On a winter jaunt to beautiful Belize on the Caribbean side of Central America, I went to the San Pedro Library (SPL) which serves long and narrow Ambergris Caye (pronounced amber-grease key), home to about 14,000 and the biggest of the nation’s nearly 500 islands.
Not counting cruising day trippers, Belize attracts over 400,000 visitors a year, not far off its half a million population. Most are here for the fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving just offshore where the small country owns more than a third of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the beach, at the south end of San Pedro, the main town, SPL occupies a sturdy two story cement structure designed to minimize the impact of salt, sand and spray. The building faces away from the ocean and is protected by metal shutters during storms and when closed. Golf carts and bicycles, the primary modes of transport on “Isla Bonita”, are parked out front by a low wood rickrack fence.
Library Assistant Idin Velasquez and I had corresponded before my arrival but she was away on family matters so I introduced myself to Luwesa Porchue at the wood paneled circulation desk.
She really enjoys working here and helping the clientele and as Technical Assistant is responsible for their online presence.
We chatted for awhile and she mentioned that the busiest times are often before and after school and at lunch when students from the parochial institution across the street stream in. Open six days a week, the two employees manage to handle extensive hours and, despite the limited personnel, are working on creating programs for teens and older users.
Members take out two things at a time for two weeks and borrow from anywhere in Belize for free. Considered a branch of the Belize National Library Service and Information System (BNLSIS), customers are given a code to access EBSCOhost for Caribbean Search periodicals, journals and e-documents, Explora, Learning Express, health, home improvement and auto and engine repair databases and downloadable books.
BNLSIS has published some Belize specific titles that are available here, and sends regular shipments of new books and supplements regional funding (plus SPL can keep any money they make through their own fund raising efforts).
Like Luwesa, the room is cheerful and welcoming. Cool tiles and colorful sand dollar curtains keep the heat down and murals, hangings and a map and the flag of the country adorn the walls.
In the Kid’s Area, construction paper ornaments in Mardi Gras tints dangle from the ceiling and Milne characters prance above short coral and aqua shelves. A little green house proffers paperbacks and the latest acquisitions are prominently displayed.
Volunteers, often high schoolers doing community service, do twice monthly storytimes for six to ten year olds and one on one reading tutoring that sometimes uses Scrabble as an aid. Staff visit nurseries in March for Child Stimulation Month, show a movie during the holidays for youngsters and hold summer reading and literacy camps.
Adult magazines and newspapers have a rack near titles for adolescents.
Belize has a plethora of official languages but English predominates though the majority of Europeans here are German speaking Mennonites. SPL has a few things in French, Spanish and Chinese but most of the books are in English except for about twenty examples of Belize Kriol (Belizean Creole) and Yucatec Maya.
SPL began in 1973 at the Catholic Parish Hall and was originally managed by the local high school and its students. In 1981, it moved here, beneath the tourist board on the top floor, but as they recently vacated the premises, perhaps the library will be able to expand up. It could really use more storage. Generous residents give them loads of secondhand items which are stacked in corners until they’re added to the collection or put aside to sell.
Monetary donations help when there are emergency expenditures and let them buy fixtures and hurricane supplies while the time and materials provided by the supportive community and businesses over weekends designated for improvement projects really spruce up the place.
Over the years, various organizations and companies have contributed equipment and technology. In 2009, the Paul Hooker Media Center opened with six new computers for patron use and his wife Pamela also purchased a film projector and two screens in his memory.
SPL has wifi and Luwesa mentioned that they are getting new machines soon so the children’s computer, software and internet classes can continue.
The Facebook page is packed with videos of young singers, rapt faces listening to luncheon tales, kids eating snacks after a presentation and happily jumping and laughing and playing spelling and cooperation games led by a cadre of yellow shirt clad volunteers.
Posts include banners advertising a fine free Valentine’s and a cancer awareness exhibit. The calendar shows Halloween costume contests and Christmas carols and crafts, prizes and presents. There are critical thinking units, puzzle and cinema nights and an intriguing listing for capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, music and acrobatics.
The camera slowly pans over spanking new chapter books – a great way to easily promote tantalizing titles. Photos abound of studious scholars, budding artists, the library booth at a celebration in the central square and its Seussville float for a radio station parade as well as professional development workshops on the mainland.
Shot just outside of SPL, one video highlights the fun in a palm shaded spot perfect for a multi day cultural event. Attendees learned the Garinagu (an indigenous people) version of Frère Jacques and dancers wearing brilliantly colored traditional dress pushed the picnic tables aside so everyone could join in a dance circle until bested by expert ladies gyrating in a hula style to the progressively faster beat of hand drums.
Easter egg hunts, sack races, piñata popping and al fresco films utilize this sandy space too.
Citizens treasure their amazing natural resources and there are numerous announcements for sessions encouraging conservation and environmentalism, even teaching about reef friendly sunscreen (the regular kind also pollutes the clear waters of its spectacular cenotes). Whether it’s the annual report of the Department of the Environment or environmental impact assessments for proposed resorts, you can find it at the library. They host discussions and forums on offshore oil, link to informative videos on climate change and take Earth Day very seriously. Youths learn about endangered native birds through activities like Pin the Beak on the Parrot and fashion vivid avian inspired masks, helmets and garb.
Ambergris Caye is very lucky to have such a talented and committed pair of women running the library!