A Caribbean Literary and Cultural Archives

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Few of our members represented the UWI Archives at the 35th Annual West Indian Literature Conference in beautiful Montego Bay, Jamaica. One of the interesting presentations was that of former University Archivist, John Aarons. In keeping with the conference theme ‘Archiving Caribbean Literature and Popular Culture’ Aarons focused on developing a ‘Caribbean literary and cultural archives’ . He declared that more of the creative works staged in the region needs to be preserved formally and made easily accessible for research and or other non-commercial use .

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Creative works, in this case, includes manuscripts and notes by authors, scripts of plays, programmes of events, production notes, lyrics of composers and singers, music videos, posters etc. These kinds of works often are not available commercially and  don’t fall under the provisions of the legal deposit legislation. Aarons quoted 

“As in Shakespeare’s time, today’s Jamaican theatre holds the mirror up to life…”  taken from ‘The Jamaican Theatre’, an authoritative work by creative luminary Wycliffe and Hazel Bennett. 

Records are preserved not only to ensure that we have evidence of past actions but also to serve as a memory for the future.  They are preserved with the expectation that they have long lasting value.

Materials and Records such as the lyrics and music sheets of our regional composers and scripts by our playwrights are not only of value for literary and cultural purposes; they have social value. Needless to say these productions are highly enjoyable, but can anyone locate the scripts and production notes if one wants to study them seriously?

Can we develop collections of popular cultural expressions, which fall out of the collection range – or even knowledge – of the established institutions?

The Jamaica Music Museum with it mandate…

to be the national archive for all of Jamaica’s music forms, collects both ethno-centric and other Jamaican based musical genre material. These include instruments, devices and equipment, books, photographs, ephemera, audio-video recorded media.

Aarons opines that this effort is unfortunately seriously under resourced, and it is often difficult to attract significant donations of materials from private collectors at home and abroad.

Media houses are also an important source of creative works that contribute to our regional memory – recognising the cultural and monetary value of programme tapes when preserved and organized.

The Banyan Archive based on the holdings of Gayelle, a community television station in Trinidad and Tobago and the Archives of the Creative Production Training Centre (CPTC) are good examples.

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The Internet has changed the game plan for libraries and archives in much of it operational areas, noted Aarons . One area of concern is the sheer volume of material that’s of value and often only available on-line via You Tube and other online media archiving sites.

Aarons may have raised more questions than answers but the challenge he leaves us is to find ways of archiving the cultural works and expressions of today that are not being collected. We have lost enough already as Derek Walcott (2000) said…

“What is archival in the Caribbean, as the Caribbean writer knows, is what got lost in the annals of sugar cane burned every harvest like the library of Alexandria, what disappeared in spray in the wake of the slaves. A huge amnesia rather than a history.”

Let us all ensure that our literary and cultural archives do not suffer that same fate.

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