Did you know when the construction of the Central Library was first discussed in 1909 it was the subject of much political debate?
Deciding on where the library was to be built was so contentious it became the fundamental issue in what turned out to be the first election campaign, in which a direct appeal was made to the electorate in Castries.
Andrew Carnegie of the Carnegie Foundation offered a grant of £2,500 for the construction of a free public library in Castries. The Town Board had to locate a site, but since the site had to be purchased, some board members suggested erecting the library in a corner of the Columbus Square so as to save money. Others opposed it, saying it would be an eyesore and deny citizens of an open space for fresh air. That issue created a stalemate and was referred to the attorney general for an opinion on “whether the Town Board is legally entitled to erect a building within Columbus Square.”
Carnegie’s grant came with some stipulations – The purchase price for a site would not be deducted from the grant and that government and the board would continue to provide an annual grant for the Library Trustees. This issue caused more conflict between members of the town board and also divided the citizens of Castries into two camps – The Squarites and the Anti-Squarites.
The library issue became the number one election topic for the elections to the Town Board which was held in December 1909. The final meeting before the election became the first in which opposing candidates were on the same platform to put an issue to the masses. If one had to attend those indoor meetings, one had to have a ticket sent by the town clerk to all qualified voters. (A qualified voter was one who owned property in Castries.)
There were plenty of arguments and discontent between the Squarites and the Anti-Squarites. Robert G. McHugh, Editor of the Voice Newspaper and Secretary of the Agricultural Society, along with the Squarites, demanded that the library be built in the most conspicuous place in the town as proof of appreciation for Carnegie’s generosity. The Squarites went on to win the Town Board election.
The library controversy continued all into 1921 when some members of the Town Board complained that while a piece of land was purchased for £500 for the erection of the library, it remained vacant and was an “eyesore.”
The controversy was revived again; this time iT was about the type of building. The town planners had one type of building in mind and the Carnegie team had another type. Several architectural styles were suggested but they were rejected by both sides.
Did you know the controversy was eventually settled 14 years after Carnegie made his first offer? The cornerstone was laid down on May 15, 1923. The library was completed in June 1924 and it was called the Carnegie Free Library. The first building miraculously escaped the 1927 Castries fire, but the 1948 Castries fire gutted the building and over 20,000 books were destroyed. After the fire, the library was rebuilt using the same old walls.
Today, the Central Library retains much of its original external features with more space added for reading and meetings. The Central Library is not only a historic landmark in the city of Castries, but it is also a landmark in the political history of the city and St. Lucia.
This feature runs every Tuesday and Thursday. It is written by daughter of the soil Anselma Aimable, a former agricultural officer and former correspondent for Caribbean Net News, who has a deep interest in local culture and history. Send ideas and tips to [email protected]