Preserving the memory of Prime Ministers and Presidents
One of the markers of civilised society is the desire of its people to preserve the memories of those who had, over time, offered leadership at the highest levels. In May 2012, Cabinet decided to dedicate the former Public Library building (at the corner of Knox and Pembroke Streets) as the nation's major repository for the special collections of former prime ministers and presidents.
Towards that end, it is expected that in fiscal year 2013, government will allocate the funds necessary for the restoration and refurbishment of the building as a library and museum for the memorabilia of those leaders who served the nation. Equally, the collection will be a reference centre for documents which shaped those particular regimes. In this way, the contributions of Sir Solomon Hochoy, Sir Ellis Clarke, president Arthur N R Robinson and Professor George Maxwell Richards will be bequeathed to posterity. Likewise, as much as is available of the records of Dr Eric Williams, George Chambers, ANR Robinson, Basdeo Panday, Patrick Manning and Kamla Persad-Bissessar will be showcased for scholars and researchers.
A committee has been established under the direction of the National Library and Information System Authority (Nalis) consisting of representatives of the Board and Management of Nalis, the National Trust, Citizens for Conservation, Ministry of the Arts and Multiculturalism, Ministry of Works and Infrastructure (Historical Restoration Unit) and Professor Brinsley Samaroo, senior research fellow, University of Trinidad and Tobago.
The preservation of the memories of former leaders is long overdue as is the recognition of those to whom public service was a life priority. It is an act of honouring which will inspire younger people to dedicate their lives to overt public activity. In a society where too many of our exemplars have been culled from abroad, this honouring will demonstrate that we are fully capable of producing world class leaders. Dr Eric Williams, in addition to his other attributes, has left a legacy of history-writing that continues to be internationally recognised. ANR Robinson's pioneering work in the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) remains as a living legacy to humanity. Rural children from across the nation will be inspired to learn of the achievements of Basdeo Panday, born and nurtured in St Julien Village, the first trade union leader to become Prime Minister. In like manner, there is the fascinating story of Sir Solomon Hochoy who had to travel on Sunday evenings from Blanchisseuse to attend St Mary's College in Port of Spain, returning home on Friday evening. After his retirement, Sir Solomon returned to the idyllic beauty of the village to spend the rest of his days. It is hoped that the collection will also house the papers of Kamla Persad-Bissessar the first woman Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
The location of this significant collection in the old library building will be a truly historic event. Since March 1902, that library has served as a beacon of light and learning to many thousands of aspiring young citizens who spent long hours preparing for local and external exams.
It was a rendezvous for young lovers who met to discuss national affairs away from prying eyes and ears. For one hundred years it was the venue for book launches, poetry readings, lectures by local and visiting experts and one of the venues for the launching of political careers. Witness the ascendancy of Dr Tito Achong, Albert Gomes and the learned debates between Don Basil Matthews and Dr Eric Williams. Such treasured associations during the formative period of our nation building render the place iconic in its own right.
In addition to its importance as a venue for public enlightenment, the old public library building was witness to countless political battles waged on its front doorsteps in what was first called Brunswick Square, then Woodford Square, then The University of Woodford Square
and more recently the People's Parliament. On the March 23, 1903, when the building was just a year old, hundreds of our citizens fled into its portals to escape a police firing at the Red House. Some 14 people were killed and dozens wounded on that mournful Monday. Subsequently, the library became the repository of many records of that event. It was in the southern shadows of the old library that Butler brought his thousands in 1937, and Makandal Daaga gathered his troops in 1970. If the walls of the old library could talk they would tell of the machinations of the Muslimeen in 1990, so close to Knox Street and the police headquarters. The corridors of the library gave shade to crowds of political supporters who sheltered there from the scorching sun or downpours of rain. It was a base for security agents who wrote what the politicians were saying so that the overlords in London could monitor and suppress those who were considered undesirable. Even the long-standing librarian, Carlton Comma, did not escape such close scrutiny. In continuation of that major role, played over a long time, the refurbished building will retain its original, early 20th century façade. This frontage will be spruced up while maintaining its original character. The interior however, will be modified to suit the demands of 21st century usage for the average citizen, the scholar, the secondary school student and the tourist. At the present time, the memorabilia and papers of past presidents and prime ministers are scattered in many places, such as college and university libraries, homes and offices. The hope of this project is to gather all of these diverse sources in a central location where the visitor can obtain a panoramic view of how this nation was created. This is a national project which should be supported by all those who have been advocating the preservation of the heritage. It is the fulfilment of a long cherished dream. —Photos and article submitted by Debbie Goodman, Manager, Corporate Communications, National Library and Information System Authority (Nalis)