Cartes postales du bagne

site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni pt6

Part 6. The bibliobus

An important focus of this project is how the multiple sites associated with the penal administration’s 100 year presence in French Guiana can and might provide the potential for greater community engagement. During our stay in Saint Laurent du Maroni we came and visited a series of sites associated with the bagne. The town of Saint Laurent itself bears strong references to the A.P. and many of the buildings such as the Treasury building in the original Quartier Officiel have continued to play a municipal role.

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Elsewhere the existence of various ruins is something that for now only historians and archaeologists have any sustained interest in. The ruins are not necessarily invisible or obscured by vegetation but the story of the bagne is also not necessarily one most people feel an attachment to or a desire to dwell on.

Case 3 formerly housed the Camp’s library and is now home to CIAP’s archives

Inside the Camp de la Transportation, the scale of the space (although much smaller than Saint Jean which is now a military barracks) and its multiple buildings have meant that the story of the bagne has been explored and presented in many different ways from museum to tour to archives to exhibitions. But the space also houses a theatre group, multimedia lab and the municipal library.

The library is most interesting in that it offers a thread from the bagne to present day via the figure of Icek Baron. Icek Baron was a convict from Varsovie sent to Saint Laurent in the 1930s. Although his dossier suggest he was beyond redemption, towards the end of his sentence he became prison librarian and then, when the bagne closed, he worked as a librarian at the hospital in Saint Laurent. Many people still remember him with great affection.

Icek Baron featuring in a short documentary on the Camp de la Transportation

The library has the collection of books from Baron’s hospital library (though sadly not from the prison library) and it is touching to see his spidery penmanship on the opening pages of the books marking his personal classification system. Some of the books have been lovingly recovered, no doubt the cheap paperbacks defining the collection didn’t fare too well in the humidity.

The public library was inaugurated in its current building (formerly the building where the Portes Clés slept) in 2007. Previously it has been housed in the opposite building, which used to be the infirmary, that now houses the CIAP reception and offices. I was very lucky to meet the library director, Martine, who worked in the library for two decades and has seen its evolution from small community led lending association set up at the end of the 1989s to, as she put it, the most beautiful library in French Guiana today.

But despite the sitedness of the library in the Camp and the interweaving of its history with that of the bagne, I think it’s important to also think about the role of the library within the greater infrastructure of present day Saint Laurent and its surrounds. The library now operates a bibliobus, a library bus that visits the surrounding neighbourhoods encouraging people who might not get to the camp to borrow and read. The bus bears the name of Icek Baron and in a sense provides a present day reminder of the idea of the bagne as form of infrastructure as much as a fixed site of imprisonment. Martine suggested people might avoid the library in the camp for two reasons. First, they may not like visiting the site due to its dark history. This is perhaps becoming less of an issue given the numerous different activities taking place there. Second, libraries even when they are as charming and welcoming as the Bibliothèque Icek Baron can be alienating, intimidating places for people whose daily lives require little reading and/or who use languages and dialects not often transcribed and printed. This is definitely the case along the Maroni river yet at the same time there seems to be everywhere a strong interest in knowledge and learning. The bus as well as the carbets de lecture [small huts with informal lending libraries found in hamlets and villages around the area] seem to attend to this tension.

The small library at Apatou

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