Literary lions of Grenada's Mount Zion
By Colin Babb
In 2011, following the closure of the National Public Library in St George’s, Grenadians were left without an accessible source of books to refer to, borrow and share in the island’s capital city.
The heritage building constructed in the 1720s, which housed the library’s books and the Grenadian National Archives, was closed because of deterioration, as well as a lack of funding and support.
In response to the library’s closure, a group of people emerged in Grenada with a collective passion to provide a library and literacy support for the St George’s public.
The project grew and developed into the Mount Zion Library, based in the Arnold John Building in Meredith Street.
House like a library
In November 2015, the Mount Zion Library will celebrate its second anniversary of opening full-time.
The novelist and social development researcher, Oonya Kempadoo, is a co-founder of the Mount Zion Library and the library’s director.
Oonya was born in Britain, grew up in Guyana and has lived in Grenada for the last 15 years after moving there from Trinidad.
Her three novels, Buxton Spice, Tide Running and All Decent Animals, are studied in several universities in the Caribbean, the UK, the US and Canada. Buxton Spice, a story of a young girl’s growing sexual awareness and sexuality in Guyana, was serialised on BBC Radio 4 in the UK.
Oonya told Caribbean Intelligence© about her early passion for books, reading and libraries as a young girl growing up in Golden Grove Village, Guyana.
“My house was like a library and at about the age of 12, I remember turning our home personal book collection into a little library for the village. I set up the library with my friends and we used to collect the late fees and buy rock buns and soft drink!” Oonya fondly recalls.
“I’ve always had a love of books because my parents collected books and my dad [the Guyanese author Peter Kempadoo] had books published in the 1950s and 60s in London. So having that love of books from an early age, I’ve always sought after books and collect books whenever I go.”
On a mission
Oonya arrived in Grenada in 1998 with a sizeable book collection and began to search for people to work with to respond to the National Library’s closure.
One of the partners Oonya found was the Mount Zion Full Gospel Revival Church Ministries, a Pentecostal church involved in outreach and support work in Grenada.
Groundation Grenada, a social action collective, was also interested in finding somewhere that could create a library, a drop-in counselling centre and a community space.
The Mount Zion church owned two rooms in the Arnold John Building in St George’s and offered both rooms on a rent-free basis for a year.
The library took its name from the church and started with a collection of books donated by Oonya, along with another donation of 5,000 books from Rick Brazeau, a writer from Canada.
These donations helped to open the children’s library in September 2013 and start building the general library collection in June 2014.
The library was able to open full-time in November 2014 due to financial support from Urban Humanitarian Projects (UHP), a student group which donates funds to charitable causes.
As Oonya explains, the assistance from UHP was crucial to the library’s survival.
“We were able to open full-time because of the sponsorship from UHP, as they sponsored our librarian’s salaries.
“We were at risk of having to move out of the building, because we had to start paying rent and we couldn’t. So after UHP came on board, we were able to stay in the building, hire our first librarians and open full-time,” she told Caribbean Intelligence©.
The library’s rooms in the Arnold John Building are surrounded by the daily vibrant hustle and bustle created by a collection of outlets including a bar, a shoe shop, a cell phone repair shop, a hair salon and a barbershop.
Oonya describes how the daily interactions within the building benefit the library.
“The cell phone repair shop guys give us the internet, and the barbershop guy has told us that if he tells his customers they can get a $10 haircut, he’ll take one dollar from them and give it back to the library.
“With the ladies who go to the hair salon, we try to attract their kids to join the library by bringing the books outside for them to see. Then, their mothers might also want to come in.
“It’s an interesting dynamic to see how the library connects with the businesses in the building, and a lot of our members would not have entered the building if it was solely dedicated as a library.”
The front of the Arnold John Building is situated opposite the entrance to the Esplanade Shopping Mall.
This Mall is directly connected to the Melville Street Cruise Ship Terminal and the library benefits from visits from some of the cruise ship passengers.
“We have a curious stream of visitors from the cruise ships. They come in and use the bar on the ground floor of our building, and some of them come up to see what we are all about!” Oonya said, chuckling with satisfaction.
“We also have an arrangement with Duty Free Caribbean, who have a collection box for books in the Cruise Ship Mall. We have another interesting connection where a blogger, who is connected to a travel agent for cruise ship passengers, blogs about our wish list for books and some cruise ship passengers try to donate these books to us.”
And clubs too
The Mount Zion Library has more than 1,200 members and has been steadily growing at a rate of about 25 new members a week.
The library also supports a wide range of activities including a homework club, a boys’ book club, a chess class, creative writing classes, and adult and teen literacy support groups.
The new members are from all age groups, but predominately teenagers and children who just want to read. “This defies the belief that Grenadians are not interested in reading, kids don’t want to read any more and books are dying,” Oonya declared to Caribbean Intelligence©.
Another key feature of the library’s development is observing literacy and books in a local cultural context where people don’t expect to find them.
Some of the new visitors to the library take a look at the collection of books and think they are in a bookshop.
Oonya shares a story to illustrate.
“We have some new curious visitors who, when they see new books in a room, they associate this with being a bookshop and not a library. A mother recently came into the library asked, ‘How much for the books?’ We explained that the books were not for sale and you could borrow them and bring back.
“But if you think of it, what do we now borrow and bring back? We don’t tend to do this much with anything. Even with DVDs that you once borrowed from a DVD club, most people will now buy them, keep them or dispose of them.
“In this disposable era, and in that local context, to have something that is a lending service can be a strange phenomenon, especially to young people who have not entered a library and don’t know what that means. So we’re always trying to explain this. These are some of our daily challenges, but they’re nice challenges to have.”
Fundraising at home and abroad
The development of the library has been built on donations and volunteer support.
Books continue to be donated, while stationary supplies and printing are donated in kind.
However, as the membership increases, the library continues to require funding to meet its major costs, including the librarian’s salaries, rent, and a supervising manager, who is required to co-ordinate work needed for present and future programmes and activities.
A major part of the library’s fundraising campaigns, and requests for volunteers, includes reaching out to the Grenadian diaspora in the UK and North America.
“We are reaching out to the Grenadian diaspora through the Grenadian High Commission in London, who have sent out information about our fundraising to people on their mailing lists,” Oonya explained.
“In Canada we have some Grenadians who are very supportive, and the Canadian Embassy helped in the shipment of that first big donation of books to get the library started.”
As the Mount Zion Library continues to grow, the journey ahead will continue to present challenges for Oonya and her team. But Oonya is totally committed to keeping the project moving forward.
“For the smaller Eastern Caribbean islands, I know it has been a challenge. Especially in the present time, where libraries are being challenged all over the world and they have had to become resource centres,” says Oonya to Caribbean Intelligence©.
“In some ways, libraries have not been a priority for governments, because of the demands for education, school, health and hospitals and other urgent development needs.
“So understanding how libraries can operate in a way that works now is something that I’m motivated to find a response to.
“People in other islands, like Dominica and St Lucia, have said to me that they need a library like Mount Zion there. So I hope that as the library continues to grow and develop, it will become an interesting model to document and follow. We’ve learnt a lot of lessons and faced many challenges, but feel that we’ve come up with plenty of solutions which we can now share.”
Mount Zion Public Library, Grenada: http://mtzionlibrary.org/
Oonya Kempadoo: http://oonyakempadoo.com/