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A Library in a Town Called Dewey

The island of Culebra off the coast of Puerto Rico

If only Robinson Crusoe had found a library on his desert island he may have been a happier man. For the five mile wide island of Culebra in the Caribbean, the community library is a vital part of everyday life and, just as Crusoe had to build everything for himself, so the Culebrenses have built and stocked their library from scratch…

Even before you arrive on the idyllic, sandy beach and tropical forest island, you can’t help thinking about libraries. There’s only one town here and its name is Dewey. It’s not big and its roads are bumpy. As you drive your golf cart – quite a few visitors use golf carts to get around – you’ll leave the thin stretch of tarmac that passes for an airport and head for downtown Dewey passing boats on your left and bars, a school and the island generator on your right. Reach the other side of town and you’ll see a sign that says: Culebra Community Library. Open.

Eighteen hundred people on an island of ten square miles built this. No government funding, no statutory laws forcing the local council to fund and promote reading and literacy. This is people power.

If you’re in a golf cart it is best to park up a hundred yards from the entrance. The bumpy road gets very bumpy. But all the better because the walk allows you to see the brickwork mosaic before the library entrance. It pictures giant leatherback turtles. If you have ever heard of Culebra, the turtles are probably why. The beaches here are one of the leatherback’s most important breeding spots.

Lori Novis, Culebra’s librarian, is proud of the new entrance, recently completed by a local artist, as she begins a tour of what is a truly remarkable achievement. Lori came here in ’07 after falling in love with the island on vacation. But the library predates her. It was started as a not-for-profit organisation in 2006 and founded with a donation from Dotty Hill as a memorial to her daughter, Sandy, who was killed in an air accident in 1996. It was established in a trailer next to the Fire Station. Lori points out the spot. A horse is standing there. The locals still use horses to get around.

“Any island is a lifeboat”

Today, there are two trailers and a roofed deck joining the trailers. The total surface area is 3600 square feet, half indoors, half out. Free wifi is available throughout and customers sit outdoors, read and research on their laptops. People live in the wide open here, except in the hurricane season. And true enough, there are a few damp volumes that were caught napping by the recent visit of hurricane Irene. However, the roof stayed on and kept the stock safe.

“All our stock is donated,” says Lori. “The new deck and roof cost us $40,000 and came from the Rotary Club of San Juan. Everything has been achieved through fund-raising, grant applications, donations and voluntary help. Even the cinema!”

One half of one trailer has been made into a cinema, with plush seats and popcorn tub holders in the arms and a big flat screen TV. The trailer walls have been given that glitzy cinema feel with red wall covering. Just outside the cinema is the sewing centre where classes are held in traditional sewing and quilt-making.

“An island is a lifeboat,” explains Lori, “and Culebra Community Library is the lifeboat’s communications room, the islander’s point of contact with its own past and a much bigger world. Without it how do we learn of what’s happening, what careers or jobs our kids might choose, what opportunities are available, what people are thinking outside our ten square miles?”

There are real issues here. A largely Hispanic population whose language was at first proscribed by the US when it invaded in 1898, residents live in a non-autonomous region of the USA without a vote on central US government. This poses problems with regard to issues of equality of opportunity. The library is a means to find a voice and realise choices for the island’s inhabitants, especially the young.

Puerto Rico, of which Culebra forms a part, was a colony of the Spanish empire for over 400 years. As today Spanish is officially America’s second language, the opportunities for a broader cultural dialogue on an international stage and recognition for a divergent literary tradition to that of mainstream USA are perhaps the best that they have ever been in the island’s long history as a dependency.

Books in Spanish line one side of a trailer. Lizette Andujar maintains the collection while Lettie Melendez, the second bi-lingual staff member, is familiar with the Culebran literary scene. She explains that works of local authors, such as Claro C Feliciano, Jose Romero Samos and Benjamin Perez Vega are all written in Spanish, so the library is preserving the island’s valuable heritage.

Lettie talks about the informal lending system. “We run a Browne issue system, no membership, just check-in, check-out. Many people who borrow are visitors on boats. They bring us books for our collection as well as use our stock. Some take books away by accident, and we get parcels from mainland USA with a note ‘sorry, forgot to bring this back’”.

The sea plays an important role in island life, and staff member Lawrence Birch has made his home on the waves, living full-time in his boat and acting as the library’s point of contact for the island’s ‘boaters’, as they are known. Lawrence has also read every book in the collection and is affectionately known as the library’s repository catalogue.

In fact the catalogue is a list in a ledger. looking at it one can’t help noticing the familiar numeric code on the shelves. This is a library organised by Dewey. Even if the town isn’t named after Melvil but rather an Admiral, it was fair bet that a librarian living in Dewey like Lori would recognise the importance of using a standard classification system.

And what about the future? The library is going to expand its already impressive IT suite – complete with a coffee maker donated by the New England based corporation, Green Mountain – with a new learning centre. It wants to increase its scope by linking with other island libraries, such as that on Vieques to the south. It wants to develop the promotion of island traditions, not only those connected with Puerto Rico but also the nearby US Virgin Islands and St Thomas. It will have more local theatre under the roof of the deck after the successful production of ‘Oliver’ this year. But the big question is: does the library attempt to become part of the American state system of libraries?

“We’ve done so well on our own but a little recognition from government would go a long way, as would some funds,” says Lori. “We’ll see.”

Whatever, Culebra Community Library in the town of Dewey is sure to grow. It’s an inspiring story for us all. And if you should be heading for this magical Caribbean island for a holiday, don’t forget Robinson Crusoe and pack an extra book to donate to the library and its community of readers.