Bookworld 2003, Central Municipal Library to reopen for public

Bookworld Prague 2003, photo: CTK

For the last few weeks it might have seemed that the Czech world of arts revolved almost exclusively around books. Well this time again, this programme focuses on two events related to books and literature - as they simply dominate the arts scene in the coming days. On Thursday, the ninth Prague book fair, Bookworld 2003 got underway at the Prague Exhibition Grounds. While it was "water, water everywhere" during last August's floods, now the Art Nouveau exhibition palace is for four days flooded with books.

Bookworld Prague 2003,  photo: CTK
The motto of this year's book fair is "dialogue between contintents". The managing director of Bookworld Prague Dana Kalinova explains what is behind the motto.

"This year's is a very specific programme because Africa, as a whole continent is the guest of honour. And that means that in the Middle Hall we have a big central exhibition of books from Africa, the whole of Africa, and publishers from Africa and also Europe have come to present their books here. And there is more than this. We really deeply appreciate that the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa will be awarded tonight [on Friday] in Smetana Hall. It will be awarded for the 24th time but just for the second time outside Africa, so it is a great honour for Prague and the Prague Book Fair. And of course, not only Africa is presented at the book fair but we are also showing books from twenty-eight countries and, of course, the larger space belongs to Czech publishers and their books."

During the forty years of communist rule in Czechoslovakia few foreign, and especially western books were allowed to be translated and there was a huge gap which had to be filled after the fall of the regime. Works of both fiction and non-fiction were translated mainly from Western languages, English above all. In the meantime literature from more distant places was somehow side-tracked. Dana Kalinova suggests that this year's Bookworld presents a unique chance to introduce African literature to Czech readers.

"I think that the Prague Book Fair now helps to discover new reading "spaces", new reading views. I think that the Czech or Central European reader is not familiar so much with African literature and I am very happy that the Prague book fair can help, can open this new way. And actually I feel that we are really bridging continents now - the Czech Republic and the whole of Africa."

Two weeks after Prague hosted a number of world-renowned authors during the annual Prague Writers' Festival, other distinguished guests have come to take part in the events accompanying the Prague book fair.

"For example famous Ahmadou Kourouma is coming from France. His book will be published here by the Mlada Fronta publishing house. Or another writer who is really popular abroad, Mia Kouto from Mozambique is coming. His book is being published by the BB Art publishing house. Or Tsitsi Dagarembga is coming from Zimbabwe, she is a very interesting writer. Niyi Osundare is a poet from Nigeria who also teaches African literature at the University of New Orleans, so he was also invited to discuss African literature here. We will also welcome other writers here, such as Catalonian poets or Vivi-Ann Sjögren from Finland, and also Sonja Porle who works in Africa and who not only writes about Africa but also collects toys, and many others."

To my rather uninspired question about what are the new things visitors can see at this year's book fair, the director of Bookworld Prague Dana Kalinova had a ready answer.

"I think that they will find books and maybe they will find new ways of book production. There are of course new ways, new trends. And I think that they will be quite surprised with the level of publishing in Africa and they will be able to compare the quality of books but also the quality of thoughts. That means that the book should not look fancy but what's inside is the most important."

And although we cannot buy all those beautiful books, we can certainly borrow them. That thanks to libraries. They are indeed helpful institutions, however, they are also very vulnerable. Not only do they succumb easily to fire, they can also be flooded, which was the case last August with many local libraries around the Czech Republic and also Prague. On May 1, the 75-year old building of the central Municipal Library in Prague will officially reopen after eight months of renovation following last year's devastating floods. Tomas Rehak is the managing director.

"The Municipal Library of Prague was indeed one of those institutions in Prague really heavily struck by the flooding. Our central library was flooded up to roughly five metres in the underground level. It was water coming not from the street but from the underground sewers. We lost two branches. One in Prague 8, in the district of Karlin, which was probably the worst struck area of Prague and our branch in that area did not stand a chance. We lost all the books there, all the furniture and finally we moved out of that building. Now we want to reinstate our service in that area using mobile libraries. We want to introduce this kind of service as soon as possible and now we are negotiating with the Ministry of Culture in order to find the funding to set up one mobile library for this area to serve for several years till we would be able to establish a new permanent branch in that area. We lost a branch in Prague 7, which is now under complete reconstruction in cooperation with the mayor's office of Prague 7 and we hope that we will be able to open it this August. That means exactly one year after the water came in we want to open it to the public again."

The Municipal Library in Prague has a long history. First founded in 1891, the institution had to wait thirty-seven years to receive a truly dignified abode. Close to the historical Klementinum library and the City Hall in Prague's Old Town, a state-of-the-art purpose-built library was raised and welcomed its first readers in 1928. The listed Art Deco building underwent a thorough reconstruction between 1996 and 1998 only to be closed again five years later as a result of the floods. The building has now been restored back to its original beauty and luckily, no books that were stored there suffered in the floods as the staff were vigilant enough to move everything from the cellars to above-the-ground spaces. That, unfortunately, was not possible in all branches that were hit by high water in Prague, as director Tomas Rehak explains.

"We completely lost 46,000 books which I would call ordinary, normal books that you can usually find in the public library like this one. But what was much worse was that our department of rare and historical prints located in Prague 7 was flooded too and therefore all the 20,000 volumes were affected by water. At least 90 percent of them are in deep freeze and they are waiting for drying. Some, say, one fifth of them have already dried up and we hope that at least 18,000 volumes of those rare and historical prints we will able to offer to the public in several months or years, depending on how much care they need before we can put them back on the shelves. Probably most precious and best known among them was the Prague Bible which is a rare print from 1488, now in the process of drying and restoration."

I have seen some of the restored books for which the librarians have coined an endearing term "susenky" or dry biscuits. And I must say most of them did not show any sign of ever being soaked wet.

And that's it for the Arts this week and don't forget, if you ever come to Prague, both the Prague Exhibition Grounds, built in 1891, and the Municipal Library from 1928 are worth seeing as they are both interesting and valued architectural monuments.