JIS News

With the click of a mouse in the comfort of their homes, Jamaicans can now access historical materials, including maps, photographs and plans, which are stored on the website of the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ).
In an era when more and more information is being sought on the Internet, the NLJ has moved to facilitate the process, by digitising its collections as well as downloading and storing Jamaican publications on its website.
“We use robot software to scan the universe of web publication and collect and load and bring into the national library’s collection, things having to do with Jamaica,” Executive Director of the NLJ, Winsome Hudson tells JIS News.
This process, known as web-archiving, is one of the latest initiatives of the NLJ. Mrs. Hudson says the Library is also collecting selective publications from websites belonging to some ministries and government agencies.
“Of course, this is a pilot project, so we really are not collecting everything on the Internet about Jamaica, but we are collecting select publications at this point while we test the process,” she adds.
Another activity of the library is converting historical materials to a digital format, so that persons can access them via the website. Mrs. Hudson says that some of the materials that have been converted date back to the 17th Century and beyond. Among the oldest publications, she points out, is the first published map of Jamaica, printed after Columbus had discovered the country.
To showcase some of its digitised materials, the Library held an online exhibition on the Sam Sharpe Rebellion of 1831 during Workers’ Week, which culminated on Labour Day (May 24). Those visiting the site were able to view a map which highlighted various estates in three parishes, St. James, Trelawny and St. Elizabeth, that were burnt during the uprising. The map, which was drawn in 1832 shortly after the slave rebellion, was digitised and set in a format that could be accessed by a computer.
“We have seen that visits to our websites have just gone off the charts. We have gone digital but we have barely begun to touch the materials that need to be made digital,” she notes.
One of the challenges facing the library is the lack of funds and the need for additional digital storage space and staff. “Digital storage space is very expensive. All things being considered, we have gone digital, but we are still short of having all the resources we need,” she says.
However, Mrs. Hudson tells JIS News that she is not daunted. She hopes that within another three years, her plans for the library will be in “full gear.”
Visually impaired persons have not been shut out from the Library, as they have access to digital talking books for the blind. The Executive Director explains that the initiative, which is in the implementation stage, will allow the visually impaired, especially persons at the Jamaica Society for the Blind and those at the University of the West Indies, to have access to materials that were once only accessible to those with sight.
“We are trying to convert some text books that are of relevance to them. We also want to create reading opportunities for blind children,” Mrs. Hudson says.
She notes that persons do not have to come to the Library but can access the material via a computer or through play-back devices.
Funding for this project is being provided by the Culture, Health, Arts, Sports and Education (CHASE) Fund, in collaboration with the Radio Education Unit at the University of the West Indies (UWI).
Senior Lecturer in History and Archaeology at the UWI, Dr. Kathleen Monteith, one of the frequent visitors to the library, describes the facility as a “treasure trough” of resources.
She says that the Library, which has an array of resources dating back to the 17th Century, presents a host of materials necessary for researching the history of Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Dr. Monteith cites the Library’s large collection of newspapers, which offers a vast array of material on any branch of history. “Without sources, the work of the historian cannot be done and so the National Library plays a very important role in that regard,” she said.
The Senior Lecturer, whose specialty is economics and business history, says that articles written during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries showed that journalists went beyond just mere reporting, but did investigative reporting, especially into the social conditions.
“For example, around 1890 into 1920, the Gleaner ran a series about living conditions in Kingston and you get very graphic detailed descriptions of tenement yards in downtown, Kingston, particularly on Orange Street,” she notes.
Dr. Monteith says that Gleaner newspapers stored on microfilm and published from 1834 to the 1860s, are also available. Other newspapers are available in hard copies, including the Daily News, which no longer exists. It was published in the 1970s to the 1980s.
Apart from newspapers and other publications, the Library collects all types of advertisements and programmes of various cultural and ceremonial events. The Senior Lecturer displays a programme published in 1895, featuring a musical concert in Kingston and said that one could learn a lot from reading these documents.
Dr. Monteith notes that these items would be “extremely useful” for persons undertaking history and heritage studies. “I commend the library for really collecting and preserving sources like these,” she adds.

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