Dark times ahead for the 'Castle of Light?'

  • 2007-12-12
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

MYTHICAL: In folk legend, the castle of light symbolized wisdom lost and was prophesied to rise from the Daugava River after the Latvian people overcame the darkness of war, invasion and occupation.

RIGA - The 66 meter high structure will tower above the Daugava River. Sunlight reflected off the all-glass walls will make the building stand out, glowing, spreading the light of knowledge throughout Latvia.
That's the idea anyway. But the ambitious plan to build a new 44,000 square meter national library, dubbed the "Castle of Light," has encountered its fair share of hurdles to jump. With the building's groundbreaking date 's Nov. 18 's come and gone, the fate of the entire project still hangs in the balance.
There can be no doubt that Latvia needs a new national library. Currently the country doesn't even have a unified national library building 's information resource centers are scattered throughout the capital. Different branches of the national library are located on both sides of the river, and in some cases the library is even forced to rent the land it is on.

"We don't have a [single] national library, but one that is spread among many places which have not been specially constructed for a library's needs. In principle we should have a national library under one roof to act as one service point," Andris Vilks, director of the national library, told The Baltic Times.
"We cannot continue our development in the current situation. The fact is there are many things we cannot do unless the library is in one place," he said.
Society and politicians are divided on their support for the project. A survey conducted earlier this year by the Latvijas Fakti pollster found that 29.8 percent of people supported the project, while 29.3 percent were against it.

The problem is the price tag. So far, the cheapest offer to build the massive structure 's from a national association of construction companies uniting RBS Skals, Skonto Buve, and Re & Re 's  is 129 million lats (197.8 million euros). Only about 10 million lats have so far been allocated to the project in this year's and next year's budget.
The cost estimates are high enough to have economists and some top ranking politicians worried about pumping even more money into an already overheating economy. President Valdis Zatlers, for example, denounced the project for its high cost, saying that the project should be "stopped and wisely reconsidered."
The comment drew harsh criticism from Culture Minister Helena Demakova, who controversially said that the president's comment had been irresponsible and populist, accusing the president of pandering to Russian interests. 

Vilks acknowledged the need to cut costs, but noted that some economists think that the expensive project could even benefit the economy. "Economists are already thinking that this could be like a pillow to help soften the hard [economic landing]," he said.
Whether for good or bad, the lion's share of the funding for the building is slated to come from the high-profile privatization of the state owned Lattelecom telecommunications firm. Doubts have recently been raised, however, as to whether the complicated Lattelecom deal itself will go through.

Filling the castle

So what actually goes inside a library of that scale? The obvious answer is books. The new national library will house 5.5 million books, 47,000 rare books and manuscripts and a plethora of handwritten, 18th and 19th century texts and maps.
But Vilks explained that 21st century libraries do much more than simply hold books.
"It is not just a house for books; it is a place for readers. Libraries are becoming a place where people go to gather information. If you are looking at what is going on now in new national libraries in Paris, London or Frankfurt they have activities every day related to the knowledge which is in the library. We have to disseminate this knowledge," Vilks said.

The new library will feature 1,200 reading spaces and highly trained librarians who can help locate original, verifiable information 's or teach people to look up information 's theoretically better than any Internet search engine could.
The project involves more than just a building; the new national library will also act as a hub connecting libraries and information centers throughout Latvia with the goal that every resident of the country has nearby, complete access to the entire body of knowledge available there.
As the controversy over the huge new building rages on, there is still the possibility that the project will fall through. Vilks, however, said it is unlikely that the whole project will be canned, and believes if problems persist the construction will only be delayed.

"Depending on how the situation in the country is, we could end up postponing the project a few years but maintaining the same basic idea," he said.