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Mary St. Ange: Public librarian on a mission

Mary St Ange has been working in public and community libraries for thirty-three years, organizing and providing access to a wide range of resources, supporting lifelong learning and encouraging reader development, to meet the diverse needs of the people of Canaries and the general populace who visit the Carnegie Central Library in downtown Castries, Saint Lucia. She laments the lack of revolutionary change in public and community libraries in our society despite the rapid changes in technology changing our present and our views of the future. She believes that investment in public libraries can help build a more inclusive society with far reaching positive effects on individuals, the community, businesses, learning and leisure activities and so much more. When I ask Mary what brings her the most comfort these days, she says that she gets up every morning to watch the sunrise and likewise, in the evening, images of the setting sun fill her mind and makes her feel life and remember the beauty of this world.

Daisy: Good day Mary and thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me today and your willingness to answer my 47 zippy questions.

Mary: Good afternoon, Daisy. Thank you for contacting me.

D: (Smiles). My pleasure. Let us get right into it. Can you tell me, on a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you about life right now?

M: I would say a nine (9) because I am looking forward to retirement soon and all that it brings.

D: I can understand that and congratulations on your imminent retirement. I hope that it brings you every good thing you wish for yourself and more. What is your biggest weakness?

M: My biggest weakness is seeing the potential in people especially the young who may not see it in themselves and trying to help them improve their lives.

D: Alrighty. I hear that. What is your biggest strength?

M: My biggest strength is changing a negative to a positive. I am a charitable person who has worked in charity all my life.

D: Wonderful Mary. What is your profession?

M: I am a librarian at the Canaries Public library and a Justice of the peace in St. Lucia. I am assistant secretary of the Justice of the Peace Association in St. Lucia and Vice President of the National Association of Libraries and Information Professionals (NALIP) St. Lucia.

D: And a budding entrepreneur, right?

M: Yes, but I guess after retirement, I will delve deeper into that aspect. At the moment I have acquired several skills such as cake decorating, candle making and soap making.

D: I love that. I am going to go to your current main profession. What is one thing no one tells you about librarianship?

M: That the powers that be are not focused on libraries and librarians. Libraries are not part of the discussion when it comes to education in St. Lucia. However, libraries play a big part in promoting information literacy and lifelong learning, and building up societies, something which is not recognised.

D: Mmmm…I agree. Libraries have reference departments where individuals can do research, the results of which could change people’s minds and make a large contribution to changing the consciousness of the people. Individuals using libraries can increase their insights and understanding of any number of things including their societies which could lead to constructive actions. So, what would you say is a cause that is important to you?

M: I would still go back to the young and say encouraging them to see and reach their full potential. Especially in the small community where I come from, the young don’t feel that they are good enough and once they have left school learning becomes unimportant. In a nutshell, promoting the benefits of libraries and information literacy would be a cause that is important to me.

D: Yes, what you say is true for many especially persons in marginalized communities around the island. Libraries are important parts of our intellectual development especially as children and should be a major part of our learning experience.

M: Yes, definitely. For example, there are several individuals that I have encouraged to take courses, to read and use the library to develop themselves, who have shifted their lot in life and done better for themselves. There is a lot that the library and librarians can do but we are side tracked.

D: Indeed, and I have noticed and the literature confirms this, that in poorer communities around the world where few people have enough money to contribute to libraries or even the time to use them, they also lack the knowledge of what to look for once they are there. This makes the work of library staff even more relevant in changing that narrative. When would you say you are most inspired?

M: I have a spectacular view of the village of Canaries from my home including the seaside, the river and all. When I open my doors in the morning, the first thing I see is the village and a great view of the rising of the sun and an even more spectacular view of the setting of the sun. I am often asked why I am so bubbly and what I can say is those views of nature inspire me daily.

D: You must invite me to take in those views some time.

M: Yes, you are welcomed anytime (smiles).

D: Leather or lace?

