Our National Library is a national treasure. I speak here of both the service, the National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS), and the beautiful building, also known as NALIS which houses the NALIS administrative offices, the Heritage Library and the Port of Spain children’s, young adult and adult libraries as well as the Ministry of Public Administration.
The building, which occupies an entire block between St Vincent, Hart, Queen and Abercromby Streets, is one of the region’s finest examples of a modern public building that is both appealing and people-friendly. The majority of other buildings constructed in the building boom of last 20-25 years in Port of Spain were obviously intended for conducting business, but the National Library building was designed to encourage people to use it, and the people love it because it is comfortable and welcoming.
The architect, the deceased Colin Laird, was able to achieve the feat of creating an airy structure that is not oppressive, authoritarian or monumental. From the outside, it appears to want to take flight or set sail. On the inside, a large round atrium allows heavenly tropical light to beam down into the open heart of the library. It is hard to tell upon entering that one is in a library, so used are we to the stodginess of traditional library buildings. One of Laird’s triumphs was making the several-storeys-tall white edifice float behind the magnificent Old Fire Station without dwarfing or menacing the two-storey classic Victorian relic that abuts it. Together they form the library complex. I would say that Laird succeeded in making the marriage less incongruous than the one between the glass pyramid and the old Louvre in Paris.
Every year, since 2011, the Bocas Lit Fest team spends an uninterrupted week in the National Library and has seen the two buildings slowly begin to call for attention to maintain their grace. Smallish matters of unrepaired broken fixtures and fittings have now added to the major issues of the aftermath of last August’s earthquake, which did sufficient superficial damage to Laird’s creation to put some rooms in the upper storeys out of commission. It appears that whilst NALIS awaits the commencement of urgently needed remedial work all other routine building maintenance is on hold.
Foreign visitors who come to the library through our annual literary festival are always awed by this piece of functional but elegant piece of public wealth but this year, impossibly noisy and uncontrollably cold air-conditioning units were a source of complaint in our festival feedback forms from mainly local attendees. The worsening condition of the restrooms, a seeming absence of pest control, plus the many defunct light bulbs and broken light fittings, which make certain parts of the ground floor totally dependent on daylight from the atrium, provoked criticism. Similar symptoms of inadequate maintenance appear in the Old Fire Station.
The tested broken-window syndrome tells us that human beings react negatively to a negative environment, so that if their immediate surroundings are in a state of disrepair people treat their environment in exactly the same way. The highest crime areas are those where nobody cares about the physical space. We should worry that as this national treasure gets tired and becomes unloved that the public would hasten its deterioration.
The capital’s National Library offers public access to services from near dawn to dusk on weekdays, with shorter weekend hours. Security guards monitor and check the bags of those who enter, but hundreds of people probably use that building daily, if you include the countless schoolchildren visiting the youth and children’s libraries. The wear and tear must be inestimable. I imagine the library service does not have the resources to directly maintain such large buildings, so some arm of government must be responsible. We must therefore prevail upon the powers that be to prevent this particular national treasure suffering the same fate as other architectural and historical treasures that become severely dilapidated before they are restored.
We have a predilection for low maintenance, or maybe it is just bad financial planning that money is often short for proper care of public buildings. But it is a false economy not to maintain them because the cost of repair can be prohibitive. Our current Prime Minister is to be commended for making the funds available and for personally overseeing the restoration of the Red House and those Magnificent Seven buildings around the Savannah that belong to the State but which had become eyesores – things to be ashamed of rather than proud. And the National Library is a special case because it is more than a building, after all; it is an integral part of our education and societal framework. Let’s ensure that it gets onto the list of national “must-preserves.”