Personal archives—a lifetime interest

Published Categorized as From the Archives

John Robert Lee

I don’t remember how and why it started, or when I began. To save clippings on British royalty, pop-singers, cricketers, boxers and other sports persons, writers, actors, films, world leaders; to collect autographs, photos, theatre programmes and tickets, book-covers, posters; later, cassettes of music, readings, interviews. Memory fails now but I suspect that my parents, (literate in a society marked by much illiteracy and unresolved bilingualism (English and Kwéyòl),) especially my mother Joy, may have triggered the interest and my first efforts at document collection and archiving. The first source of articles and photos came from the Trinidad Guardian which my father received daily, and women’s magazines that my mother got from friends.

I recall pasting clippings with glue from a small sticky fruit into albums made from used notebooks and exercise books. The recent death of Prince Philip reminded me of childhood as a British colonial with a great interest in the royal family. Many of my collections consisted of news and photos of the Queen and her family, the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne. The Kennedy’s, film and sporting stars, history, newspaper comics and cartoons were the American component. From the Caribbean came calypsonians, politics, top ten lists of music hits and cricketing and tennis stars, some of whose autographs I got when they visited Saint Lucia. Many of these notebooks survived and are deposited at the Saint Lucia National Archives.

Later, entering my thirties, after teaching literature, language, theatre, working in radio as a DJ, interviewer and producer and spending a year with a business firm organizing arts and cultural programmes for individual artists and groups, I joined the public library and became a professional librarian. An inevitable anchored harbouring of my childhood, teenage and young adult interests in archives. I learned the skills of cataloguing and classification, did some uncompleted post-graduate diploma courses in librarianship at the University of the West Indies and went on to edit several non-fiction books and anthologies that documented literature and literary and theatre history of Saint Lucia, which included two substantial bibliographies of Saint Lucian writing. 

While I have deposited many of these – albums, folders of my book manuscripts and various kinds of materials, photographs, posters, programmes – at the National Archives of Saint Lucia, my fairly spacious study- library at home still holds much of this archival matter.

Shelves and boxes of folders hold copies of manuscripts of my publications. I tend to print out often as a piece of work or a full manuscript develops. And yes, I do save pretty much every copy. But I have dated records of other activities, many job-related and my long involvement with arts and cultural activities. I save the paraphernalia of posters, programmes, political manifestoes, clippings of general interest. 

I should pause to say that the main content of my library, through books and papers, consists of literature – Caribbean and international, past and contemporary, fiction, non-fiction, poetry – and Christian theology. My other general interests in history, media, education, comparative religion, cultural studies are represented, in a kind of essential way.

I have been fortunate to meet many well-known Caribbean and international writers over the years and possess books autographed by them – Walcott and Brathwaite of course, Martin Carter, George Lamming, Lorna Goodison, Dionne Brand, Phyllis Allfrey, Patrick Chamoiseau et al and famous others like Arthur Miller, Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komunyakaa, to drop a few names. I do have a good collection of Saint Lucian literature, as well as contemporary Caribbean writing which I receive for review.

 In 1977, working as a radio DJ, I met Little Richard, interviewed him, recorded him singing gospel (I still have a copy of the reel-to-reel tape) and have his autograph. Local radio and TV stations should have tapes of my interviews with many local, Caribbean and international figures, but I have never checked to find out if these were kept.

I used to save more periodicals, but gave most away to libraries and no longer save too many, unless I have poems and articles published in specific issues.

My shelves hold quite an extensive collection of audio cassettes with poetry readings, interviews and music, as well as some video cassettes of interviews and book launches. These need digitization. Photo albums and boxes of photographs also find place under tables and tops of shelves in my study.

In this digital age, I have created computer folders that cover Caribbean and Saint Lucian arts and culture (performing, visual and literary arts) through photographs and text documents. My own manuscripts and photographs are saved there. From time to time I have shared copies of these with the UWI Open Campus, the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, the Folk Research Centre and the National Archives. I back up regularly on an external hard drive.

With the passing, swiftly, of the years, I think often of a final deposit of the contents of my library. I will continue to donate papers to the National Archives. I give select material to the Folk Research Centre whose forty-two year- old collection of print and audio-visual materials was completely lost in a fire of 2018. I have been able to source books, papers and artefacts from the libraries of prominent citizens for the FRC.

I would like to share my books with the UWI Open Campus, the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (which now houses the Walcott library) and the main Castries public library. The existing challenge is that these institutions have space limitations and are often afflicted by mould issues. I have considered approaching UWI but ultimately, I prefer to leave my substantial collection to Saint Lucian libraries. As a librarian I do have concern about organization, care of the donated collections, responsible oversight of their use.

So a childhood interest, stimulated most probably and indirectly by my parents, has led to a lifetime involvement in archiving and documenting the arts and culture, mainly of Saint Lucia within the context of the Caribbean and the world. My professional work as a librarian and bibliographer and my own career as a creative writer with a strong involvement in print and electronic media, and as an editor and reviewer, have all been the coordinates of my becoming a literary archivist with a consequent and active, abiding interest in documenting the arts and cultural history of Saint Lucia and the Caribbean. I remain committed to that essential and necessary work.

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