The future of the territory’s libraries were on the minds of members of the Senate Culture and Planning Committee on Wednesday when they questioned Jean Pierre Oriol, commissioner-designee of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Sen. Kurt Vialet was concerned about the Florence Williams Library in Christiansted.
“As soon as you open the door you smell mold,” Vialet said.
He was assured at the hearing a mold remediation plan was in the works. He said that plan needed to be “fast tracked.”
Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw said the hours at the Charles W. Turnbull Regional Library make it less useful to the community.
“How can a student do work when the library closes at 5 p.m. and is closed weekends?” she asked. “We are doing a disservice to our children.”
Sen. Alicia Barnes, a former commissioner of DPNR, questioned whether DPNR should be the department overseeing the libraries and also whether the department has a long-range strategic plan for library services.
Committee Chairman Sen. Myron Jackson was also wondering about a plan for the archival material at the old Enid M. Baa Public Library in downtown Charlotte Amalie. He said archives need to be moved from the first floor to the second or third floor and the first floor could be leased as commercial space.
“We cannot continue to ignore that a plan of action is needed,” he said.
Several senators had questions about the lack of services in Frederiksted. The Athalie McFarlane Petersen Public Library was closed before the storms and has not been opened since.
Senators requested that the Bookmobile make visits into the town. At present the bookmobile goes no further west than Sunshine Mall. Vialet said all the school libraries on the west end of St. Croix had been destroyed. That part of the island has “no books,” he said.
DPNR moved its offices on St. Thomas from the damaged airport terminal after the hurricane to the Turnbull Library.
Oriol, who was nominated by Gov. Albert Bryan to his position earlier this month, said the move has had a negative effect on department morale because the space is smaller. However, he pointed out, the department has been exploring the possibility of moving into the old Water and Power Authority building in Sub Base. He said DPNR’s space at the airport was 26,000 square feet and the old WAPA building had 33,000 square feet. He added $1.5 million was available for the move.
Oriol told senators one of his biggest challenges was finding people to fill vacancies at the libraries, because the department cannot find people with library science degrees. The department also had problems filling the position of environmental enforcement officer because of the salary. An officer’s starting wage at the police department is $40,000, while environmental enforcement officers start at $30,000.
Sen. Steven Payne asked whether chemicals in certain sun screen products were damaging coral reefs. Oriol said Hawaii has banned sun screens with certain chemicals and DPNR was investigating whether they should be banned in the territory.
After questioning from Sen. Oakland Benta, Oriol said he would investigate to find how St. Croix’s aquifer had been polluted by industry.
He was also questioned about what the department was doing concerning threats from climate change. He said all new developments in the islands were told to make mitigation efforts to contain threats from rising sea levels and more intense storms.
John Woods, chairman of the V.I. Board of Land Use Appeals, also testified at the committee hearing on St. Thomas. Board of Land Use Appeals hears appeals from people who disagree with a DPNR ruling.
Woods said the board faces three challenges – it does not have its own legal counsel, it only has six members while it is supposed to have nine and its budget is too small.
Yes, the Senators should be concerned about the territories libraries, especially the school libraries. Over the years, school libraries, and school librarians, have provided the territories children, their parents and the local community with access to books, computers, maker spaces and so much more; and they have done this day in and day out with limited resources and support.
Until the community recognizes the value of a strong library system, and pressures the territories elected officials to develop and implement a long-term plan, our system will continue to be in jeopardy . It starts with library groups, like Friends, and library lovers who understand that a strong library system is only possible if they advocate for, support, and elect leaders who are willing to do whatever they have to do to make it happen. To put it simply, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.
Libraries are the great equalizers, the “People’s Palaces”, and if our leaders do not address them, ALL of them, with the same concern they are addressing GERS, the hospitals, and all the other pressing issues of the day, the people of the Virgin Islands will lose one of their greatest resources – their libraries.