Point of view
Libraries and Tourism
The local public library as a point of interest among tourists is a concept that could be more widely explored by library and tourism boards, and perhaps by ministries of culture, as well. Could libraries play a more visible role as a tourist destination?
The local public library as a point of interest among tourists is a concept that could be more widely explored by library and tourism boards, and perhaps by ministries of culture, as well. Could libraries play a more visible role as a tourist destination? Perhaps with some coordinated planning and preparation through a partnership between libraries, the ministry of culture, and the tourism board more tourists might visit the local library while abroad and thus discover a vibrant dimension of the local culture. Clearly museums enjoy such visitor attention and there may be merit in offering the library comparable visibility.
For tourists, the prospective benefits of visiting the local library would include the opportunity to see and engage with the local population at the library, as well as to view its collections, including works by local authors. Conversely, a potential outcome for the library and its community would be to impart to foreign visitors an even deeper and more complete and authentic appreciation of the culture than would be possible from the usual trip highlights: the recreational sites, the casinos, the shops, the museums.
To explore this proposition in the Caribbean region I visited the public libraries while on a trip to Willemstad, Curaçao and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in late October 2003. This article presents my findings.
The modern, multi-storied structure housing the public library in Willemstad lies a short walk from the center of town and overlooks the Waaigat, a convenient inlet extending east from the main harbor and where fishing boats from Venezuela offer their catch.
At the library one is greeted by a spacious entranceway, with reading tables cooled by overhead fans and multiple daily newspapers for reading in the foyer, available to visitors even prior to the 10 am opening of the library itself. Immediately within the entrance is a small exhibit on cultural heritage, featuring the school bell and its role in the previous century as “an important instrument to get pupils under control.” At the center of the foyer alongside the newspapers is a desktop for completing a form asking users for suggestions, ideas, and complaints.
Within the air-conditioned library, most volumes are in Dutch, as the island is the largest member of the Netherlands Antilles. Volumes in Spanish and English are also available and are shelved in accessible stacks arranged around a central nexus of Internet computers next to the reference desk. Viola de Haseth-Krafft was browsing the books in English when I asked in hushed tones her opinion of whether libraries might be more deliberately placed on the path of tourists: "Why not?" she said. "This library already does a lot for children and the community, as much as possible." Tourists would expand the concept of community. By chance, I could not have chosen a more anchored opinion: Mrs. de Haseth-Krafft’s ancestors on both sides arrived in Curaçao over 200 years ago, from France and Germany.
To ascertain the library’s stance on the matter of addressing tourists I met with Alton Gordon, the reference librarian on my visit. Indeed, according to him, the library was already frequented by groups of tourists from the many cruise ships that dock nearby. However, due to lack of coordination, the timing of their visits often conflicted with opening hours, and the library had no particular presentation in place for visiting tourists. While the library does offer a section with a broad range of materials on the Dutch Antilles and Caribbean islands, current library attention and resources are focused on youth, and how to bring them back to the library: "We’re losing them," he said. "The aim is to get them back in." The tourism matter was one, he said, that the library board could address further, "as we are willing to work together with the tourist board to present a collection especially for visitors."
Prior to the library, I visited the Curaçao Tourist Board whose Manager of Management Information Services graciously received me and attended to my inquiries. She welcomed the concept of raising the visibility of libraries in their strategic plans for promoting tourism and brought the matter up with the Executive Director of the Board, who responded, "Well actually he's right about the library as a source of local information. We certainly should publicize its location and possibly work with them to get visitors there."
The Tourist Board Manager further invited me to inspect their most recent strategic and marketing plans. From these plans it is evident that the island is comprehensive and innovative in promoting its resources to the world and in preparing its citizens to welcome foreign visitors.
As one initiative, the Curaçao Tourist Board offers a Goodwill Host program, in which residents can participate in extensive informative sessions on the history of the island and undertake proposed projects to promote tourism. According to their web site, "The purpose of this program is to create more awareness for Curaçao and to develop self-confidence when one is in contact with a tourist." One possible project could be to increase visibility of the library as a destination in the minds of visitors, and to make such visits worthwhile.
Some 820 kilometers east of Willemstad, the new central public library in the heart of Port-of-Spain serves as headquarters of the Trinidad and Tobago National Library and Information System Authority, NALIS (http://www.nalis.gov.tt/publ.html). This seven-story megaplex houses a vast collection of books and features several cultural exhibits of timely interest.
The entrance exhibit was an introduction to Islam, hosted by the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association of the local Islamic Academy. Other exhibits explained the Hindu feasts as well as the history of calypso in the Caribbean. One library worker gave me a tour of the library as if I were a new member. Ten multi-station hubs of Internet computers were distributed in the adult section alone, with more in the other sections of the library. Non-resident visitors are offered free library privileges, including use of the Internet computers, upon registration.
