Sept. 20, 2005 – Claudette Lewis, assistant commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, sparked an emotional exchange at the Committee on Education, Culture and Youth hearing Tuesday when she said: "We are not a literate community."
Sen. Louis Hill said it was a "very disturbing statement." He added that after visiting schools and talking to many young people, "It is a conclusion that I myself have come to." Hill said it is time that residents become "frank and honest" about the situation.
He told a story about a friend of his 10-year-old daughter who, instead of getting a book for her birthday, received a cell phone. Hill said he had even heard of parents who thought it was all right for their children to answer their cells phones in school during class.
Lewis lamented what she saw as families putting consumerism before education. She said students were wearing $100 tennis shoes. She said, "One hundred dollars would buy a lot of books."
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said that the so-called digital revolution may be detracting from the overall abilities of youngsters. "If you get a hand-written letter from someone now, you ask, what is wrong with this person? Why doesn't he have a computer?" he said. "It is time we start asking: What really is progress?"
Lewis was testifying on the state of libraries on St. Croix. Other testifiers included Wallace Williams, territorial director of libraries; Robert Moron, chief records manager, department of Planning and Natural Resources; Judith Rogers, president the St. Croix Library Association; and Winston Nugent, a writer and poet.
The testifiers blamed the state of V.I. libraries on the lack of funding. Nugent took it a step further, saying that the agencies running the libraries were failing the community.
Under questioning from Sen. Usie Richards, Lewis said that on a scale of one to 10, the priority libraries get in the Department of Natural Resources is an eight. "It is a pretty high priority," she said.
Staffing is a problem, though, she said. Five positions that are usually filled are empty now, and to really bring libraries up to the staffing level where they should be, 15 positions should be filled, she said.
There is no professional librarian on St. Thomas now, but the department had gone through two recently, she said, adding that low pay was a disincentive, as well as poor working conditions.
Librarians now start out in a salary range between $31,000 and $35,000. "We really need to take that to $40,000," Lewis said.
Rogers said that library services were not supported in the territory at the level they should be. "Information is power, and when people in a community do not have access to information to continue to build intellectual capacity for development of human capital, to prepare children to be the leaders of tomorrow, and to ensure lifelong learning, the result is a community that suffers from short-sightedness and stunted growth," she said.
Rogers, who is also a librarian at the University of the Virgin Islands, also mentioned a $75,000 grant UVI librarians received in 1999 to "prepare librarians for planning and executing a digital library project." In 2001, UVI in partnership with the public libraries received another $221,000 to implement a digital library project.
Beginning next month, UVI librarians in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh will begin implementation of a $900,000 project to train 25 V.I. residents to become librarians.
Nelson said he was a friend of the libraries but, "Don't give my child a computer; give my child a book."
Lewis said she was encouraged by the hearing. "This is the first legislative hearing I have been at where I see so many friends of libraries sitting at the table," she said. "You have been to the libraries. You have asked the right questions."
Sen. Ronald Russell said, "If we believe libraries are important, then we should do something besides hire someone at Government House or at the lieutenant governor's office just because they need a job."
Librarian Patricia Oliver said the senators "as providers of information" should "get on the ball" and update their own legislative Web site.
Sen. Liston Davis chaired the committee. Other senators attending were Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Richards and Russell. Committee members Sens. Roosevelt David and Shawn-Michael Malone were absent.
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