Archive Stories: ARMU The Truth

The Virgin Islands National Archives and Records Management Unit

Keeping the Virgin Island’s historical records on archive has always been fraught with difficulties, even keeping them on the island seemed to be a problem, for back in 1917, following the transfer of the islands, all archive records were sent to Denmark.

The place where anyone may expect to get any document or be told where to find it is in a library.  The importance of having materials so located cannot be over-estimated because it is here one can have retrospective access to that information. Also, though a need was recognized for even a national bibliography, many  hadn’t made efforts to maintain one.  Therefore acquisition and preservation of this information locally is also paramount, yet most island governments consider this area as unworthy of any legislative or policy measures.

Past efforts to organize the St Vincent records have been minimal, the first published by the Royal Commission on Public Records in 1914 (Vol. II, Part II, P. 119) contains the bald miss-statement that the Chief Clerk and the Registrar had reported that:

“…there were no political records in their custody dating from 1781 or earlier, except for one volume of Colonial Laws 1767-1774.”

This note, written eight years before and not intended for such publication, had been communicated by Prof. Charles H. Hull of Cornell University, United States of America. It is interesting to note that a memorandum of 1911, also included in the Royal Commission report, by the Librarian of the Foreign Office, says that a small sum was being spent on copying and rebinding certain of the records, and that bookworm had been exterminated in the legal documents by the use of napthalene and an insecticide recommended by Sir Daniel Morris, the Imperial Commissioner of Agriculture in the West Indies.

With regard to the volume of laws of 1767-1774, a later report gives the covering dates as 1767-1772 with the comment that the volume was imperfect, and a still later report describes the leaves as fragmented and out of order – a typical example of the progressive deterioration resulting from neglect.

The next report, that published in the Guide to British West Indian Materials … for the History of the United States by Herbert C. Bell, David W. Parker and others (Washington, D.C. 1926) strikes much the same note as that by the Royal Commission:

Political records at Kingstown, St Vincent, are scanty, and it was with some difficulty that they were found at all. Certain books of council minutes are in very poor condition, the paper being dark and very brittle. Manscript volumes of old laws are in the vault of the Registrar… The remaining books were found at the Administrator’s Office, in a room on the ground floor“, (p. 403)

Arthur E. Gropp in his Guide to Libraries and Archives in Central America and the West Indies… (New Orleans, 1941) quoted from a typewritten report of a local committee on the preservation of records of 1937, a list of the ‘historical records’ in the Administrator’s Office (p. 354). Gropp himself lacked the opportunity to investigate personally this phase of the survey in the Windward Islands, and his report is not important.

In a move to make some progress, back in the 1960’s the Administrator formed the first Antiquities Committee and in his wisdom also built a fire proof vault, this was in the Old Administration Building in the Main Street upstairs Post Office.

Michael J. Chandler visited St Vincent in 1961 to compile a number of provisional lists which he reported to the Archives Committee of the then University College of the West Indies, and later published by the Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, as part of a Windward Islands Record Catalogue.  Then in 1965 the most useful of all these reports is that by historian E. C. Baker (who did basic sorting, listing and labelling of records), with a sixteen page section on BVI records contained in his Guide to Records in the Windward Islands (Oxford, 1968).

After arranging for a suitable room to be made available in Government House, he moved the earliest date found administrative correspondence there dating from 1806 to 1896. Fortunately all the manuscript volumes of laws dating from 1767 which Bell and Parker had seen and listed in the Registrar’s Office were still there, intact. However, Baker’s survey did revealed some sad losses which had occurred since Bell and Parker:

  • Three volumes of Privy Council Minutes, 1784-1820;
  • one volume of Assembly Minutes, 1786-1793;
  • seven volumes of Legislative Council Minutes, 1784-1818;
  • and two volumes of copied local correspondence, 1808-1812.

Also where are other volumes in the series – that for 1920-1945, for example, and two others with a list of files to be destroyed for the years 1911-1943, 1928-1937, and a series of Oath Books dating from 1853?  To find the answers to such questions surely must be one of the first tasks of the local archivist.

At about this time the Caribbean Historical Association and University of the West (UWI) Indies prompted United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to sponsor listing of Leeward Islands records.

