Citing the existence of libraries back into antiquity, Paul Robinson believes libraries will continue to play a vital role in society even as technology changes how and where we can access information. Robinson, the Director of the Cayman Islands Public Library Service, says a library is more than a building or books, but is an egalitarian access point for the community to the world’s knowledge.
In this interview, Robinson talks about the services Cayman’s libraries offer, the synergies with the country’s education system, and the evolving functions of libraries in the digital age.
Bio: Originally from near Liverpool in the Northwest of England, Robinson studied English Literature and Philosophy at university and holds a master’s degree in Information Science. A writer himself, Robinson spent a decade working in television as an archivist and librarian, worked in Bermuda for 3 years as an archivist, and arrived in Cayman in 2009 to work for the Cayman Islands National Archive. He moved to the Library Service in 2013, was named Acting Director in 2018 and was confirmed as Director in 2019.
— Can you talk generally about the role of libraries in society?
Libraries play a huge role in communities. Our world is in an ‘information revolution’, and libraries have played an important part going back centuries to early civilizations. The Romans, the Greeks, they all had libraries.
We are now living within a time where information is often sought online. It’s easier, possibly, to find some information online than traveling to pick up a book, but I feel that libraries are a central part of our community. It’s a meeting place as well, where not only can you get a book, you can relax in a very neutral environment. It’s good for you, healthwise, to relax, and you can do that in a library.
On a global level, libraries are valued like museums or art galleries, as institutions that belong both to your nation and your local community as well. Of course, libraries are drawing information from all around the world. You can go in, find a book and look up — say, travel in Peru. You can also do that online, but sometimes the tactile process is important, to pick up a book and enjoy the learning experience that way.
Here in the Cayman Islands, the public library service serves all the community. It’s very much a welcoming door. It’s not just about finding information or knowledge; it’s also a place where people can interact. It’s there not only to provide you with educational or self-learning resources for free, it’s there to help jobseekers to write resumes, to look at job advertisements, maybe to receive some training that’s going on from the library. We do a lot of that here.
Many new entrepreneurs do their first initial research by going to the library. We provide that free space for people to come and do that. That’s for all members of the community.
We’re also very much focussed on the future — the young people and their ability to read. We strongly look at programmes where we encourage children’s participation in reading. It’s not just the children; we need parents and guardians to encourage the children as well. It’s a partnership. The more that we can appeal to parents, the more library cards can be passed on to the children.
Our services are free for children. Our services are free for seniors. There is a small fee for adults. We believe that for $5 a year you get a big bang for your buck.
We try to provide a cultural venue as well. We occupy prime real estate in the central business district. If you are trying to promote something or do a cultural event, you would have to spend a lot of money to use a building to have that event.
The library is an alternative space. It’s an enabling place. It’s a beautiful building as well, this particular [George Town] library. It can enable you to have a meeting to discuss community issues, or you can have training, or you can have music, or you can have an art display.
I look at the library as a multifunctional resource. We support businesses, we support culture, we support our youth, and it’s also a recreational place. We’re very invested in the community.
We’ve always said to ourselves that we want to be a 5-star library. I think we are an excellent library service. We really want to give maximum service to our public.
— Can you talk about the intersection between the library service and the school system?
The school libraries have their own librarians, and we work separately. We’re a public service library as opposed to a school library system. What we do is we advise librarians in the public schools. Our librarians go out to those schools, and we can advise a librarian on something like book selection or cataloguing. For example, I was asked to do the Clifton Hunter library with a colleague, when that was first built.
Also, as a public library service, we do a little bit extra. Our branch librarians, in particular, do outreach at the schools. They go to classes and do story time, and then also bring in school classes to the libraries. We do that as part of an outreach programme, so we very much interact with the schools in that way.
Even though the schools have their own libraries, we still want to participate and get the children to come to our libraries. Some of our librarians go to the schools and do readings as well in the classrooms. It’s all about encouraging reading, to encourage the love of books.
That is our primary bread and butter — to encourage the love of reading. If you were to summarise the whole mission, really, that would be it. That’s what we get paid for.
— What does the library offer in terms of electronic resources and information technology?
I think we have about 70,000 physical hardcopy books. Then we have 33,000 e-books that are online as part of a service we subscribe to.
When you join the library, that service becomes free. Normally people might want to download a book at a cost from Amazon or from another provider, but we subscribe to a service at a fixed cost, which then allows our patrons to have free access to download those books.
There are 33,000 e-books, both fiction and nonfiction, for children and adults. There are also 1,500 journals available as well through the e-book service.
We also have 2 online academic databases that we subscribe to — called ‘Social Issues Research System’ or SIRS. There’s an academic version, and a junior version for children called Discovery.
It helps you find information if you are doing a thesis or even a school project. For example, you’re doing a project on climate, whether or not we’re experiencing global warming. The database will give you all the evidence that we are, and it will give you all the evidence that we’re not. You can write your essay based on that.
That is extended to the academic version where you can get government reports, books, newspaper articles, even news footage. It’s all on that database.
There are many subject areas. Pick a subject: Gun control, pro and against. Human rights. You can see what’s been written about it, and you can relate your research to it. It’s an incredible resource.
The library we have is very traditional, but we have this massive reach. I believe the SIRS system is so much better than just searching on Google, where you could get anything, any opinion. At least this information is refereed, in a sense, and it’s not just somebody’s opinion. It’s published. It’s thought out. It’s referenced. It helps give more quality to your research. I would like to push that system for children into the schools more.
We got sidetracked by COVID, but we had intended this year to create ‘information literacy’ workshops to teach people how to find information. That’s another role of the library. If you’re researching, it’s not just that we at the library have the information, but we can teach people how to find the information.