M: Bondous (laughs)…I don’t think it is any but if I had to choose one it would be lace.

D: Sweet or savory? Sweet but I enjoy very tasty savoury foods too.

D: What song can you listen to on repeat?

M: Shania Twain’s “You’re still the one” which is the story of my life.

D: It is a beautiful song…I guess maybe even your wedding song but you don’t need to divulge that information to me (smiles). Love is always a beautiful thing so I wish you continued bliss. What makes you smile the most?

M: My husband and daughter because they always want to see me happy.

D: What is one thing people don’t know about you?

M: That I am shy (laughs)…people don’t believe that. Also, when I am experiencing challenging times, I write poems. I hope you don’t ask me to recite any (smiles)

D: What is the most adventurous thing you have done in your life?

M: Driving with my daughter from Northampton to Aberystwyth Wales.

D: How would you describe yourself in 3 words?    

M: Loving, dedicated and no-nonsense.

D: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

M: Ummm…My mom used to say” Don’t be jealous of anything someone has because you don’t know how they acquired it”.

D: Wise words indeed. What would you say is your pet peeve?

M: Fake friends and focusing on negativity.

D: What is one thing you wish people understood?

M: People don’t understand that earthy possessions will remain on this earth long after we are gone… we are here to modify, we cannot take anything with us. We are just passing through, we are modifying what we have to hand it over to someone else.  We therefore should be less materialistic; nothing is ours to possess.

D: I understand your viewpoint…Life is evanescent. No one has ever gone with anything acquired on this earth. We own none of it.  What is your biggest regret?

M: I can’t even say. I feel like everything that happens is meant to happen that way so I have no regrets.

D: How do you start your day?

M: My day starts at 4:15 in the morning as I get ready for my daily walk from Canaries to Anse la Verde.

D: Wonderful. What is something you wish you knew at age 19?

M: MMMM…what happened to me at 19 (laughs).  I wish I knew at that age that not everyone who smiles with you is a nice person.

D: So, you wish you were not as naïve back then, thinking that everyone had your best interest at heart. That was quite a lesson to learn.

What is one talent you wish you had?

M: (Laughs) I don’t wish for things; I do with what I have. I go with the flow and what I need I try to acquire. So, I cannot answer that question to say it is this or that.

D: What is something you still want to be doing in 10 years?

M: To be around my daughter, get the opportunity to hold my grandchildren and just help people.

D: I certainly hope you get to do that. What would you say is the best thing that has happened to you this year?

M: So many things are happening. During the earlier part of the covid 19 experience, being able to stay indoors and save was one thing and connecting even more with my daughter and husband is another. Another thing is that through my walking, I have been able to lose some weight, I feel better about myself, more confident.

D: Yes, I love that. You have been able to practice more self-care and also engage even more with your family. What is one thing you had to learn the hard way?

M: Not everyone who smiles with you is a good friend.

D: Coffee or tea?

M: Coffee.

D: Lipstick or lip-gloss?

M: I am not a makeup person…have never worn it. The most I would wear is lip balm when I am travelling in the winter.  However, Vaseline does the trick (smiles).

D: What is one thing you are tired of?

M: I don’t know. I would say that through my work I am tired of trying to get resources and trying hard to see that things work and not always getting the support.

D: What is a trend you would like to see disappear forever?

M: The way the young generation dresses these days, many not knowing what kind of clothing is appropriate for the beach, for a formal occasion and so on.

D: Diamonds or pearls?

M: Diamonds, I like the glitter.

D: What makes you feel accomplished?

M: When I assist others and they are satisfied. Their signs of appreciation make me feel like I have accomplished something.

D: Favorite food?

M: I should ask my husband that question. He is the main chef in the house.  I would say any rice dish because that is a key ingredient in any dish that is being prepared just for me by my husband (chuckles). 

D: You know, maybe your husband prepares those dishes so well that you absolutely enjoy them. What is your favourite snack?

M: (Laughs again) …cheesecake. I love it.

