Authors and their Archives

Why literary archives matter

In many ways, the archive shapes what is seen to constitute Caribbean literature, authorship and literary history. In a context where the colonial past forced exclusions and erasures, the need to think critically and creatively about the archive is especially significant. Identifying and preserving existing archives, mapping losses as well as finds, encouraging new acquisitions and bringing all possible sources into visibility will help create a more democratic and pluralising version of the literary past and thereby of the Caribbean’s cultural, national and regional heritage. 

As researchers on this project, we have not only been reading and writing about literary archives but we have also been keen to raise awareness around the value of authors’ papers among living writers – who, after all, are the future of the region’s literary past. Any authors who are currently building their archive can access advice. Marta Fernández Campa has worked closely with the writers Karen Lord, Sharon Millar, and NourbeSe Philip to explore their ideas and approaches to record-keeping and you can learn more about this LINK It is still relevant to note that far less has been archived in relation to women writers from the region more generally.

In the Anglophone region, it was Prof Kenneth Ramchand’s successful request for funds to found a collection of authors’ manuscripts at UWI in 1968 that laid the foundations for what is now the West Indiana Collection at the UWI Library at St Augustine, Trinidad. This remains a flagship literary collection and actively acquires the papers of living writers. UWI and especially Lorraine Nero, Senior Librarian, have been a key partner in this project. In the digital age, both literary creation and reception takes place in an online environment and this also has a profound impact on what we understand by an author’s archive. While it would be mistaken to assume that electronic material is more readily retrievable, more open and accessible, and easier to preserve than paper, the Digital Library of the Caribbean, launched in 2004, has transformed access to rare and hard to reach primary materials across the Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanaphone, and Dutch Caribbean. dLOC’s digital archiving helps overcome information biases against small islands and the organization has also modelled strong ethical principles in terms of cooperative working. dLOC, especially Laurie Taylor and Perry Collins, have been active partners on our digital outputs and have offered us a permanent home for our research.

The 2018 Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literary festival in Trinidad and Tobago, partnered with Caribbean Literary Heritage to consider the role of literary archives. In this panel, scholars Alison Donnell and Evelyn O’Callaghan and writers Lorna Goodison, Kei Miller, and Sharon Millar discuss the value of Caribbean literary archives and the challenges of identifying and preserving a writer’s “papers” in the digital age.

Thinking through archives

Caribbean award-winning authors Karen Lord, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Sharon Millar are the three writers who have participated in case studies as part of my research into their recordkeeping interests and practices. The insights that Lord, Philip, and Millar shared about their own writing processes, influences, and practices of selecting and keeping materials for their archives has shaped and nourished this research in multiple ways. I had meetings with them in person, sometimes in the UK and other times during research trips to the Caribbean and North America. We also met online. This was especially the case during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of those occasions was also the first time that we all gathered (although virtually) and continued the conversation together as part of the commission entitled Thinking Through the Archives. The video below is a film that documents that moment, and it also captures the ways in which discussing issues of recordkeeping, legacy and memory have influenced this research and the authors too.


One of the purposes of the research was to consider new ways in which literary papers today (both with authors or in a library/archive) might be changing and differ from those of writers from previous generations whose archives were largely paper-based and proportionately less influenced by the impact of technology. Digital media and technology continues to shape the papers of authors in the current moment in ways that will alter their form and access in the future. I carried out research in collections in the Caribbean, Canada and the UK with a focus on researching their materiality. What types of materials had been kept and included? What was their format? What were the differences between the types of materials that were physical and those that were digital? Research in collections at the libraries of two campuses of the University of the West Indies in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago offered a good sense of the range of records kept by various authors including George Lamming, Earl Lovelace, Derek Walcott, Lawrence Scott, and Lorna Goodison. This research offered insights into their habits, interest in safeguarding their work, and authors’ awareness of its cultural value. For example, Derek Walcott, whose papers are part of what is known as a split collection (one divided across various archives), was deeply invested in keeping a comprehensive record of both his literary and fine arts production. His collection both at the Alma Jordan Library in Trinidad and at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Canada, contains a comprehensive number of materials around events and awards (invitations, photographs, honorarium and financial details, plane tickets and itineraries among others). This reveals a keen interest and acknowledgement of its future personal and collective value for a wider community. 

My interviews with Lord, Philip, and Millar reinforced this sense of the active engagement of contemporary authors today in the process of keeping a record of their papers and preserving their work. I was interested in exploring a series of issues, especially in connection to the impact of digital media and technology in this process. My questions also shifted and adapted to the conversation as I engaged in conversation with them. It was important to be flexible and open to new paths through listening to them. This conversation that we all had about recordkeeping, archiving and creative processes took place on 26 May 2021. In my approach to the interview here, as in my individual recorded interviews with them, I attempt to facilitate and share a space of dialogue without too much steering into specific directions. Karen, NourbeSe, and Sharon spoke about their interest and thinking around keeping records for their papers, building and maintaining a library (together with all the decisions involved), the key role of conversations among writers in the process of archiving and in building networks and support, the perils and usefulness of social media for the writing process, and many more other issues. 

In an article published in a special issue on archives that I guest-edited with Evelyn O’Callaghan for the Journal of West Indian Literature, I wrote about the research into recordkeeping and these three case studies. I have also published interviews with the authors.  

—Dr. Marta Fernández Campa