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Barbados landscape (courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia from Flickr)

The island nation of Barbados

Barbados is a small island nation in the Lesser Antilles region of the Caribbean.

Barbados Flag & Outline

Flag of Barbados

The country is one of the densest in the world, with a population of approximately 286 000, but a land area of only 430 square kilometres (CIA World Factbook, 2011). Barbados is a unique country in that it is susceptible to many of the same social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities that other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are; however, the nation is actually relatively well developed, and ranks quite high on the United Nations Development Programme with a Human Development Index score of 0.788 in 2010 (UNDP, 2011).

As one of the more developed island nations in the Barbados LocationCaribbean, Barbados serves as both a leader and example to some of the less developed countries in the area, and the provision of library services on this island presents its own unique set of issues. The UN-OHRLLS notes that SIDS like Barbados tend to confront constraints such as “small domestic markets and heavy dependence on a few external and remote markets; high costs of for energy, infrastructure, transportation, communication and servicing”, and libraries, as an extension of Bajan society, face the same constraints.


Barbados has a long history with the United Kingdom, having originally been a British Colony until 1966. This relationship with the Western world is evident in the development of library services in the nation. Hind notes that:

“as in the British-owned territories, subscription libraries were the forerunners of public libraries in the English-speaking Caribbean. These institutions had emerged in the late eighteenth century and like their British counterparts catered only to the elite members of the society who could afford the fees. This obviously eliminated a broad segment of the society.” (2010)

Despite the British tradition of early exclusivity of library services in Barbados, later movements towards public libraries also came to pass in the Caribbean. In fact, Barbados was the location of the “first [Carnegie] public library erected outside of the United Kingdom” (Hind, 2010). The 1800s were a time of social turmoil and development in Barbados, including the abolition of the slave trade in 1834, and in 1847 an act to establish a public library was passed. Funds towards the physical building were raised by soliciting the help of Mr. Andrew Carnegie, “whose gifts of free libraries to towns in England were well known” (Trivester, 2009), and in 1904 Barbados became “the first British colony to obtain the monies to erect a lasting monument to a man who had never visited the island” (Hind, 2010).

Barbados Carnegie Library, 1900s

The Carnegie Public Library in Bridgetown, Barbados, early 1900s

Carnegie eventually contributed £4 800 to the library, stipulating that the library be open to everybody, and that the government be charged with the maintenance and upkeep of the building. Education and literacy on the island have been high historically; this tradition has continued through to recent times, when a 2002 estimate placed the nation’s overall literacy rate at 99.7%, placing Barbados ahead of some more developed Western countries (CIA World Factbook, 2011). The island remained heavily reliant on sugar, rum and molasses production throughout most of the 20th century, until the 1990s, when tourism and manufacturing became the most important economic activities (CIA World Factbook, 2011). While the country’s economy has become much more stable and strong, ranking as one of the World Bank’s top 66 high income economies of the world, its library system has encountered new issues as it attempts to keep up with the recent development.

Recent Developments

 Lack of Staff

 The UN ranks Barbados as 42nd out of 169 countries in term of the Human Development Index, which considers a “broader definition of well-being and provides a composite measure of three basic dimensions of human development: health, education and income” (UNDP, 2011). However, despite its high ranking and level of development, Barbados has only one public library system, and it serves the entire island. While the Barbados Library Service “has continued to expand its range of services to meet the Barbadian public’s needs in the 21st century”, “the service needs more staff so that these services can be provided consistently” (Goodman, 2009). The Library Service provides a diverse range of programs, including story hours for young writers, outreach programmes, and computer/digital resource workshops. However, the system is stretched in terms of staff resources, as the eight branches in Barbados are manned by only 37 library assistants, three senior librarians, a coordinator, the director and deputy director (Goodman, 2009). That works out to around 0.01 public librarians per 1000 people in Barbados, a ratio that is twenty times lower than an average of 0.2 public librarians per 1000 people in the United States (StateMaster, 2011). As Goodman (2009) noted, the Barbados National Library Service “need[s] additional staff to help provide services more efficiently”, and these staff “must themselves stay in tune with international developments in the field”. However, the small size of Barbados and the lack of professional training and learning opportunities for librarians and library staff make this a difficult proposition.

The Digital Divide and Poverty

Card Catalog at Bridgetown Library (courtesy of Carol Dolin via Flickr)

A card catalog still in regular use at the Bridgetown Public Library, Barbados. If Barbados libraries want to lead the bridging of the digital divide, legacy systems like this will need to be phased out.

As Pascual notes,

“the digital divide refers to the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communications technologies (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities” (2003).

Barbados is in a good position to bridge this divide and become a leader in digital activities because of its high level of development. Sealy notes that

“Despite their small size and their modest resources, the English-speaking Caribbean can still boast of having a major telecommunications market. In fact, in many of the larger islands, such as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, the infrastructure is as advanced as anywhere else in the world. This is due to the geographic proximity to North America and the fact that many of the economies are service-oriented with particular emphasis on tourism and off-shore banking (e.g., the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and the British Virgin Islands)” (2003).

