Past, Present, and Future. The Philipsburg Jubilee Library

POSTED: 11/21/13 1:24 PM

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – The friendly staff pointed the way to the library director’s office yesterday. Monique Alberts stood at the door with a smile and offered some tea. Her office also serves as the library’s archive for old and valuable documents, precious glimpses into St. Maarten’s vanished past. Unlike most of the library, it is enclosed and air conditioned and so not exposed to moisture, the enemy of paper.

Already on her desk are copies of Dr. J. Hartog’s history of the library and a book containing an essay she wrote on the history of libraries in the Netherlands Antilles. There is, however, very little written on the Philipsburg Jubilee Library, or about St. Maarten’s history in general. It’s still a wide open field to be explored and documented.

The library’s beginnings were humble. It started in the colonial period of the island’s history, during the time of Dutch imperial rule. Several of the island’s prominent families felt that everyone should have access to books and to read, a sort of Noblesse Oblige. W R Plantz, C M Darrell, C C G Philipszoon, A C Wathey (Albert Coenraad Wathey, not his grandson Albert Claudius Wathey, who was born in 1926), and C A Beaujon started the library on 23 November 1923, the jubilee year of Queen Wilhelmina, hence the name Philipsburg Jubilee Library.

Initially there was no permanent building and the books moved like nomads from one location to the other. At one point the library was located in the Court House, until it found a home in the Cultural Center on Back Street. The current building was built in 1984.

Alberts, originally from Surinam, described how she and her husband moved here from Aruba after she met the former director, Blanca Hodge, at a librarian conference there. “There is a big problem, no St. Maarteners are interested in being librarians,” she lamented. “People don’t feel that it’s their national library.”

She also lamented that “not enough” people take advantage of the abundant material in the library for research on the island’s political, cultural, and economic past. “It’s too bad,” she said, “We have a lot of material.” The materials consist of newspapers, microfiche, and a small collection of state published papers.

Alberts approached a cupboard in her office and pulled out an old book with hand written notes in the finest script, fading slowly as time passes. Not having a proper national archive to house such documents in a more climate controlled environment to preserve valuable national records for posterity is rather unfortunate, Alberts feels.

“I don’t think they know the consequences of that,” she said of many of today’s politicians who have it in their power to establish a proper national archive center.

But the library is more than building housing aging books. It’s a vibrant social center where people mingle and socialize, especially students who want to catch up with friends or do homework. “The building is used a lot,” said Alberts.  Even though society is slowly moving away from print as a reading material and on to digital or virtual books, the library is still “a meeting place for students.” Mothers bring their babies and toddlers and read to them too.

The lounge, too, is being developed, Alberts said. “There’s not much to do in the summer, so it’s really popular.” People can come and use the library’s WiFi or its computers to surf the Internet.

The future of viability of the library is in keeping up with technological changes. Just recently the library launched its ebook collection in which members can download books electronically and even check out an ereader if they don’t have one. “It’s mostly novels,” Alberts said of the books being downloaded. “And most are in English.”

Alberts said the library is thinking of expanding, adding an extra floor and working with other organizations like the St. Martin Museum, Simarc, and the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau.

The library will be celebrating its 90th anniversary this coming Saturday. What is clear for the future of the library that emerged from the discussion is the need for a proper national archive, and a genuine feeling, not just merely from politicians, but from the community as well, that the Philipsburg Jubilee Library is St. Maarten’s national library.

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