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Then & Now: Libraries a mainstay of public life

Community 10 Feb, 2020 Follow News

The George Town Public Library new and old

This second in our Then and Now series on iconic Cayman buildings looks at the development of another important central George Town building, the George Town Public Library.

In the late 19th Century, Cayman did not possess a public library; instead public reading rooms began to develop to satisfy residents’ literary curiosity. In 1919, Commissioner Hugh H. Hutchings arrived in Cayman and was an avid reader, subscribing to the likes of the Saturday Evening Post, Punch and Atlantic Monthly, all of which became popular reads with Caymanians. As a result, in 1920, the Government included an annual amount of 40 pounds in its budget for to establish a subscription library, located in a room above the old jail next to the Old Court House (now the National Museum). Cayman’s first librarian was Jane Bond Arch.

In West Bay, history books detail how the residents so badly wanted their own reading room that they raised money for one by having debates, concerts, cake sales and plays. Their hard work paid off and a reading room was opened in West Bay in 1934 under the eye of librarian Mrs Ada Hydes. It was located to the west of the Four Winds Esso along the old ‘Marl Road’ and became a cultural meeting pace on a Saturday evening. Another reading room opened in Bodden Town and another in Stake Bay on Cayman Brac.

In 1937 plans were put in place to build a larger library in George Town. A well-known Caymanian architect of the 20th Century, Rayal Brazley Bodden, who died in 1976, designed the new building, which was built in 1939. The new library eventually opened its doors on 11th January 1940, during the administration of Commissioner Allen Cardinall. Two distinct features pointed to Bodden’s distinctive architectural style – the use of concrete blocks which was innovative for the age, and the marine-inspired design of the ceiling featuring a design that took its design from the upside-down hull of a ship, the style hallmark of Bodden, who was also a mariner. He used a similar design in the building of the Elmslie Memorial Church, which stands nearby to the George Town Public Library.

Carnegie Corp granted $1,250 to equip the building, while the main source of printed matter came from the Ranfurly Library in the UK. Lady Ranfurly, who was the wife of a colonial governor, started the project of collecting used books for shipment to the territories where books were in short supply. The first Caymanian librarian for this new facility was Alice Parsons and in 1980 the library a gained its first trained librarian. Over the years, the library amassed around 15,000 volumes, including reference books, local history books, large print, books on tape and periodicals.


New wing is opened

Due to increasing demands of an ever-growing population, the Maples wing of the George Town Library opened in May 2009, greatly expanding the George Town Public Library’s offering, with a new three-storey extension of the original building strategically placed behind it, adding 12,000 square feet to the building. The Maples Foundation, established by the law firm Maples, donated US$2.5 million to the project. The new modern wing was built by Royal Construction and designed by Public Works Department architects Colin Lumsden and Sean Evans, employing materials such as Caymanite stone and glass, a fitting tribute to other historic buildings and landmarks in the nation’s capital.

The new wing greatly enhanced the selection of written material available for the public, as well as adding computers with Internet, a children’s section and a conference room.

At the time of its opening, the then Minister of Education (now Premier) Alden McLaughlin remembered when his father would take him to the library every Thursday. Premier McLaughlin called the library the “heart, brain and memory of the community”.

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