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Light seen at end of library project tunnel

  • 2011-10-26
  • By Egle Juozenaite

IMAGE BUILDING: Controversial from the start, the Castle of Light promises to change the city’s profile.

RIGA - The idea for a new national library for Latvia started already 20 years ago and, as it comes close to realization, appears set to be one of the biggest and the most expensive projects in re-independent Latvia. The existing, old buildings that today make up the national library system are in a threatening condition – threatening to library-goers and to the books and documents themselves. Last June the floor of the main depository in the main building of the National Library, in Riga, collapsed and 1,200 new books fell into the damp basement below, with another 70,000 books needing to be relocated to safer shelving.

The National Library system that we use today was formed in 1919. Local citizens gathered to read even before then, though, with the founding of Riga City Library in 1524. This was when, as elsewhere in Europe, books were the property of secluded monasteries and generally off-limits to the general public. It has the distinction of being not only the oldest public library in Latvia, but also one of the oldest in Northern Europe. The collection started with four books of religious content which the Riga town council had donated for “general use,” writes culture.lv.

The new scheme, called The Palace of Light and designed by world-famous Latvian architect Gunars Birkerts, was planned to finish construction by 2012, with construction costs estimated at 114.6 million lats (163.7 million euros), though now it seems that this target may not be reached.

Janis Turlajs, head of the Libraries Division at the Ministry of Culture, said that it is anticipated that next year, the infrastructure of the new library will be finished and that it will take one year to transport the books, furniture and other equipment into the facilities. Therefore, the opening of the new National Library should be in autumn 2013.

“The new Latvian National Library is very important for the people; it will be not as simple a library as had been thought. The new library will be the center of culture. A democratic space for all age groups where people could read books or magazines, look at exhibitions, attend meetings and seminars. Also, there will be a small cafe, and many other things which could be useful for library visitors. It will combine different areas of culture,” maintained Turlajs.

The director of the national library, Andris Vilks, said that it is always difficult to expect plans to be done on time. “At the moment, we think that it is still realistic. The new National Library is a big project, which requires a lot of money for implementation. The project scheme was based on the [same] idea as the National Bank of Latvia,” he noted.
“The amount of financing diminished at the beginning of 2009. If we speak about the impact of the crisis, we could say that the library organization has changed. During the years 2007 and 2008 our budget, our salaries were excellent. We could even compare our salaries with other countries like Portugal, Greece and so on. [Then], staff was cut; more than 100 employees were made redundant, but of course nobody expected such a big drop,” stated Vilks.

Considering the sorry situation now at the state’s libraries, a new main building certainly seems in order. “Latvia is the last country in Europe that doesn’t have a national library building. We really need one central library, because right now we just have branches, and this is not convenient for the readers. They cannot find all the information they need in one building. A library system is a most important social service. Sometimes people come to the library not to find information at all, but to just speak with somebody, or they just want to warm up during winter. It is a public space for public use,” exerted Vilks.

The new library is, then, very important for the country. It will serve as a center of culture. “This project has two parts. The first is the construction of the building, and the other is creating the network of libraries. Latvia has about 2,000 different kinds of libraries, and 800 of them will be connected to the on-line library information network Lightnet, which will enable people to access information from all Latvian libraries at once, as well as order necessary books and other printed works,” says Turlajs.
“All libraries will be connected to the network. The first stage was to connect all academic, public and school libraries. The second phase was the project [facilitated] by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, connecting all the public libraries, to provide free access to the Internet and to educate the librarians,” Turlajs highlighted.

“The [current] National Library of Latvia has 200,000 remote users a year, together with the permanent users. The number of visitors is really huge. People are coming to use the Internet, to Skype with their kids who are abroad. We help in this way old people who are coming to the library to contact their families somewhere in another part of the world,” maintains Vilks.
“We have so many followers on Twitter, Facebook and other blogs. The library organizes meetings among all the bloggers once a month. They [usually] sit alone and blog all day, but they are coming to the library to meet and to chat,” says Ilze Egle, head of communications at the National Library.

The library’s motto is to attract people to come to the library and for them to become regular library visitors. “We think a lot about the future library. We are focusing on services; it is our most important agenda. We are improving our collections, database, data systems and program of events. We also have a special group for the museum of Latvian history of books, and this museum will also be in the future library,” added Egle.

People have different opinions about this long-term project. Not everyone thinks that now is the time for such extravagance. For example, the money invested in this large, central project, may have better been spent in building, or improving, the smaller libraries throughout the country, those in the smallest towns and villages, in order to bring these up-to-date, to comfortable reading and workspaces, connecting these points of light to everyone in the country.

“The concept of the new library is very modern, but for Latvia it might be better to renovate the present departments of the existing National Library. This project is very expensive and many people in Latvia think that it is too big for Latvia. On the other hand, maybe in the future we will be proud of this building and the new library. I think that this library will be very comfortable for readers, because all kinds of books will be in one building and there will be no need to search for them in different locations,” stated Alina Sinelnikova, a student.

“The project is not the most important thing for the Latvian people. The government should deal with other problems, like creating new work places. People don’t have money and they are emigrating, leaving the country. The new library could be a good project if we wouldn’t have so many other problems. Also, I think that the library is not in the best place; it is far away. For example, it will take about half an hour to reach the library from the Mezciems area,” said one concerned reader, Alisa Ivanova.

Some say the benefits from the new building have already spread to the distant regions. The new building, they claim, has sparked attention to all libraries in Latvia. “I counted throughout the country how many new public libraries have been erected in the last 10 years. Almost every main region has seen renovated, newly built libraries, or they have made some additions to the current facilities. In Tukums and Ventspils two libraries were inaugurated. In Kuldiga the new library will be finished next month. Liepaja, Saldus, Dobele, Bauska, Ogre, Aizkraukle, Madona, Lielvarde, Livani, Preili, Daugavpils, Rezekne, Valmiera also paid special attention to public libraries. Only a few libraries are in poor condition, while about 30 libraries have been renovated or built. This is one of the phenomenon of the new National Library. This idea provoked local municipalities also into thinking about libraries. At inauguration ceremonies they are usually saying: we are opening our local Castle of Light. It has become some kind of fashion to invest in libraries,” proclaimed Vilks.

A very important condition for implementation of the project is having stability in political support. “We are always in a turbulent situation. As elections [are over], we have to start anew, because of the new minister. The transition period [for new government] is a few months, but it is during this time that we don’t know how things will be done in the future. A new government will start from November 1. We would like to have stable government; we would like to have one minister for four years or more. The political background has influenced implementation of the project; if the government is strong, we would have the library much more easily and much faster,” said Vilks.

Despite the many reasons for not going forward with the project in these tough economic times, the fact that its promoters have succeeded in getting this far is testament to the underlying support there is for a new library in Latvia’s capital city, and that national pride, if not the budget, in the end will prevail.

Arvals Agarskis, who works in Riga, said that he likes the idea. “I think that it will be a very stylish and modern place, where you could go just to spend some time and to relax. To my mind, people are complaining too much; it is really important to have a new national library. I also think that the building fits in with the city. [Riga] is starting to recreate itself as a new city. The new library will create a new face of Riga, and maybe in the future the city will have a really new image, like the biggest cities in Europe have.”