Wednesday, October 15, 2008

First impressions of my first public library visit in Croatia

Martina is a doctoral student at the University of Zagreb, working as an assistant at the University of Zadar. She is passionate about public libraries and how they can transform communities and has wonderful stories to tell about how they did this in Zadar. Today she and her husband and one-year-old son Luka took me to Sibenik to see this beautiful old coastal city and to visit its public library.

Like many Croatian public libraries, the Sibenik library occupies a converted army building. Unlike many, it is in the center of town. The renovation results in a modern building of glass and steel. There are some oddities due to its former use. In the basement, for example, a former bowling alley has been turned into a storage space with compact shelving. For the most part, however, its former military function is not apparent. And isn't that a nice symbolic transformation? From a military operation to a library! I like that.

I wish Jonathan Furner had been there to help me make sense of what they called their scientific collection which to me appeared to be just nonfiction (books on winemaking, origami, and many other miscellaneous subjects). It used a classification scheme that originated in some Croatian academic setting. Because of this, the public was not allowed into this room but had to have books paged from here. When I asked if this worked for them, the librarians said it did. OK. Whatever.

There was a pleasant preschool corner filled with blocks and soft cushions and picture books. There was a children's computer lab crowded with boys using the computers the same way they do everywhere -- for games in noisy packs. There was another bank of computers with special software for children under the age of 8.

The collection looked like a collection anywhere, with books written in Croatian and others translated into Croatian. Harry Potter is still very popular, and the librarian showed me a scrapbook documenting a whole series of Harry Potter programs. Lots of children in wizard hats.

More impressive to me was a program on children's rights. Children from the ages of ten to fourteen had participated in a discussion -- or maybe a series of discussions, I'm not sure -- about rights and then produced their own Bills of Rights. They translated one of them for me, and it seemed very wise and also very childlike. This child included the right to eat candy along with a child's right to know his father and to visit both parents.

This library also hires an artist to work with the children on various creative visual arts projects. While I was there, the project was creating bookmarks; and the results were lovely. In an earlier project, the children had looked at incunabula from the cathedral library that is just a block or so away and then created their own illuminated alphabets.

There was so much to admire about the library and its staff who obviously care about the library, about their patrons, and about their city. What is missing? Teen services! After the age of fourteen, young people are "sent upstairs" to the adult section. There is no teen collection or programming.

Before I had come to Croatia, I had only read travel guidebooks about the country and the nonfiction accounts written by Rebecca West (BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON) and Robert Kaplan (BALKAN GHOSTS). I wondered in my last post how my impressions of the country would differ. In 1938, Rebecca West seemed to see this part of the world through a Freudian lens in which sex and death seemed to color her experiences. Robert Kaplan was influenced by Rebecca West and by his conviction that history dominated the present.

Yes, this country has a colorful and important heritage and a history that was often terrible. (My friend Ivanka's 96-year-old mother says she has lived through three wars and doesn't want to live through another one.) But there is something quite wonderful about a country that can turn its army bases into libraries and universities and recognize that its children have rights.

When I left the Sibenik Public Library, the librarians said they had a present for me. They gave me a gift bag. Inside were a children's picture book about a wonderful inventor from Sibenek who had devised the first parachute a very long time ago, a book the library had published about its beautiful old cathedral -- and some local brandy in a bottle that had been decorated by hand by one of the librarians. There is something quite wonderful about a country that produces books, inventions, and brandy.


Cindy said...

This was wonderful. Please write more when you can! cm

herecomesthesun said...

This is Viv.
This was the detail I was looking for! Yes. Write much more. I love it.