During the first half of next decade, Mrs. Otis Baronville, who held keys to the Archives, did 3 weeks training in Guyana. This was particularly strange since the developing center for training in Librarianship and Archival management is in UWI (in Jamaica).  Then Chief Librarian, at the time, Verna Penn-Moll offered the Public Library’s assistance until other provision for the Archives could be made and Library Assistant Janice Nibbs was encouraged to take an interest in the Archives (subsequently attending two regional workshops, 1973).  Two years later Clinton V. Black (Jamaican Archivist) paid a UNESCO sponsored visited and submitted a report with recommendations (1975), followed by Stephen Parker of the British Council under UK Technical Aid who advised on the Archives Building accommodation (1976).

In the 1980’s, shockingly, some departments were dumping records which thankfully Janice Nibbs at the Public Library salvaged. Further reports and recommendations were submitted by Verna Penn-Moll (1982) and Clinton V. Black (1984).

In May, 1980 Unesco held a consultation in Kingston, Jamaica on the co-ordinated development of national information systems in the Caribbean region. The meeting was attended by representatives of fifteen Caribbean island countries. The final report and recommendations were published in the Unesco document.

During this time, in his Report on the Fact-finding and Information Mission… to Several Caribbean Territories to Promote Adequate Archival Policies … (Curacao, N.A. 1980) Dr A.F. Paula writes:

“St Vincent does not have an organized archival service. The documents are not centralized. There are some documents kept in a wooden cupboard in the library building. I understood that on (at least) two occasions an attempt had been made to organize the St Vincent documents: first by Mrs Christine Matthews, current chief archivist of Barbados, and recently by two members of the Peace Corps”, (p. 11)

A year later a general survey of information manpower needs was commissioned and carried out by N. Moore and followed by entirely unco-ordinated second attempt by staff of the Department of Library Studies (Jamaica), headed by H. Bennett which found that there had been significant archival developments in BVI and a number of other islands, including Grenada, St Vincent, Antigua, Montserrat and Dominica. [PGI-82/WS/15]

These surveys make it perfectly clear that there was an immediate need for archival training, and a short-term need for further training.

in November of 1982 Daphne Douglas, senior lecturer at DLS/UWI (for Unesco) conducted yet another related study, this time focusing on Public Documents in the English-Speaking Caribbean.

At the time Mrs. O. Baronville was administrative officer in charge of archives (Ministry of National Resources and Environment).

Mrs Bernadine Spence was acting librarian and Miss Janice Nibbs was senior library assistant in the public library. Also Mrs Altagracia Hodge, the BVI High School Librarian  and Mrs Margaret Board, clerk of the Legislative Council, both took part.

Although many other departments were contacted as seems typical with Caribbean bureaucracy

officers appeared to be extremely busy with their desks and could not find the time even to compete a simple questionnaire.  And promises by others never materialized.”

Contributing to the poor development of these areas and thwarting any progress on the islands.

Still no official policies or practices appear to exist regarding overall government publishing and bibliographical control of item produced. Central official publications, such as laws, gazettes, house debates and reports, court decisions and reports, appear to be properly provided for by law. The sane is largely true of official compilation of statistics.

There does not seem to be any effective legal deposit of government publications, nor any maintenance of master files as a matter of course. Standards for bibliographical data on publications and in listings are not uniformly adopted.

There is need, in each island, for a library service system to be developed nationally so that the relevant role of a national library may be performed adequately and that a network of service points is available through which public documents may be obtained. Although such services are in fact being organized in the countries, they are at different stages of development and it is desirable that the system become fully functional both in term of information retrieval and document delivery.

Needed:

  • the establishment of an overall publishing policy;
  • setting up of a central agency, with a high degree of expertise to monitor publishing;
  • the achievement of bibliographical control and availability;
  • the adequate standardization of bibliographical and other pertinent information;
  • the institution of adequate public records management and archival practices where necessary;
  • Intra-governmental education and training as well as public education programmes in the field of archives and librarianship;

In May of 1983 Michael Cook reported on Training in Archives and Records Management to identify needs for library and required to support a teaching programme and discuss with the Government, the University and international and bilateral assistance agencies the question of financing a programme in this field. [RP/1979-80/5/10.1/05]

It was quite clear, indeed beyond dispute, that the need for a regional training facility in archives and records management was fully recognised in the Region. Remember that the population of BVI is a tenth of that of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines or Saint Lucia.