This existing infrastructure is incredibly beneficial, offering new opportunities for economic growth, improved health, better service delivery, and cultural advances (Sealy, 2003). This is important because poverty is still a problem in Barbados, as “Caribbean economies and the disposable incomes of its citizens are still tied to bananas and other food crops”, and “the poor in the Caribbean exist in a state of physical and social deprivation including inadequacies in income, resources, and assets” (Sealy, 2003, p.351). In fact, despite the solid existing infrastructure for ICTs, the level of internet usage penetration in Barbados remains relatively low (around 56% as of 2005, according to the World Bank).

Barbados Internet Usage (courtesy of Google/The World Bank)

Barbados Internet Usage from 1990-2005

In order to facilitate increased access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) by these marginalized groups, proposals have been made to create Community Access Centres (CACs) in various community locations including post offices, tourist information centres, and libraries (Sealy, 2003). These CACs could provide information to people who would otherwise have no access to computer facilities, and lead to the “empowerment of marginalized groups in rural areas” (Sealy, 2003, p.337). Libraries, as a centre for the collection and dissemination of information, are logical sites for this movement towards bridging the digital divide.

Cultural Context Taken Into Account

Besides improving the quality of life for the poor, the embracing of ICTs and digital technologies could also help to preserve traditional Bajan culture. UNESCO has decree that all cultures are important, and libraries thus have a responsibility to preserve and communicate cultural heritage and artifacts. Caribbean culture in particular was a traditionally oral one, and libraries could lead the way in the use of multimedia formats to store such important cultural history as music. Calpyso music, for example, is an expression of the local culture that does not lend itself to traditional print formats. Watson writes

Calypso Music (courtesy of caribb via Flickr)

Calypso music is integral to traditional Barbados culture

“Any examination of Barbadian society, even one that is cursory, indicates that popular music is a very important aspect of Bajan society. Calypso or calypso-based music has been a part of the soundscape of the island from its ‘‘discovery’’ to the present time. It is the cultural expression that resonates with the majority of the island’s population. In addition, Barbadian culture, like that of many developing countries is primarily oral and performance in nature. These characteristics make audiovisual materials ideal formats to capture Bajan calypso.” (2003).

Collecting popular Barbadian music, as one form of Bajan cultural heritage, has long been a priority for Learning Resource Centre at the University of the West Indies in Barbados (UWI). According to Watson, “very early in its history the UWI Caribbeanized its curriculum. In recognition of this, from the inception of the Centre, Caribbean popular music was collected”. In fact, the “LRC is well placed to proceed in this direction…it has the technological infrastructure to support a music collection, its core work being the provision of an audiovisual information service” (Watson, 2003, p.17-18).

On the other hand, the oral nature of Bajan culture should also be taken into account when determining the kinds of services that libraries should offer. In an examination of the potential of virtual reference services in Caribbean academic libraries, Ingrid Iton notes that “in oral cultures, the tradition of storytelling was not only used to communicate social values but also to teach”, and that “in Caribbean societies, this is a crucial factor that must be considered in the choice between the traditional and virtual mode of service delivery” (2009, p.358-359). She also notes that because of the low number of libraries in high schools, as well as the non-existence of corporate libraries in both public and private sector organizations, most academic students in Barbados do not have “the type of experience with libraries and using library resources that enable them to adapt traditional research skills to transition effectively to the electronic environment” (Iton, 2009, p.361). In light of the unpreparedness of the Caribbean library user to move towards a digital environment, caution and consideration should be used while planning the future of library services.


While Barbados is one of the most highly developed island nations in the Caribbean with a strong economy and infrastructure for information and communications technologies, its provision of library services to its residents still has many hurdles to face. While literacy and education, in the traditional sense, have reached an extremely high level in this country, library organizations need to focus on ensuring more fair access to digital technologies for marginalized groups, and making sure to remain sensitive to the specific needs of the local culture.


CIA – The World Factbook. (n.d.). . Retrieved August 18, 2011, from

Goodman, K. (2009, October 22). The Barbados Advocate – Island’s library service needs more personnel. Retrieved August 18, 2011, from

gop. (2009, September 4). The Barbados National Library Service | Trivester. Retrieved August 18, 2011, from

Hinds, B. (2010). Historicising the Carnegie Free Library: The Case of Barbados. Retrieved August 18, 2011, from

International Human Development Indicators – UNDP. (n.d.). . Retrieved August 18, 2011, from

Iton, I. (2009). The Unopened Door: Virtual Reference and the Caribbean Academic Library. The Reference Librarian, 50(4), 356-370. doi:10.1080/02763870903114303

Pascual, Patricia J. (2003). E-Government. E-ASEAN Task Force; UNDP-APDIP. 5-40.

Public Libraries total librarians(fte) (per capita) statistics – states compared – StateMaster. (n.d.). . Retrieved August 18, 2011, from

Unette Sealy, W. (2003). Empowering Development Through E-Governance: Creating Smart Communities In Small Island States. The International Information & Library Review, 35(2-4), 335-358. doi:10.1016/S1057-2317(03)00020-1

The World Bank. (n.d.). Internet users (per 100 people) | Data | Table. Retrieved August 18, 2011, from

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