To sample the tourism perspective, I interviewed the representative of the Trinidad and Tobago Sightseeing Tours at the Caribbean Hilton Hotel, who, trained in business management, has been two years in the tourism enterprise. Posed with the prospect of adding libraries to the mix of tourism destinations, she responded, "Yes, I would like to see libraries included in tours for visitors. When I travel, I like to see the local library to get a better understanding of the place. Our museum is already on our tours, but we have a large, new library and few know that it exists. The library should be advertised more."
So far in my informal survey no one had opposed the concept of raising the visibility of public libraries as a tourism destination. However, the concept would have to be of sufficient interest and priority to the board of each library to warrant an investment in the effort. Whereas some might argue that addressing a new constituency would likely detract from attention to current constituencies, a effort could be designed to actually strengthen the overall library mission (especially if new offerings served multiple constituencies) and scaled to the resources available to each library. Here are several ideas for consideration:
• Set up a small area focusing on topics of likely interest to foreign visitors (this section may well also generate local interest). One timely source of topics might be current meetings underway on the island, such as were the HIV/AIDS meetings during my visit.
• Prepare an information sheet (library hours, history, layout, resources, etc.), as well as a bookmark souvenir that visitors could add to a growing collection. (A voluntary donation to offset costs might even be suggested in exchange for a souvenir bookmark, especially in libraries that saw sizeable numbers of tourists.)
• Set up a shelf featuring local authors. Not only would this raise tourism awareness of the literary contributions of local authors (and encourage reading them with a fresh point of reference in mind), it might also provide impetus to the young to tell their stories, knowing the prospect of a global audience is literally at their doorstep).
• Highlight other special collections, particularly featuring the local history, culture, genealogical records, and scientific and business contributions.
• Offer a children’s program of reading or story telling (especially if it involves local children as well).
• Challenge young adults with books of interest in the local language that they might be studying in school back home.
• Describe the architecture of the library building and the surrounding community.
• Allow access to reference librarians for questions of particular interest to foreign visitors (and keep track of these questions as an indication of foreign awareness and concerns).
• Offer resources for visiting teachers, librarians, and other kindred professionals that could be useful for reference back home.
A more ambitious idea might be to include a section at which young foreign visitors could find out about volunteer opportunities at the library or elsewhere on the island. This could be a valuable resource for foreign youth seeking to return (without parents) to gain working knowledge of the island. Another might be to schedule visits of groups of tourists, say from cruise ships, with groups of secondary school students in a moderated forum in which questions could be posed between the two groups to build intercultural awareness and understanding. As mentioned, this mix could be moderated by a librarian or volunteer with minimal training in how to lead an effective discussion group.
In any case, a library interested in exploring potential interactions with foreign visitors might engage the local youth population in discussing the concept and brainstorming ideas that they might lead. If one aim is to get youth back to the library, involving them in how it can be used as a resource to attract tourists is one way to do so. The Curaçao Goodwill Host Program initiative could pioneer a potential model for such an effort.
Is there something that tourists can, in turn, offer to the libraries they visit? Indeed, tourists could donate to the library the books they finish reading at that location (instead of leaving them at the hotel). Tourists could also complete questionnaires offered by the library as a means to collect information on visitors, their questions, suggestions, and feedback. At the very least, tourists could leave the island with a deeper, more genuine sense of the present vivacity of the island, its people and resources. We might even wonder whether the added dimension of the library experience might become part of the visitor’s trip report to others back home, adding to the appeal of the island as a destination for others. Might they also suggest to their libraries back home to feature an exhibit about the island and its people?
In summary, the prospect of attracting tourists—or any prospective user community—is the prerogative of each individual library board. The prospect of promoting libraries as a tourist destination is a matter for consideration by each individual board of tourism. The concept could be further explored in connection with the stated missions of the IFLANET UNESCO Public Library Manifesto (see http://www.unesco.org/cgi-bin/webworld/portal_bib2/cgi/jump.cgi?ID=4864) and as follow-up to the Seminar on IFLA/UNESCO School and Public Libraries Manifestos and Guidelines, hosted by NALIS in Port-of-Spain from 5-7 May 2003. The role of libraries in general and their engagement of tourists might also be considered by individual ministries of culture and, at a regional level in the context of forging an emerging regional cultural policy for the Caribbean.
But the concept of attracting tourists to libraries is by no means limited to the Caribbean; it is a global opportunity. If you have comments or suggestions on this matter, please email me at email@example.com.
|| John R. Whitman
| Author's affiliation
|| John R. Whitman has been studying libraries and library users since mid-1990 and is author of Creating and Measuring Satisfaction (Surveytools, 2003) and co-author of Delivering Satisfaction and Service Quality: A customer based approach for libraries (American Library Association, 2001). He is currently exploring how libraries and community centers can engage in delivering graduate-level adult education in global issues. Mr. Whitman lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.