Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Yesterday my students and I took a field trip to Sali on the island of Dugi Otok (Long Island). An hour and a half from Zadar, this village attracts tourists from all over the world during the summer season. Now, at the end of October, Sali has been mostly returned to the people who live here year-round, except for the occasional day on which they are invaded by thirteen library school students, a research assistant, and a visiting professor from the U.S.
We had gone to Sali to see its public library, part of the Zadar library system. We were met at the dock by Ante, the unconventional librarian for the island. Completely bald, wearing a black opera t shirt (from a performance of Wagner's Ring in Amsterdam), plaid cargo shorts, and black combat boots, he took us the few steps to his library which is small in physical size but gargantuan in its aspirations and energy.
Every inch of space is filled with something interesting to look at or do -- books, of course, CDs, DVDs, a flat-screen TV, piano and telescope (!), four computers, trophies, a few ratty armchairs and a sofa. Children's books are crammed into a closet. The walls and even the ceiling are covered with a crazy collage of pictures: the cast of the Lord of the Rings, old movie stars, historical photos of Sali, astronomical charts, photos of library events and library users -- anything and everything. When the weather is fine, Ante moves the library outside and hosts all kinds of events: pancake parties (pancakes, palacinkes, are very important in this part of the world), movie showings, pot luck dinners, talent shows, rallies before Croatian soccer matches (for one of which Ante's bald head was painted with the distinctive Croatian red and white checkerboard logo).
Ante seems quite cavalier about the infamous library "standards" which emanate from the Ministry of Culture and is happy to operate on a remote island far from bureaucratic oversight. He doesn't charge fines for overdue books and just assumes that the books will come back one day. They usually do. Once a couple of Swiss backpackers missed the boat back to Zadar. Ante let them sleep in the library. He hasn't waited for funding to come for a "Bibliobus" -- that's a bookmobile for those of you who don't speak Croatian. He just rigged up a kind of shelf in the back of a station wagon and used that to take books to the farther settlements on this long, narrow island.
Ante was born and raised on the island, living still in his boyhood home, a traditional Dalmatian house made of stone with a red tile roof. The students and I had an interesting discussion about whether anybody else could have achieved what he has done on the library. Do you have to have his insider knowledge and his larger than life personality? At first they thought that those were necessary prerequisites. But as we talked, we arrived at the conclusion that all that was necessary was a conviction to make the library an essential and organic part of the community -- and with sensitivity and commitment, any of us can do that.
Dalmatians tend to romanticize their islands where life is slower and more traditional than it is on the mainland. However, the opportunities to make a living on the islands are very few. Aside from tourism, which is seasonal, and a little fishing, there is not much to keep a young person in Sali. They must even commute to Zadar to attend high school.
Two of the students had connections on Sali and were able to get one of the traditional Dalmatian restaurants, a konoba, to open just to serve us lunch. We had the classic black risotto, a cabbage salad, battered and fried calamari, and local wine. We ate upstairs in a room with stone walls, the traditional green shutters and net curtains, wood beam ceiling. We ate and talked and toasted librarians everywhere.