Sept. 13, 2005 More money and staff are needed for libraries around the territory to be properly maintained, according to Claudette Lewis, executive assistant commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. Because both have been lacking over the past 10 years, Lewis said Tuesday that libraries on all three islands have fallen into a state of disrepair.
"It would take about $7.5 million for us to be able to properly run the libraries," Lewis said. "Realistically, I know that we will never get that money. But the government could give us a little more than what we're currently receiving."
Lewis added that she is allotted about $200,000 annually to purchase new books and other supplies for the libraries, but even that is subject to budget cuts. "There are years when that little bit gets reduced even further by a 10 or 15 percent cut. How are we supposed to run the libraries on such a small amount?"
Lewis and other individuals were called Tuesday to testify before the Committee on Education, Culture, and Youth to provide senators with an update on how the territory's libraries are running a report which made senators talk about wanting to get certain budgetary priorities in order.
"This is a historic problem in the Virgin Islands," Sen. Roosevelt C. David said. "People have known for years the problems the libraries have been facing, and we've all made a lot of promises, but nothing has happened." David added that since libraries are at the heart of economic development for any community, more should be done to remedy the situation.
"If we knew that money would be coming in regularly from a fixed funding source, we'd be able to plan for things," Lewis responded. "But because we don't have that fixed source, we've had to sustain ourselves on donations from the community and work on addressing the problems we have now."
On St. Thomas, those problems begin at the Enid M. Baa Library in downtown Charlotte Amalie. "Not only is this facility not accessible to the public, but it is never adequately staffed and does not contain enough recent materials or programs to be a viable institution," said Carol Lotz-Felix, former president of the Friends of St. Thomas Public Libraries. "As a result, we've seen that only 11 percent of the community actually use the facility during the year that's a disgrace."
Lewis added this holds true even though the library has recently extended its hours to allow residents to come to the library on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. "On some nights, it's completely dead," Lewis said. She added that these hours have also put more of a hole in financial resources because more staff, including security, has to come on during later shifts. "We needed the security because we've had the problem of people coming in off the streets and causing problems within the library. Since it's a three-story structure, it's hard to know what's happening on all the floors at the same time," Lewis said.
The library's lack of staff has also affected residents' ability to access various documents supposed to be found in the island's archives. "For a number of years, our archival program has languished due to inadequate staff," said Robert Moron, chief records manager for DPNR. "The documents continued to accumulate without being filed until we literally became a warehouse for storing documents. This started when our last archivist left in 1995."
Moron's statements created a sore spot for senators thinking about the needs of local schoolchildren who need access to such documents for academic purposes — especially in light of the Education Department's new homework policy (see "Education Department to Institute Homework Policy").
"You're right, our resources will be taxed greatly because of this policy," said Wallace Williams, territorial director of libraries. "And that's great because we have, and will have, things in place to make sure they are available."
Williams said that most public schools in the territory with the exception of Central High School on St. Croix already have access to many of the libraries' documents online. "In addition, the new library that's being built at Tutu Park on St. Thomas will help to take care of some of the needs for our children and young adults." (See "EDA: Agreement in Place for Tutu Public Library")
Lewis told senators that the new facility, paid for by the Tutu Park Mall, is scheduled for groundbreaking in January 2006 and should open in July 2006. It is expected to cost about $2 million to be funded from Tutu Park Mall's EDC benefits. "This will be a state-of-the-art facility that will house a children's room, a general reading room, a young adult library, a document storage room and an auditorium on the lower level."
The library also will house a Caribbean collection where artifacts recovered from the Tutu Park site prior to the building of the mall will be on display, along with visuals to explain their importance. "I think that this will be of particular interest to the community," said Myron Jackson, director of the V.I. State Historic Preservation Society.
Jackson told senators that among the artifacts were several skulls belonging to Indians of a prehistoric settlement. "Prior to the exhibition, we will be extracting DNA from these remains so that people today may be able to trace their ancestry back to older civilizations."
While questions were raised as to whether the new library will also have resources for persons with disabilities, Lewis said she's already taking steps to make sure those concerns are addressed. "There was not enough space in the Baa Library on St. Thomas to address the needs of those individuals with disabilities," Lewis said. "But we hope that with the new facility something can be done."
Felecia Brownlow, director of the V.I. Association for Independent Living, said she will help Lewis in this process by providing the library with computer software for the blind. "There's a program called Open Book where a person can scan a text through the computer and have it come up in voice," Brownlow said.
Brownlow added the program is also necessary because there are very few people who can read brail in the territory. "To read brail, a person needs to have feeling in their fingertips. Most people here lose their vision as a result of diabetes, so they don't have feeling in their fingertips. That's why this software is a more practical choice."
Wallace told senators he and Lewis are also in negotiations to build another state-of-the-art facility in Sunny Isle, St. Croix. "There is a large young adult population that needs our services there, particularly young, single parents." Wallace reminded senators that additional funding will also be necessary to start and maintain programs for both facilities.
Once everything at the Tutu Park library is complete, the Enid M. Baa facility will be retrofitted to be converted to an archival building, housing the island's newspaper collection and various other historical documents, as well as a new photo-duplicating lab so documents can also be preserved on microfilm. There will also be a research center on the bottom floor. The cost is expected to be about $500,000 from Public Finance Authority funds, and Lewis requested another $350,000 to further upgrade the facility.
"We have also been working with the University of the Virgin Islands and the University of Pittsburgh to start a master's degree program in Library Science for anyone who wants to be a
librarian. That should really help us with the staff shortage," Lewis said.
Repairs and renovation are also slated for the Elaine Ione Sprauve Library on St. John. These improvements are also to be funded by the PFA.
Sen. Liston Davis, chairman of the committee, rounded off the meeting on Tuesday by telling presenters the libraries would be on his list of top priorities during the 2006 Executive Budget markup process.
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Sens. David, Davis, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Shawn-Michael Malone and Usie R. Richards.
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