Old Bvi Documents: Fully Funded Digitization Project In The Doldrums

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NYU Professor Lauren Benton

NYU Professor Lauren Benton

By The Island Sun Staff

Professor of History at New York University (NYU), Dr. Lauren Benton who, in 2012, was instrumental in securing considerable funding for the digitization of important old records of the Virgin Islands held at the National Archives and Records Management Unit (NARMU) in Road Town is very much concerned that bureaucratic slowness may jeopardise the entire project because, according to recent estimates, the digitization may materialise only at the end of 2016.

Dr. Benton disclosed that donors’ funds have been held for over two years now, and the situation has reached a point where the benefactors may get cold feet if they do not see serious commitment on the part of the BVI. In fact, some of the donors are becoming impatient and are asking their money back, the Law professor stated.

The project had been in the making as early as 2009, and in 2011, at NARMU’s invitation, NYU sent a team to the BVI at no expense to the Territory. The visit’s aim was to evaluate the feasibility of digitization of the older materials. At the time there were positive vibes on both sides, Dr. Benton told The Island Sun, and NYU began to work on external funding to digitize the 1700s and early 1800s records, including deeds and wills.

As donors saw the great importance of the initiative they began to donate sizable amounts of money. This funding would allow the purchase of one of the most sophisticated scanners on the market to be used locally and then become property of the BVI government at completion of the digitization project. The project would involve a small team of highly skilled NYU graduates who will travel to BVI fully funded and remain in Tortola for an estimated four to six weeks.

LIMBO ACT & BUREAUCRACY BECOME STUMBLING BLOCKS

To give the required legal weight the project was to be backed by a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU), but there is where the problems surfaced.  Technicalities and legal aspects seeped in, and the issues raised by NARMU were truly plentiful, Dr. Benton said. It became clear then that adding the slowness in the decision-making process to some hesitations brought the finalization of any agreement to 2014. However, this year is coming to an end and to get anything going government must, supposedly, formulate a management  strategy for NARMU holdings.

This brings into the picture the Archives and Public Records Management Act passed in July 2010. According to BVI Complaints Commissioner Elton Georges this piece of legislation is still in limbo. In his 2013 Report, Mr. Georges wrote that the 2010 Act has joined the list of Acts that were passed, but not brought into force, not provided with resources, rendering a dead letter as far as giving impetus to action on the records. He indicated that more pressure will be put on the government  “to deal with these matters eventually, probably at greater cost than if it addresses them now”.

 Former Chief Librarian Peter Moll in a commentary published by The BVI Beacon on 6 May noted that the present situation is tantamount to leaving the 2010 Act to a slow, lingering death: “since then, the territory has lost hundreds (perhaps thousands) of irreplaceable archival documents, both through natural causes (e.g. insect and climatic damage) and human error (carelessness and uninformed disposal).”

A VITAL PIECE OF AFRO-CARIBBEAN HISTORY

At critical junctures, Dr. Benton diligently updated Governor Boyd McCleary about the empasse and developments that would impact negatively the project.  On the other hand, at present Dr. Benton is not sure whether the government will give open access to the digitized documents. In her opinion the documents involved have been partially catalogued and make up part of the series “Records of the Presidency, 1720-1938* of the BVI Archives. She informed this newspaper that “the records are in an extremely fragile state…the paper is highly acidic and brittle, with extensive edge damage, cracking, some staining, and browning of pages.” On the bright side, however, she was happy to say that “except in a few cases where bleeding of ink or paper fraying is extensive, the documents are fully legible.”

“The project will preserve this vital piece of Afro-Caribbean history for researchers and for posterity, and will make these important records widely accessible while preventing their loss from continued deterioration and weather damage,” she said.

Ideally, the project will be overseen by two faculty members at NYU. Lauren Benton is Professor of History, Affiliate Professor of Law, and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University, with expertise in the history of the Atlantic world and legal history.  She has published recent articles in the history of slavery and abolition in the Caribbean.  Peter Wosh directs the Program in Archives and Public History at NYU and is an expert in public history and the history of religion. 

Researchers will be students or graduates of advanced programs in the Archives and Public History program or the master’s and doctoral programs of the Department of History. They will be trained by preservation librarians of the NYU Libraries Paula De Stefano and Melitte Buchman.  NYU will donate the time of faculty and librarians; two research assistants will participate in the project as unpaid interns; and two paid researchers will be supported by project funds, one to supervise digitization and the other to prepare finding aids.

This newspaper has contacted chief records management officer Christopher Varlack but he declined to make comments based on internal procedural policy. Permanent Secretary in the Deputy Governor’s Office, David Archer did not elaborate on the digitization project topic and commented telegraphically “that the project is still being negotiated and we therefore do not feel that we are in a position to comment at this stage.”

This article has proved particularly difficult when we tried to get both sides of the story.

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