Preserving the Caribbean's recent past
By Debbie Ransome
Spanish philosopher George Santayana said that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
With that in mind, the Caribbean has recently seen a surge of nostalgia and a desire to preserve its heritage.
The former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Guyanese-born Sir Shridath Ramphal, published his autobiography in November 2014.
At the same time, Sir Hilary Beckles has been fighting a global vanguard to seek European reparations for slavery and its impact on Caribbean societies.
And moves to protect historic buildings and sites in the Caribbean have been on the increase in the last few years.
In one of his weekly columns, the director of the Caribbean Council, David Jessop, questioned how much of the Caribbean’s modern history is being preserved within the Caribbean, rather than being left to foreign diplomats and writers.
He wrote: “For a region where everyone has something to say about politics, as is evidenced by the many online blogs, scurrilous or otherwise, it is surprising that detailed first hand Caribbean accounts of key moments in regional history remain missing.”
This resurgence in interest in recording recent memories prompted me to follow up a development dating from 2011 – something that led me and a handful of colleagues to launch Caribbean Intelligence© the following year.
From BBC to Caribbean Intelligence
First, a piece of personal recent history – it’s only three years ago, so bear with me.
After 14 years of running the BBC’s Caribbean Service, I had been summoned to a meeting to be told that the department would be closing as part of BBC World Service cuts.
I left the senior managers’ office with several thoughts running around in my head.
One, obviously, was how to break the news to my team.
The other was how to preserve the legacy of an award-winning department, known for its independent and original journalism.
BBC Caribbean had had a proud heritage – from World War Two, to its closure in the 1970s, to its reopening in 1988 as a news and current affairs unit on radio, online and, by the time of the post-earthquake coverage in Haiti, on TV.
During its 1988-2011 incarnation, it had charted every major Caribbean political, economic and cultural development – elections, coups, the ousting of leaders, the death of great and not-so-great leaders and global changes in the Caribbean’s economic fortunes.
I knew that all of this Caribbean history had to be held in a place where it would be treasured and not become another set of BBC archive material lost in time, as has been the fate of bigger profiles than ours – from British comedian Tony Hancock to the Beatles.
I emailed the then vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), E Nigel Harris, to ask whether he would accept the BBC Caribbean archives.
He responded immediately with a resounding “yes”.
During the summer of 2011, as my team left to seek other prospects, I worked with a team of archivists, broadcast admin people and a UWI technical archivist, who arrived so quickly to help us log the material that he made it to London for the BBC Caribbean closure party at Bush House.
And, it was because of this work during the summer that I found myself sitting in the Mona lodge – the guest hotel at UWI’s Jamaica campus – in November 2011, at the invitation of the chancellor, waiting to hand over the archives officially to the regional university.
The material consisted of taped archives from 1988 to 2005 which had been stored by UWI’s technical archive expert, Frank Soodeen, on CD-ROM at Bush House during the summer after the final broadcast.
The later material, already in a BBC digital form from 2005 to 2011, had been stored on external hard drives.
The material was transported to the Caribbean from London by Trinidad and Tobago’s High Commission in London.
Three years on
Fast-forward three years on and it was with a sigh of relief that I found that the University of the West Indies (UWI) labouring away on the project.
UWI proved that it had stayed the course and was still digitising 18 years of the audio history of Caribbean political, economic and cultural development, seen through the eyes of one BBC department.
It has been, and still is, a massive task. UWI officials explained to Caribbean Intelligence© how they are continuing to convert 12,000 audio files into the MP3 format.
The exercise is a textbook example of how to make material accessible, not just for use across UWI’s multi-campus library base, but for researchers anywhere in the world in our digital, instant-download era.
How to archive
UWI’s archivist team explained that the MP3 format allows for easier migration to other formats as digital standards change over time. It also allows for snippets to be available as promotion for UWI’s library web site.
Checks by Caribbean Intelligence© on social media have indicated that the media-savvy have already spotted this growing archive, which allows people to dip into the UWI/BBC archives and do the audio equivalent of a selfie (you know - “that was me on air in 199*”) on Facebook and Twitter.
You can click here to access UWISpace and samples of the work available so far.
“The cataloguing of each audio file is time-consuming, and as a result to date, just over 1,000 files have been indexed,” UWI’s Frank Soodeen told Caribbean intelligence©.
UWI’s archive team say that approximately 2,000 hours of BBC Caribbean material have been digitised and that any researcher can find the metadata records, as well as snippets of editions of BBC Caribbean Report and Caribbean Magazine.
The process is not just a narcissistic one for former BBC staff and their interviewees – it is becoming part of UWI’s modern remit to archive what they call the “intellectual output” of our people.
“With mostly every bit of research and publication being born digital, and thus so easily lost as well, it is critical that steps be taken to safeguard these intellectual assets well into perpetuity,” Mr Soodeen explains.
“At the same time, it is important that scholars and researchers continue to have access to these resources, to build upon the research undertaken before, and to raise the visibility of the UWI as a research institution globally.
“Preserving and archiving the work of the university is the paramount goal, but it is similarly important to partner with other institutions working within, and with Caribbean imperatives to ensure that valuable content is harnessed and archived for the longer-term benefit of all stakeholders.”
The cost of preserving the past
The BBC Caribbean archives are not the only project that the UWI archiving team is working on in 2014.
In recent times, UWI has received the archives of award-winning Trinidadian author Monique Roffey and the personal papers of veteran Caribbean social activist Nesta Patrick.
The BBC/UWI project showed how to create something good for the future.
So good that all the players involved contributed to the huge financial challenge that is the constant bugbear in the expensive world of archiving.
In 2011, the BBC extended my contract to oversee the summer archiving project at Bush House, while UWI dipped into its own pocket to send an archivist to London to obtain copies of the material from 1988 to 2011.
At the same time, the diplomats at Trinidad’s London High Commission came to our aid in transporting the archive material.
Even today, UWI’s archivist team is still endeavouring to make sure the massive BBC archive remains available for future generations.
Earlier in 2014, David Jessop asked the Caribbean the question: “Who will write today’s Caribbean history?”
Hopefully, with a little help from our friends and benefactors, we in the Caribbean and the Diaspora can not only write it, but also continue to store it safely.
The university and, in particular, the university libraries should see a key role for themselves, as aggregators of Caribbean information resources, and in promoting research using these resources for the development of Caribbean peoples.
It is extremely important that institutions in the Caribbean take on the responsibility to build the capacity to preserve and make accessible the unique record of Caribbean history and development.
To find out more about UWI’s archiving work, go to the UWI Archives pages.
The Pelican: BBC Archives – A living memory of the Caribbean donates to UWI.
UWI Museum: Critics turned leaders turned critiquers.
Barbados Nation: The Caribbean Icons project