D: What is a super power you wish you had?

M: Invisibility so that I can solve many problems in the world.

D: What is your favourite color?

M: I don’t think I have a favourite colour. My husband says I would paint the entire house black if could…laughs…so I would say black.

D: What is something you would like to see happen within the library profession?

M: I want libraries to be recognised, to be upkept, for librarians’ roles in building the society to be at the forefront, for library staff to promote themselves and their work more. Also, libraries need to be an established part of educational institutions, for example, being included in the promotion of reading month activities in schools, training students in the best use of the internet on their electronic devices, assisting them with doing research online and more. Libraries and librarians are normally left out of the discussion and in the planning process. It seems that individuals are “dumped” in the library department, and not on the basis of qualifications and other benchmarks for the positions. My regret is that after so many years I will be leaving the library still without adequate resources.

D: That would have a huge impact on our communities Mary. What I have noticed too, and alluded to the flipside of this earlier, is that in parts of the world with large upper and middle classes, people in the society are willing and able to contribute to their local libraries and use it extensively to benefit themselves, their organizations and so on.

On that basis, would you say that library staff need to be better advocates?

M: Yes, I believe so. I remember hearing Paba say at an interview some time that “reading is it”. More programs that foster reading and literacy need to be strengthened but without adequate resources and support, we are not able to support those that need it most in the best possible way. Years ago, I was able to take children from my community to places they would never otherwise visit. I did this in collaboration with local firms and even today, these children still visit the library and reminisce. Today, sponsors are not as forthcoming or as supportive of libraries.

D: Now that you mention it, perhaps a resurgence of collaborations with private entities and public and community libraries can help bridge that gap and enhance the experience for the patron?

M: Yes, definitely, I always say that if an organisation helps a library, they help an entire community. The Soufriere Community library for example is termite infested and in need of repair. As community librarians we try to source resources on our own as well, most recently the Anse La Raye – UK association came through with a printer to benefit the community library in Anse La Raye. I just wish I had more time to continue advocating for the library.

D: I hope that even after you retire you will still be an advocate for libraries and the profession.

M: Yes I will still be around even at least once a week or so.  With supervision of two other community libraries, and encouraging staff to develop themselves, I try to share resources that can motivate and inspire them.

D: Moving back to focusing on a more personal stance, how would you describe your upbringing?

M: My upbringing was great. My mom was very strict but education was important as well as having a spiritual base.

D: Who is your role model?

M: My mom.

D: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

M: Trying to be healthy, and practicing self-care through my walks.

D: What do you want to be remembered for?

M: For my caring nature, for helping people succeed and adding to other people’s happiness especially when they are around me.

D: What is your biggest fear?

M: Losing my husband.

D: What is the best compliment you have ever received?

M: Someone telling me “I am an angel” after I had assisted her. Also recently, a young man told me that “He owes it all to me” after I congratulated him on his latest achievement in attending a tertiary level institution on the island.

D: How do you de-stress?

M: Taking a drive to visit family and other loved ones or visiting the Baywalk mall with a book in hand to sit and read.

D: What is your favorite hashtag?

M: #handmade

D: Any last words for your audience who will be reading your interview?

M: Well, I want people to be positive, don’t believe that because you have a setback, for example you got pregnant or dropped out of school that all is over. Utilise the library, the internet and social media to take a leap forward. There is so much to learn, have hope and try new things, learn a skill. I learnt to make soap for example on YouTube. As long as you are alive, there is always an opportunity to do better. Take action. It is never too late.

D: How do you feel now that we are done?

M: I feel good. Maybe I will try something like that after my retirement.

D: Go for it. Thank you so much Mary. I appreciate your time and willingness to engage me in this discussion. I wish you the very best on your upcoming retirement and of course all good things for both you and your family.

 You can support Mary’s social media pages. Instagram: @ foyenmore and  Facebook pages: Foye Plus More, and the Canaries Public Library Service.

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