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Trinidad and Tobago


Flag of Trinidad and Tobago


In the following section I discuss the public library system in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and chart its development beginning in the 19th century and into the present day.   Recognized as one of the best library systems in the Caribbean (International Telecommunication Union, 2010), Trinidad and Tobago offers very advanced services relative to many other developing countries, yet is still a small island with finite resources and barriers preventing the realization of many of its initiatives.

General Information

Map of Trinidad and Tobago

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a twin island state, located at the Southern end of the Caribbean island chain off the coast of Venezuela.  Trinidad is the larger island at 4,828 square kilometers and houses the republic’s two main cities, Port-of-Spain and San Fernando in addition to 96% of the population.  Tobago is much smaller in size at only 300 square kilometers.  Trinidad and Tobago’s commerce has traditionally revolved around industry, particularly petroleum and petrochemicals, and as a result is one of the wealthier states in the Caribbean (World Bank, 2008).  Trinidad and Tobago has a population of 1.3 million, and while currently classified as a developing country, aims to become a developed country by 2020 though implementing the social and economic improvements laid out in its Vision 2020 development plan.

Early Library History

Until 1998 Trinidad maintained three separate public library systems, the first of which was established in 1851. Trinidad Public Library was a subscription library located in Port of Spain which only became free 100 years later; the first free library was opened in San Fernando in 1919 (Jordan, 1970).  The third library system was implemented in 1941 as the result of a report published by the British Library Association in 1934, detailing the conditions of the libraries in the Caribbean.  The report’s author noted that the few existing libraries in Trinidad did not provide service to large portions of the population and recommended that library services be implemented that would serve the rural population outside of the two main cities.  As a result of this report, the government of Trinidad and Tobago was offered US$70,000 in 1936 from the Carnegie Corporation to establish a Central Library Scheme which would address the needs of these unserved areas (Joseph and Hill, 2007).

Developing Years

The library services in rural Trinidad expended rapidly from 1941 to 1960.  Headquarters were established in Port of Spain and 11 other branches were opened throughout Trinidad.  A divisional centre was also opened in Tobago. A book van, which was heralded as “the foundation and mainstay” of library operations (Hill, 2007, p.185) was used to supply various centres throughout the rest of Trinidad.  The first book van had a capacity of 350 books, most of which were ordered from New York or England (Hill, 2007).  This service was very popular and by the end of 1944, there were 26 borrowing points along the vans route which included a number of school and population centres.  Stops were very busy, with 75-100 books being issued an hour, however resources were thin and due to frequent book shortages, some areas only received visits once per month.  When the van did visit, borrowing was restricted to adults who were limited to one to two books per visit (Joseph and Hill, 2007).

Beginning in the early 1960s services rapidly declined as a result of faulty equipment and insufficient funding.  The number of bookmobile stops being serviced rapidly decreased from 115 in 1960 to 31 in 1962 (Jordan, 1970), and runs were suspended completely in 1970 due to the state of emergency which was imposed after a failed military coup.  Operations ceased completely in 1974 due to vehicle problems and continued funding issues (Joseph and Hill, 2007).  In these early years the first branch libraries were also established but were generally housed in makeshift buildings and underfunded and inadequate.  The Sangre Grande branch library is representative of the conditions in many of these libraries:

 The branch library is too small and lacks any convenience for the staff that has to travel there and remain on duty until late evening. The flooring is beginning to go and wood lice are on the rampage.  More and more children are coming into the library and as they are all crammed into a small space, it is becoming impossible to control them without losing one’s voice (Joseph and Hill, 2007, p.11).

The 1980s were especially bad years for the Trinidadian library system.  Libraries were not a priority of the government and funding was very insufficient. Libraries were included in the Ministry of Education’s portfolio, yet priority was given to other educational services and school building construction projects.  It was not until the 1990s that funding increased and the rejuvenation of local services slowly began, leading to a major milestone in library development at the end of the decade.

