Changes ahead for the Czech National Library


Over a week ago, an international jury announced in Prague the winner of a tender for the project of the Czech National Library's new building. The jury decided unanimously that the project will be realised by the Czech-born, London-based architect Jan Kaplicky. The new library is expected to welcome the first readers in 2011 and the costs are estimated at over 2 billion crowns (93 million dollars).

I am not going to write about the futuristic outer form of the building, a multicoloured jellyfish of a structure. My imagination was caught by the practical details about the services and equipment available inside. The library is going to house around 10 million books which will be available to readers within five minutes of ordering them. There will be 2000 places in the reading rooms, the whole building will be covered by wireless internet signal, not to mention a few cafes where one will be able to leaf through the latest papers and magazines. These details reminded my of my university days and my painful experiences in the National Library in the historic building of the Klementinum close to Charles Bridge.

I am sure a lot has changed there since I graduated. But the mere idea of receiving your textbook within minutes of ordering it just makes me very jealous. In my time, the Klementinum's so-called "hall of services" was a huge space with rows and rows of ancient card-index boxes. In them you could find thousands of file cards, the size of a postcard, in different states of disintegration. To be fair, some were only a few decades old, but there were a lot of those whose colour had turned to yellowish brown after they had been touched by thousands of fingers. Most were typewritten but many also filled out in 19th-century calligraphic handwriting.

When I found my desired book in the box, I copied the numbers and details onto a form which I then slipped into a sort of a letterbox. I was to come back hours or even days later to pick up my book. At that point, I was often told that it had been lent to someone else, or that I used the wrong card-index box and chose a copy which cannot be taken away. After several failed attempts like that, I just gave up on the National Library altogether.

Don't get me wrong, the old Klementinum has its charm. A former Jesuit college, it has a number of beautiful historic reading rooms, corridors which echo your footsteps and every fifteen minutes the chiming of a tower clock resounds through the courtyards.

I can just see the Baroque complex breathing a huge sigh of relief once it is freed from the weights of old paper. But the good thing is that even after the new building opens, Klementinum will live on as a library. The idea is to keep only a few specialised collections there and open the site more to visitors and tourists. I must admit the upcoming changes at the National Library just make me want to be a student again.

(By the way, the ancient index cards have been scanned and are available in digital form on the National Library's website