated for the need to keep West Indian manuscripts in West Indian repositories for the benefit of local scholars. While this ambition is increasingly difficult to achieve given the commercial value of authors’ papers in the international marketplace, there are good examples of cooperative working across repositories with significant holdings and split collections. One positive example emerged with Jennifer Toews’ presentation on the Derek Walcott holdings at the University of Toronto. Walcott’s papers are housed both in Trinidad and Toronto and connect to Caribbean communities in both places, as well as being shared for relevant exhibitions and publications.  As Walcott’s papers show, writers are often positioned among large communities of a diaspora, a feature of contemporary life that contributes to the complexity of identifying the ‘right’ location for a writer’s papers.

L-R Miss Jennifer Joseph, Alma Jordan Library, University of the West Indies, Monique Roffey, Professor Alison Donnell, Diasporic Literary Archives Network

L-R Miss Jennifer Joseph, Alma Jordan Library, University of the West Indies, Monique Roffey, Professor Alison Donnell, Diasporic Literary Archives Network

Professor Ramchand’s paper also made clear the important role that scholars can have in fostering relationships between writers and archival repositories, something that was particularly noted by both archivists and academics in the audience. A timely example of such collaboration flowed from Alison Donnell and Nicholas Laughlin’s joint project to raise awareness among Caribbean writers of the importance of preserving and archiving manuscripts and related papers. While their presentation drew attention to the fact that many Caribbean writers seemed unaware of the value and significance of their papers, one important outcome – arising from the questionnaire – pointed to the future potential of raising awareness and building relationships. Through this initiative, and with the support of the Diasporic Literary Archives Network, the Trinidadian novelist Monique Roffey has entered into an agreement to deposit her papers with the University of the West Indies at St Augustine, the first Trinidadian woman to do so.  Miss Jennifer Joseph, University and Campus Librarian of The University of the West Indies announced the new accession to the St Augustine’s West Indiana collection at the Alma Jordan Library as part of the workshop proceedings and Roffey’s papers have now joined those of Caribbean literary giants Sam Selvon, Derek Walcott and CLR James.

Dr Gail Low’s paper continued the exploration of Caribbean authors’ papers, this time highlighting the richness of publishers’ archives, as well as their highly diasporic nature which is in part an inevitable consequence of the lack of local publishers. The Caribbean focus continued with Christopher Laird’s presentation on his motion picture Banyan Archives that hold some rare recordings of writers and illustrated the urgent need for funding to preserve deteriorating video and audio archives as well as more traditional paper ones.  Lillian Manzor presented on the Cuban Theater Digital Archive that she directs at the University of Miami, detailing its attempts to provide access to material held in multiple locations to Cuban researchers, both in Cuba and the diaspora, demonstrating the value of transnational support to such imaginative transnational ventures.

The second morning opened with a presentation by Jens Boel, the UNESCO Chief Archivist, outlining the eligibility and benefits of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register that seeks to promote the fact that ‘the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance’[i].  Accreditation can be instrumental in attracting funding and drawing attention to culturally important collections.  Frances Salmon, Senior Librarian at the University of the West Indies, Mona, followed with a fascinating presentation on collecting literary archives in Jamaica, which resonated far more widely in its insights.  Most notably she opened up the subject of what may reasonably be termed ‘hidden archives’: collections which have been deposited with collecting institutions, but owing to limited funding for trained archivists and cataloguers, remain largely untouched, often still in the boxes in which they arrived. There was a strong sense among participants that the reach and depth of such hidden material is impossible to gauge and that is often inflected by locational factors.

For Cheryl Sylvester, Faculty Librarian at St George’s University, speaking about the situation in Grenada, it is not just a shortage of professional expertise that prevents full exploitation of archival material, but the fundamental absence of a building suitable for housing a national library and archives since the damage caused by the hurricane of 2004.  A transnational campaign to replace the former Public Library, supported by the Friends of Grenada Library, Archives and other Heritage Committee (GRENLIB), is attempting to fundraise for a new building, but for Sylvester, a higher level of government commitment is required if the building is ever to become a reality.

While there is no national archive in Grenada important holdings are at risk of being lost, stored in inadequate conditions and liable to environmental degradation.  Although Grenada may be an extreme case, various speakers brought up the number of authors whose papers are at risk of being lost, particularly in extreme climates such as those found in the Caribbean and Africa.  Sophie Heywood and Albert Dichy gave a presentation on a project to identify francophone manuscripts in these regions also considered to be in imminent danger. A model based on providing temporary safe housing outside areas of political turmoil or environmental threat is one possibility that is being investigated as a way of preventing further damage to manuscripts without having them removed from their country of origin on a permanent basis.

Dominique Taffin’s presentation was a reminder that collaboration between archives in such geographically, linguistically and politically diverse regions as the Caribbean is vital to the goal of providing access to documents essential to the understanding and study of their own history and culture, both as a region, and as individual nations. She spoke about The Memory of the Islands: Gateway for Archival Networking, or MIGAN, and its partnership work between CARBICA members whose aspiration is to provide a portal to enable easy access to the records of collections held by both public and private repositories across the Caribbean.

The workshop closed by examining how collecting policies vary significantly by region, and considering some of the possible reasons behind these variations, as well as their impact.  Veno Kauaria, Director of the National Archives of Namibia, spoke about how the collection of literary archives in that country is in its infancy, and how her involvement with the Diasporic Literary Archives Network was now having a significant impact on changing attitudes towards the value of literary manuscripts.  André Derval, Kevin Repp and Daniela La Penna all provided thoughtful insights into European collecting policies and how those practices may affect the way in which repositories in North America form collections of European writers.

Members of the Diasporic Literary Archives Network with Miss Jennifer Joseph and staff from the Alma Jordan Library, University of the West Indies, St Augustine

Members of the Diasporic Literary Archives Network with Miss Jennifer Joseph and staff from the Alma Jordan Library, University of the West Indies, St Augustine

The workshop was enriched by visits to the Alma Jordan Library at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, and to the recently opened VS Naipaul Literary Museum housed in the Naipaul family home.  Workshop delegates were also treated to an evening of readings by local authors, kindly organised by the committee responsible for the annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

[i] “Memory of the World: Programme Objectives,” accessed September 15, 2014, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/about-the-programme/objectives/.

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