NALIS and Current Services

The National Library of Trinidad and Tobago

Due to effective lobbying by the Council for National Library and Information Services (CONALIS) which was formed in 1990, all public, school and special libraries in Trinidad and Tobago were consolidated under the National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS) Act in 1998.  Under this act, NALIS was given responsibility for managing resources and library infrastructure for the entire nation (NALIS website, 2008) and helped to implement greatly enhanced services.  Currently Trinidad and Tobago has 23 branches as well as four mobile libraries, one of which is fully equipped with digital technology.  In addition to hosting regular special and cultural events, services offered at select branches include vacation camps and book clubs for young adults, a scrabble club for seniors and regular programs for children such as games and craft sessions. All 23 public libraries also offer internet access, and as of 2007, the system had 250 computers available to patrons, providing internet facilities which were used by 17,000 people a month (International Telecommunication Union, 2010).  In a research study conducted for the Government in 2010, the library was rated as one of the country’s top public services with 63% of those surveyed from across both islands claiming that they were satisfied with the nation’s library service and only 9% claiming they were dissatisfied.  Of those who had used the library in the last 12 months, 83% said they were satisfied with the system, ranking it second on the list of top public services (Government, 2010).

Services for the Blind and Vision Impaired – Case Study

One progressive initiative which originated from the NALIS Act is the expansion of services to the blind and print disabled.  As part of its mandate, the NALIS Act instructs the library to prioritize the needs of disadvantaged groups such as the blind and visually impaired (NALIS, 2011, Clause 4 (m) Act No. 18), so in 2001 NALIS opened a Visually Impaired Persons (VIPs) facility at the National Library.  Aside from a small collection of large print books at public libraries, resources for the visually impaired were non-existent before the implementation of this service.  The new facility introduced several needed programs such as screen-reading software, magnification software, braille translation software, voice recognition software, character recognition reading systems, and many others (Wallace, 2007).  There are of course challenges with such services in a country such as Trinidad.  One is the under-utilization of services despite significant publicity, which may be caused by the previous lack of services, which have left the visually impaired community uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the library.  Copyright issues around digitizing resources, the cost of training staff, and issues around web accessibility also present problems for this initiative (Wallace, 2007), yet it marks a significant improvement over past offerings for this sector of the population.

Overall the new services offered by NALIS and the satisfaction rates expressed by the population are indicative of the improved services in Trinidad and Tobago.  While services in the large city centers are inevitably more developed than many of the rural areas, the increased number of branches and the new fully digitalized book van are evidence of movement in the right direction.


Though vast improvements have been made to library systems in Trinidad and Tobago over the last few decades, scholars have argued that libraries and librarians need to go a step further if they hope to preserve and make accessible important historical knowledge about the nation.  One very important mandate in the NALIS Act is the preservation of West Indian culture.  Section 4B states that one of the functions of NALIS is to “maintain, develop and make easily accessible to members of the public, a comprehensive collection of material and information, with particular emphasis on that produced within and about Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean region” (NALIS, 2011, Clause 4 (b) Act No. 18)

Trinidad has the fortune of being in possession of a number of important historical documents, some of which date back to Christopher


Trinidadian/Tobagonian Culture - Carnival

Columbus’s arrival in 1492 (International Telecommunication Union, 2010).  Digitization projects are underway by both the public system and the University of West Indies’ Main Library (see Winter and Bowen-Chang, 2010; Ramnnarine-Rieks, 2007), however many of these documents remain in paper form and not accessible to the public.  The need for access to this history seems all the more pertinent because of concerns among Caribbean librarians that Caribbean heritage is under threat of being permanently lost.  A low number of publications are being produced by Caribbean countries and it is difficult for Caribbean publishers to compete in the international market.  Also technology from developed countries are creating a situation in which American movies, music and icons are overwhelming local culture. (Ramnnarine-Rieks, 2007).

Trinidad has a relatively high rate of internet use for a developing country, however there are still many Trinidadians who do not regularly access the web and this leads to questions around allocation of funding for library resources.  While these are very valid and should be explored in greater detail, all sector of the population will benefit significantly from increased digitization since these efforts will ultimately lead to increased local publications. A lack of relevant non-fiction materials has been used to explain the disinterest in non-fiction reading in Jamaica.  As one branch librarian explains, “For every 20 books I get, only one will be about Jamaica…Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, the British Royal Family – hello, I’m living in Jamaica” (Johnson, Smith and Amsbury, 2007, p. 149).  Local information is undoubtedly important to Trinidadians as well and will encourage literacy and interest in the nation’s history.

