The Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection a special gift to the community

Rita received special recognition last weekend’s Black and Caribbean Book Fair 2021

By Lincoln DePradine

Dr Rita Cox

The library material accessible through the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection in Toronto has been hailed for its multiple positive contributions, including assisting in student research for Master’s and doctoral degrees.

“People spent weeks in the library doing their research. So, we have been a real good citizen of Toronto – as a collection, as a people, as a community,’’ said Dr Rita Cox, the person after whom the Heritage Collection is named.

Trinidad-born Cox was commenting during a panel discussion as part of “Black and Caribbean Book Fair 2021’’.

The book fair, October 14 – 17, was sponsored by A Different Booklist Cultural Centre (ADBCC).

The Collection, available at four Toronto Public Library (TPL) locations, has become “a cultural hub’’ in the city, said Neil Armstrong, one of the co-hosts of the panel discussion.

Cox, a renowned storyteller and award-winning librarian with honourary doctorate degrees from York University and Wilfrid Laurier University, joined the TPL as a children’s librarian in 1960.

In 1974, Cox was appointed to head the library’s Parkdale branch, where she remained until retiring in 1995.

It was through Cox’s efforts that, in 1973, the library’s Black Heritage and West Indian Resource Collection was established. In 1998, it was renamed the Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection.

Subsequently, members of the Black and Caribbean community began lobbying the TPL to name the Collection in honour of Cox, who was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1997.

The TPL, at a 2006 meeting of its board and attended by several members of the Black and Caribbean community, including now ADBCC managing director, Itah Sadu, agreed that it should be renamed the Collection after Cox.

“The place was packed,’’ said Rachelle Gooden, a community member who was at the meeting 15 years ago. A TPL employee, she’s now the selector responsible for items to be included in the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection.

Okeima Lawrence, then the youngest member of the TPL’s board of directors, credited the community’s “great advocacy work’’ for influencing the library’s decision in 2006.

“The Collection has helped to promote the board’s vision for greater inclusion and recognition of Toronto’s diversity,’’ said Lawrence. “Libraries are central. They continue to be mutual spaces for community.’’

According to the TPL, the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection contains more than 16,000 books. Its content also includes DVDs, CDs, newspapers and magazines for children, teenagers and adults.

“It’s been great to see writers, who normally would have to jump through quite a few hoops to get into the library, have a place and a passageway to get into the library. I’ve seen a lot more self-published books coming through; really well-written books that have come through and voices that have not been heard in the past, or have been very hard to get into the library, I’ve seen them coming through. It’s just been an absolute joy to see,’’ said Gooden.

“We are trying to grow our digital archives. So, if there are photographers who have work and they would like to make it available to be preserved, I’m sure I could look into how to do that.’’

A “Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection Endowment Fund’’ was set up following the TPL Collection’s 2006 name-change.

Gooden said between $40,000 and $50,000 is spent annually in purchasing material for the Heritage Collection.

The fund’s first-year target was $10,000 in support of the Collection.

“I am very proud to say that we’re now over $90,000 in the Endowment Fund,’’ TPL’s Liza Fernandes told the ADBCC’s panel discussion on the 15th anniversary of the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection.

Contributions to the Endowment Fund are tax-deductible and Fernandes encouraged donations from the public.

Cox expressed appreciation to the community and to the TPL, including the late former chief librarian Harry Campbell, for their support of the initiative at setting up the Heritage Collection.

“The Toronto Public Library system has my eternal gratitude,’’ said Cox, recalling the TPL giving her permission “to buy books on Caribbean literature and Caribbean history from any part of the world that I could find them’’.

Cox referred to book launches held at the Parkdale branch by many prominent authors, and the benefits to the library from a partnership with York University.

“Whenever writers came from abroad to conferences at York, we always got a little bit, so that they could come to the library to have a program. It allowed the general community, and the Caribbean community, to witness in person, these gems in our literary heritage. So, the collection brought us together with our practitioners,’’ said Cox.