“Physically Closed, Virtually Open”: National Library of Jamaica Offers History Resources to High School Students

The National Library of Jamaica must be rather a lonely place at the moment. No pesky members of the public requesting manuscripts, firing questions, asking where the bathroom is, and whether they can make photocopies. All the usual traffic has faded away; but the NLJ has always done a whole lot more than the regular business of libraries, as National Librarian Beverley Lashley will tell you.


We are “living with COVID-19.” Spaces that were once busy with voices, scraping chairs, rustling papers, tapping keyboards, and footsteps just seem larger – because they are empty. But our National Librarian and her enthusiastic staff are not sitting and wringing their hands. There is much work to be done. In fact, since the library closed to the public on March 14 (and it has not yet reopened) there has been even more work to do. Online.

Jamaica’s National Librarian, Beverley Lashley. (Photo: Jamaica Information Service)

The NLJ is now hosting virtual history workshops for secondary students, with an eye on their preparation for School Based Assessments (SBAs). The first workshop on Caribbean History took place on Tuesday (July 21) with a group of 25 fourth-form students of Campion College. This was a test run (on Microsoft Teams) and Miss Lashley is so encouraged by its success that she is planning to extend it to the rest of the island, right away. She is aiming to reach out to 14 schools, with two workshops per week. “Eventually, we would love to do island-wide streaming for schools, if the demand is there,” she says. You can get a taste of their session on the NLJ Facebook page.

Workshop in session! (Photo: NLJ)

Did I mention that the workshops are free? Yes, they are.

The National Librarian points out that research sessions are normally offered to high school and tertiary students throughout the year. In schools, History is offered for CSEC and CAPE students. Last year over 18 sessions took place with some 500 students via inhouse presentations and visits to schools and universities. Now it’s gone online.

The NLJ began aggressively promoting its online resources. The Research and Information Department began digitizing resources and identified relevant full text documents that are available online, providing these through various access points on its webpage. Then Campion College reached out to the Library, seeking help for their students’ SBAs, due in September.

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A workshop screen.

For the National Librarian, the online experience is a bit of a voyage of exploration, as it is for the students. By now, many of us have discovered that life online – those Zoom meetings, for example – is a little, well, different. For the NLJ there was the ability to delve deeper into the Library’s resource material, digging up primary and secondary sources for the students to browse through. On the other hand, according to NLJ Research Officer Demar Ludford, the physical interaction is lacking – those expressions and reactions that flicker across the students’ faces, as they ask questions and respond to the teacher. “I tried my best to make it as interactive as I could,” he said, and the students and teacher responded in kind.

Research Officer Demar Ludford presenting at the workshop. (Photo: NLJ)

There are other important aspects of the workshop, in terms of the ways students learn and present their work. “Online research is not a question of ‘copy and paste,’ – that is cheating, and students do not learn anything that way. We emphasized plagiarism and the importance of giving credit to the author or contributor of the source,” says Miss Lashley. The collection of data from primary and secondary sources helps to make them better researchers; and it’s certainly far more rewarding.

The inaugural workshop was coordinated by the Library’s Manager of Research and Information Chantal Cousins and Mrs Veronica Taylor-Smellie, Senior History Teacher at Campion College. The teacher observed: “The process of SBAs, though quite daunting, is of utmost importance to students’ final assessment in the CSEC examinations.” While assessing the Caribbean History SBA Research Project, the teacher noted that some students were “displaying a lack of knowledge in the appropriate use of primary and secondary sources and also proper citations and referencing.” So the workshop emerged.

The school has been partnering with the NLJ since 2016, Mrs. Taylor-Smellie noted. “We would arrange a field trip to the library during July and students would collect all the necessary materials and then use these to complete their research project over the summer. Then came COVID-19 and we were faced with the challenge of students accessing materials…” The main aim, she added, is not to compromise the quality of the SBAs this year because of the pandemic. “We have to adjust to the new normal and for students, unfortunately, COVID-19 will not make the SBAs disappear…”

The teacher has welcomed the Library’s “willingness to facilitate the students through the virtual workshop,” providing not only sources from its collections but also links to external sources. “Also commendable is their quick response to feedback and addressing any issues that arise,” she adds.

“We can say the NLJ is physically closed but virtually open,” concludes the history teacher. “I would encourage other secondary schools to make use of this great opportunity.”

The amazing workshop team: (l-r) Mr. Depass, Reference Librarian, Demar Ludford, Research Officer and (seated) Ms. Chantal Cousins, Manager, Research and Information. (Photo: NLJ)

A formidable team is putting together the workshops: Coordinator Ms. Cousins works with Reference Librarian Mr. Depass and Research Officer Demar Ludford, who conducts a session on identifying, evaluating and accessing secondary sources at the NLJ. A member of the Special Collections Department undertakes evaluating and accessing the primary sources available at the Library.

The National Librarian plans to continue holding the workshops until February, 2021. “I would suggest that it is an ongoing exercise, even when things go back to normal,” she says. Meanwhile: “Whatever teachers need, we will try to provide it.”

COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, as we realize. Pushing those technological boundaries outwards and looking forward to new horizons will benefit not only teachers and students, but strengthen, in many ways, that backbone of history, culture and knowledge that the National Library of Jamaica is most emphatically a part of. And it is there to serve all those enquiring minds.

If your school wants to get involved with these workshops, here is what you do: Contact the National Library of Jamaica’s Chantal Cousins at 876 967-2494 to express your interest and to discuss the details. You may also contact the NLJ at research@nlj.gov.jm. As the teachers send in their questions and describe their needs, the NLJ staff will pull the required resources and place them in a secure portal, which is protected by a password, for three weeks. So, each workshop is “tailor made” for the school, depending on its needs. Then it is up to the teacher in charge to coordinate the workshop with the students, with the NLJ providing guidance and online support as it progresses.

Chantal Cousins enjoying the technology. (Photo: NLJ)

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