Angela Ramnnarine-Rieks (2007) argues that Trinidadian librarians and library systems need to change the way they think about their roles if they want to help mitigate problems around the retention of cultural knowledge. She writes:

Too much effort is being spent attending to the mundane, although necessary, routines that have become entrenched in the organizational structure of the typical Carribean library…Most of [the newly employed librarians with digitizing skills] are being deployed to perform business as usual as opposed to exploring research and innovation. (p. 211)

Moving beyond these routine tasks can be difficult, especially in rural libraries which do not have the same level of funding as the larger branches in the major cities, yet the preservation and promotion of national history is very important for a small yet culturally rich nation like Trinidad.


Trinidad has come a long way in improving its library services, yet important information about Trinidad is simply not available or accessible outside of the country.  With basic services in the country significantly improved it becomes important for librarians to elevate services in Trinidad and aid in the islands’ cultural preservation.


Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago: Ministry of Public Administration and Information. (2010). Opinion leader’s panel 2010: Wave 15 report: No. 15). Trinidad and Tobago: MORI Caribbean. Retrieved from

Hill, C. (2007). Early days of the central library and the book van in trinidad and tobago. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(2), 180-191.

International Telecommunication Union. (2010). World Telecommunication/ICT development report 2010: Monitoring the WSIS No. 9). Geneva, Switzerland: International Telecommunication Union.

Johnson, Beryl W, Dolsy Smith and Gwendolynn G. Amsbury. (2007). Reading between the lines in jamaica’s rural libraries: Some personal impressions. In Peltier-Davis, Cheryl and Shamin Renwick (Ed.), Caribbean libraries in the 21st century: Changes, challenges, and choices (pp. 145-155). Medford, New Jersey: Information Today.

Jordan, A. T. (1970). The development of library services in the west indies through interlibrary cooperation. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press.

Joseph, Jennifer M and Claudia Hill. (2007). From then ’til now: The development of rural services in trinidad and tobago. In Peltier-Davis, Cheryl and Shamin Renwick (Ed.), Caribbean libraries in the 21st century: Changes, challenges, and choices (pp. 3-16). Medford, New Jersey: Information Today.

NALIS Trinidad and Tobago.About us: Welcome. Retrieved 8/15, 2011, from

Ramnarine-Rieks, A. (2007). Digitization initiatives in trinidad and tobago. In Peltier-Davis, Cheryl and Shamin Renwick (Ed.), Caribbean libraries in the 21st century: Changes, challenges and choices (pp. 201-213). Medford, New Jersey: Information Today.

The World Bank. (2008). Trinidad and tobago country brief. Retrieved 8/17, 2011, from,,contentMDK:21045974~menuPK:331460~pagePK:1497618~piPK:217854~theSitePK:331452,00.html

Wallace, A. (2007). Out of the darkness: Library services for the blind and print disables in trinidad and tobago. In Peltier-Davis, Cheryl and Shamin Renwick (Ed.), Caribbean libraries in the 21st century: Changes, challenges and choices (pp. 133-144). Medford, New Jersey: Information Today.

Winter, Marsha and Portia Bowen-Chang. (2010). Dealing with DSpace: The experience at the university of the west indies, st. augustine. New Library World, 111(7/8), 320-332.

Photo References

AT-Wing (Photographer). (2010). Trinidad Carnival 2010 [Photograph]. Retrieved August 20, 2011 from

Conover, Steve (Photographer). (2007). Trinidad and Tobago [Photograph]. Retrieved August 20, 2011 from

Cunningham, Ray (Photographer). (2010). National Library of Trinidad and Tobago [Photograph]. Retrieved August 18, 2011 from

NordNordWest (Creator). (2009). Location Map or Trinidad and Tobago [Map]. Retrieved August 18, 2011 from

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