Throughout this time Clinton Black’s recommendations, and others, were totally ignored with the Archives room not being air-conditioned, members of the public let in without monitoring where many records disappeared and finally conditions simply deteriorated.

Then under increasing pressure to meet demands to service requests for genealogical and other historical information, in 1991 the new Chief Librarian, Bernadine Louis submitted a another report to the Deputy Governor to develop a short term plan for restoration and further development of the Archives.  It took another three years before discussions with CARBICA (Caribbean Archives Association) which led to them providing assistance for the Archives. Brian Speirs and Roger Craig, who also visited the VI archives, completed their recommendations and sent their work on Archives legislation to the Attorney General’s Chambers (1995) this led to an Archives Restoration Committee being formed and holding its first meeting on 14 May 1996. Sadly the committee’s terms of reference were merely “To advise on practical measures to restore and maintain the territory’s Archives”.  Luckily in the following two years Victoria Lemieux, Archivist of the University of the West Indies was sponsored by the International Records Management Trust (IRMT) and Commonwealth Foundation Aid Fund to visit and advise Government further on introducing an integrated records and Archives programme (1997-1998). Finally, at the end of the decade plans for work to be done on the Archives as part of the ‘Millennium’ Project of the Virgin Islands was set in motion (1999).

This magnificent gesture meant for nothing with no support from the government, poor planning and a total disregard for protocol, valuable and rare historical documents including deeds and wills from 1779 – 1826 were destroyed. Belatedly prompted great concern over the state of affairs of the Archives, an audit was taken (under Audit Ordinance section 11(4)).

Verna Penn-Moll was appointed Chief Records Management Officer and Archives Project Coordinator and with the help of John Cantwell, an archivist volunteer from the British Executive Service (BESO) by November 2004 they cleared the infected, termite eaten records from the nucleus of the Archives and had them incinerated. The archive room was then renovated and air conditioned in a small attempt to bring it closer to archive environment standards.

Once again external help was offered in 2006 when archivists Dr. Gail Saunders and Mrs. Elaine Toote visited (from the Bahamas) to consult on making older records from the 1850’s available for research and indexing according to international standards. By June their report and recommendations was submitted.

A year later Saunders and Toote returned in June to continue their work shortly before the islands first Government Archivist, Christopher Varlack, was appointed in September 2007 – a post for which provision had been made in General Orders way back in 1971.  Then in December a costing proposal for a new archives building and an integrated Records Management and Archives programme was made by consultant, Kelvin Smith of the International Records Management Trust (IRMT) who had 40 year experience at The National Archives in London (UK).

Kelvin Smith returned in August 2008 to complete a series of Records Appraisal workshops, assist with vetting of Archives legislation, fine tuning the revised file classification scheme and investigate options for Electronic Records Management.

A committee comprising of the Town Planner, the Sister Islands Coordinator and Chief Records Management Officer was established to investigate the best suited location for the proposed archives building and their findings were sent to Cabinet for consideration.  Meanwhile a ‘temporary records centre’ is setup at MacNamara and renovated to begin accepting non-current records from Government offices.  Hopefully a state of the art fire suppression system at the Archives strong room is expected to be installed to ensure enhanced protection against fire damage; and a draft plan was made to introduce Electronic Records Management was initiated.

The Virgin Islands (UK)’s National Archives and Records Management Unit (ARMU) shares accommodation with the Civil Registry and is located upstairs the Burhym Electric Building, 49 de Castro Street off Road Town, Tortola.

Chief Records Management Officer, Verna Penn Moll, still works at the archives. Now having over 26 years experience as a senior officer in the public service, serving as Chief Librarian from 1965 to 1986. She is a member of the Institute of Chartered Librarians and Information Professionals and she has had postgraduate training in Archives and Records Management. She is assisted by Government Archivist Christopher Varlack. <nationalarchives_info@gov.vg>


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