The Curators of Cultural Tradition: Storytelling Activities of the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago

By Huggins, Sujin | Storytelling, Self, Society, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

The Curators of Cultural Tradition: Storytelling Activities of the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago


Huggins, Sujin, Storytelling, Self, Society


At an event celebrating the oral and folklore traditions of Trinidad and Tobago in commemoration of National Tourism Month, (then/former) deputy director of the National Library Authority and Information System (NALIS), expressed the following sentiment to a captive audience of secondary school students and teachers:

Young people need to use the technology available to them to preserve and present T&T's culture and traditions to the world.... We need to contribute these aspects of our culture to visitors. We need to package stories to promote ourselves to the world.... We need to take pride in our oral traditions. A country without its own culture is a country without a conscience. ("Call for Pride in Oral Traditions" n.p.)

Although the focus of the above quote was tailored to suit the specificity of the occasion, the significance of it lies in the call to cultivate and express the cultural traditions on which the society was formed, which Osborne identified as "T&T's myths, legends, music, dress-style and languages" in the same article. In keeping with this call, NALIS, the statutory authority responsible for "the development and co-ordination of all library and information services in Trinidad and Tobago" (NALIS), has positioned itself to ensure that each citizen is given access to various artifacts and library services that can tangibly address and/or fulfill this mandate.

However, this mandate is not one that is specific to NALIS and Trinidad and Tobago, as it is reflective of the global recognition that public libraries serve "as a living force for education, culture and information," as outlined in the IFLA-UNESCO Public Library Manifesto drafted in 1994 and revised in 1997, to which the libraries under the auspices of NALIS, like many others worldwide, closely adhere (IFLA/UNESCO 88). The manifesto goes on to more clearly articulate the missions that each public library should establish to fulfill its larger purpose. The areas related to culture are framed as follows:

* to promote awareness of cultural heritage, appreciation of the arts, scientific achievements, and innovations

* to provide access to cultural expressions of all performing arts

* to foster intercultural dialogue and favor cultural diversity

* to support the oral tradition (IFLA/UNESCO 88)

This sentiment is echoed, albeit more adamantly, by Bossaller, Adkins, and Thompson when they assert that "libraries exist to promote and preserve culture" ("Critical Theory" 34). They take it a step further to emphasize that "whether or not the library, as an institution, serves to reify the social structure of to defy it is a matter of great importance because the stance that one takes in this regard dictates what will be included in the services of that library" (34). This brings us to the salient issue of the inherent complexity of the social order, history, and traditions in Caribbean societies and, more specifically, that of Trinidad and Tobago.

These societies emerged from and are often characterized by a history of invasion, dehumanization, and imposition, and so it is crucial to "understand the indigenous pasts, and not just dominant outsiders' perceptions of them," as Africanists seek to do (Tonkin, "Investigating" 203). However, for a long time the perspective of the dominant outsider was the one that prevailed. Historians, like John Fage, also emphasize "that no oral tradition can be properly comprehended unless due account is taken of the social organization and language of the people concerned" (qtd. in Tonkin, "Investigating" 203), which, again, in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, has been hotly contested by many scholars.

Cynthia James noted in her article "From Orature to Literature in Jamaican and Trinidadian Children's Folk Traditions," that "West Indian society has no doubt come to understand that however much the past may be reenacted, it sometimes can be no more than symbolic" (175). …

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