• 2008-02-20

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

Now that Latvia's economy is showing the first signs of cooling, the national library project has returned to the headlines. Granted, it only really "vanished" from the media's watchful eye for three months after the much anticipated ceremonial laying of the cornerstone planned in November was postponed. But now it's back, and 's to the point 's more expensive than ever.

The library, dubbed the Castle of Light, is the largest of a cultural triplet that the Cultural Ministry is lobbying with indefatigable gusto, to the point of tactless obsession. The other two are an acoustic concert hall (costing 63 million lats, or 90 million euros) and a contemporary art museum (20 million lats). Originally the library was given an approximate price tag of 160 million lats, though in the current market this is regarded as hopelessly underestimated. The two bids received for library amounted to 458 and 555 million lats 's three times the estimated amount. Talk about a public relations nightmare…

The new government 's or rather, the new face on the old government 's has proposed to divide the ultra-expensive library into two phases (the other two projects will be shelved indefinitely), with funds coming in different forms for each phase. The details of financing are still murky, but if there were ever a case when the devil is in the details, here you have it. Preliminary reports indicate that money for the first phase will be allocated from the current and 2009 budgets, and that the government has put a ceiling of 165 million lats on total costs (to date, some 15 million lats have already been spent). Project creators are keeping their fingers crossed that construction will commence this year and Latvia will have a new national library by 2012.
The problem with the Castle of Light, which was conceived way back in 2000, is that it is being pushed at the wrong time. Latvia's economy is teetering on a frightening precipice, and any significant increase in state expenditures could easily shove it over the edge. Should that occur, what awaits below is anyone's guess. Evidence that the housing sector has dropped to nearly nil 's and data does indeed attest this 's is not sufficient grounds to suddenly become gung-ho on public works, not when revenue is exiguous and needed to keep the state sector of the economy 's hospitals, schools, universities 's competitive and attractive. Otherwise, Latvia will soon run out of nurses, ambulance drivers, kindergarten teachers, policemen, and yes, librarians.
Latvia's economy needs more time to stabilize, and the minister must first implement recommendations issued by the European Commission on Feb. 13. Once inflation is down from the stratosphere to cloud-level, then we can build. Financing, by the way, should not be a problem, particularly with investors haggling over Lattelecom. What better way to use the proceeds of the asset's sale than building a library? 

Every nation should have its national library, and Latvia must erect its own 's one that's state-of-the-art, architecturally impressive and a source of pride. But this should not be done at the expense of the national economic bill of health, which, as any doctor will say, leaves much to be desired.