Spotlight

[Interview] Caribbean Children's Literature: A Library Perspective With John Robert Lee





Our special series of interviews with librarians continues today. Join our editor-in-chief, Summer Edward, as she investigates forward-thinking children's library projects across the Caribbean and the crucial role librarians everywhere play in broadening awareness of Caribbean children's and young adult literature.


John Robert Lee (b. 1948) is a prolific St. Lucian poet, art and theater critic, journalist, editor and educator. For over a decade, he taught children's literature at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in St. Lucia where he also worked as a librarian. He was a librarian at the Central Library of St. Lucia for seven years, and is currently the librarian and information Officer at the Msgr Patrick Anthony Folk Research Center where he organizes educational programs for young people and adults.

He has published several collections of poetry: John Robert Lee: Collected Poems 1975-2015 (Peepal Tree Press, 2017); Song and Symphony (Mahanaim Publishing, 2016); City Remembrances (Mahanaim, 2016); Sighting and Other Poems of Faith (2013); Elemental: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2008); Canticles (2007); Artefacts (2000); Saint Lucian (1988) and Vocation (1975). His short stories and poems appear in numerous literary journals and in international anthologies including Facing the Sea (1986), The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse (1986), The Faber Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories (1990), The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry (1992) and The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (2005).

He lives in St. Lucia and writes the occasional blog at www.mahanaimnotes.blogspot.com.


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Summer Edward: You completed post-graduate courses in librarianship studies. That was back in the 80s. Do you recall if there was an emphasis on children’s librarianship in St. Lucia at the time? What, if anything, has changed in the field of children’s librarianship since then?

John Robert Lee: The 80s was a good time for children’s librarianship and school libraries in St. Lucia. Led by Dr. Janet Forde*, then Librarian of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, the libraries were developed and school librarians trained. I worked with her at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College Library to develop training programmes for all librarians. I also taught a course in children’s literature to all students of the Teacher’s Division of the Community College.

Unfortunately there has been a decline in development of school libraries and interest in children’s librarianship since then. Of course there would be isolated efforts from the Central (public) Library and some teachers. But I could not say that that there is a visible, obvious developing and interest in the area now.

SE: Your background is in folk studies; you worked as an education officer and archivist at the Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre from 2002 until it’s tragic destruction earlier this year. Folkloric children’s literature is a significant facet of folk studies and children's books in general can tell us a lot about the folklife of a given culture and period. Why do you think cultural centers and other repositories for cultural heritage in the Caribbean have paid such little attention to the region's children's literature and how can that be changed?

JRL: I would say that some attention is paid to folk and traditional stories, games, dances for children, but there is certainly room for more focus on them, more continuing research to be carried out to find more of these stories and games and songs that are directed to children and that have an appeal for children. One of the keys is to involve teachers in that research so they can accumulate resource materials to share with and pass on to the children they teach.

Msgr Patrick 'Paba' Anthony, founder of the Folk Research Centre: “We have been trying to get our children to understand and to love the Saint Lucian culture. When I started the Folk Research Centre it was with young people. That’s my source of hope, the children.” Photo credit: DaMajority.

SE: Seven Stories, the UK's National Centre for Children’s Books, recently acquired the archives of UK-based award-winning Guyanese children's authors, John Agard and Grace Nichols. I find it unsettling that institutions in the UK are more concerned about preserving Caribbean children’s literature as cultural heritage than we here in the English-speaking Caribbean are. What do you see as some of the advantages of creating our own repositories to collect archival material related to the Caribbean children's literature?

JRL: The advantages are that we are better placed to understand the roots and sources of our literature, to identify the authentic stories and storytellers, to make connections between the stories, our histories and our community lives, and to see how the older stories can provide a continuity into the present and future, and even generate new stories that have an authentic foundation in the traditional experiences and values of the past. Our own repositories provide national archives of what we recognise as important records of our literature and history.


Jacqueline Alacantara's sketches and final illustrations for The Field, a picturebook set in St. Lucia, are valuable physical artifacts that can connect people to the historical, social and economic significance of St. Lucian literary works for children and illuminate the conditions in which they were produced.

SE: You taught children’s literature courses at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in the late 80s and early 90s. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that! It’s one of the reasons we invited you to join Anansesem’s advisory board. I’m interestested in the overlap between the academic and librarianship aspects of children’s literature. Having worked in both areas, do you see an interplay?

JRL: Well, yes. The academics, the teaching of children’s literature, feed into the collection- building of libraries, since the teachers of the literature will make recommendations to the library for new and necessary acquisitions. A librarian conscious of the literature, interested in it, can also ensure that the library’s collection contains a good representation of children’s literature across genres and age groups and can also help the teachers of the literature to keep up with what is available and the discussions about children’s literature.

SE: Yesterday we published an interview with an American librarian at NoveList who recently asked me for advice on her subject index project; she used metadata to enhance access to Caribbean children’s books in the NoveList database. What are some other things librarians can do to make Caribbean children’s books easier to find both in online searches and in brick-and-mortar library buildings?

JRL: Given the limited public knowledge of children's books and audio-visual materials with Caribbean settings, themes and authors, it's necessary that books, nationalities and themes should be catalogued as comprehensively as possible in databases. Within the libraries themselves, there is merit in identifying the Caribbean children’s books as clearly as possible in separate library sections or departments to encourage their use by patrons, both children and adults, especially parents and teachers.

SE: In your decades working as a librarian in various institutions, you organized many special library collections. I often think of all the rare, valuable and fragile Caribbean children’s books that still need to be collected, organized and preserved. Firstly, what is the precise value of a special collection? Also, what advice do you have for any librianian out there thinking of creating a Caribbean children’s (or young adult) literature special collection?

JRL: The value of a special collection, especially a Caribbean children’s collection, is that it draws attention to the importance, significance and national value of such literatures. It places these literatures alongside the other forms and genres of literature that have adults as audience. It makes a statement that children’s literature is a vital and important part of all national literature and should not be seen as works that can be ignored or undervalued. Advising a librarian interested in creating a special collection of Caribbean children’s or young adult literature, I would say they need to investigate the field, develop a real interest in the works and authors, read as much as they can across genres and age groups, become relative experts in the field and then become advocates to their patrons of this genre of literature.

* Janet Forde, Obl. S.B. is currently a librarian at Benedictine University in Arizon, USA. From 1969-1971, she worked as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer at the St.Lucia Teacher's Training College Library, assisting in its development. From 1987–1997, she guided the growth of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College Library in St. Lucia where she trained library staff and served as a member of the College's Senior Management team.


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Later this week, the series continues with an interview with Michelle Warren, Operations Manager at the Grenada Community Library. Links to all of the interviews in this series will be archived on our website on this page.



About the Interviewer

Summer Edward is the Editor-in-Chief here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is www.summeredward.com.




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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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