We plan to go out to the schools and to adults, to show people how to find the information they need to find online, not only within the library system. Let’s see how we can find quality information or information that is more relevant to what you’re looking for.
That’s something I want to push to the schools, and I want to share with them our system. We need to utilise it more, and that’s down to us, down to me to do.
That covers both hardcopy and softcopy information — but I haven’t talked about how, in the building we provide computer access, Wi-Fi access and a printing facility. People can use that for whatever purpose they want to use it for.
Not everybody can access or pay for their own computer or their own Wi-Fi. If you’re a jobseeker and you want to look for jobs and write a CV, you may not have the ability to do that from home. The libraries, again, have a socioeconomic principle about them that they are free.
You may be lucky enough to have a laptop of your own, you may be lucky enough to have Wi-Fi at home, but a library can at least support those that don’t. I think that’s important.
If you’re looking for a job, for example, or if you need to fill in an application form, or you need to get access to information about what you need to do with your future, it’s there in a library because it’s a free way of finding information. That’s what I believe libraries are about.
— What about libraries being places for people to interact?
We’re always trying to invent ways to get people into the building. That’s important to us. Getting people in, gets people using.
We have conferences going on all the time. Our conference rooms were used 200 times last year, both the historic library and the conference room on the third floor. They were booked 200 days of 365 days.
In the George Town Library, the upstairs room holds 35 people. The historic library can host 100 people.
In West Bay, we have a small conference table area that can hold about 12 people around it.
At the resource centre in Bodden Town, we can get about 20 people in. Those are the main free meeting places.
We also have smaller units, if someone wants to work alone, conduct an interview, do some research or have some real quiet time. Or perhaps you’re an entrepreneur who wants to set up a business.
The conference rooms are free to reserve if you are a government agency or if you are holding a community event. If you are a business that is training staff, or if you are charging participants to attend, then there is a fee. Even those fees are pretty low compared to some other places. It’s only $275 a day, for the whole day.
— In addition to the main George Town Library, the Library service has 5 branches in West Bay, Bodden Town, East End, North Side and Cayman Brac. Can you talk about the role the branch libraries play in the system?
Generally, they have all the same books. They come under the same system, so they may come through interlibrary loans. The libraries themselves look to their own communities. They have local events, and they interact with the local schools as well, particularly in bringing the students over to the library for a lesson.
They also do after-school activities and homework assistance. Those things are available at the local libraries. Children can literally just walk over the road to the library from the school to pick up a book and do some homework. It’s a safe place to study.
The branches make books accessible, basically on your doorstep. You don’t have to travel so far. That’s one of the main purposes of those libraries. Having that is really good for the community.
The branches get good numbers through their doors. For example, in Cayman Brac we are hosting a basic computer training course, adult education, for some people who may not have ever used a computer, or sent an email, or been on the Internet. They may not necessarily understand how a computer or a Word document works.
We do these free training courses in each of our branches so the community can access them. They’re very popular and they’re signed up for almost immediately. There’s usually between 8-10 people in each class.
It’s focussed on what the local community needs. The branches are very supportive of the whole system. Grand Cayman’s population is spread out across the island. West Bay has a very popular library. It’s really well used. We probably get at least 100 people a day visiting that library. These branches are really important to us.
— What is the future role of libraries as digital information becomes increasingly available?
They’ve been writing books called ‘The Future of Libraries’ since the 1920s. It’s a never-ending discussion.
We’re a hybrid, as many libraries are. We do need to position ourselves forward.
I see 4 pillars to it:
- Information resource
- Community resource
- Training resource
- Place where you can access technology and get information online
We buy good books. We do surveys to find out what people want. We keep abreast of information technology that’s out there.
There are all sorts of things that are going to happen. As resources become available, there is so much more we could do.
For example, there’s so much going on in virtual learning. The New York public library has virtual reality headsets where you can have a class and ‘go’ to Egypt and learn about hieroglyphics, or something like that.
There are many things libraries can do, that people can’t necessarily do at home, unless they’ve got lots of money. But a library can provide that.
When we say that in the future, you have a lot more stuff online — is it all going to be at home? Probably not.
The vast majority of people still need libraries. If you look at the world’s population, a lot of people are not going to be able to afford to have that access. Even if the elite top 1% say everything is going to be online and at home; no, it isn’t. Only certain people in the world can afford these riches, whether it’s a virtual headset or other expensive technology.
A library is a community-shared information resource. Like the books, you borrow it, you never own it.
The experience cuts across personal finances. The good thing about a library is it helps everybody.
— Are there any misconceptions about libraries that you think should be corrected?
Maybe some people believe that a librarian’s job is stamping books and telling people to be quiet.
It’s a lot more complex than that. A librarian has to know where information is, and should be well-read.
It’s not just passing books out. You should know something about books, but you also should have an understanding that being a librarian is about helping people find information. That’s the training to be a librarian.
Also, librarians aren’t shrinking violets. That’s the last thing you want to be if you are a librarian because your library will die if you do not market your library.
If you think a librarian’s job is to hide in a corner and not be seen, and it’s all very nice and quiet because there’s books, that is the wrong job for you.
You have to get out there and tell people what you do. You have to promote what you do, you have to market what you do, otherwise you become like a little department in a big building, and people say, “What does that department do?” And you end up not getting funded.
A library has to think of itself in society in the same way. It’s not something in the cellar. A library has to put its face out there because it’s important. A civilization needs information. That’s how you have the ability to have democracy.
A library should be a democratic place. It should be open, and it’s for people to open their minds.
Although it’s physically meant to be quiet, it isn’t intellectually meant to be quiet. It’s meant to be very noisy intellectually, and it’s meant to engage people’s minds.