Overdue: Libraries open a new chapter in public relations

Exhibitions, author readings and book signings, free Internet and a general amnesty on late fees for patrons with overdue books - yes, it's Libraries Week once again in the Czech Republic.

For librarians, it's without question the biggest event of the year. Some four hundred libraries throughout the Czech Republic are staging special events to remind the public of the joy of reading. Many will be holding public readings of classic works like Bozena Nemcova's "Babicka" (Grandmother), the first novel ever written in Czech.

Chairman of the Czech Union of Library and Information Professionals, Vit Richter:

"During the week we'll be presenting both traditional and new services. We always start off with the so-called 'Great Society Reading,' where libraries invite the general public to bring in their favourite books and read from them together."

Part of their strategy to attract new visitors, says Mr Richter, is to promote local authors: the motto for this year's Libraries Week is "Great and small Czechs" - a nod to Czech public television's highly publicised poll this year to name the "Greatest Czech."

"We wanted in this way to also promote 'small' Czechs, that is to say, every region of the country has its own 'greatest' Czech. So in the course of the Libraries Week, we wanted to present regional authors and personalities."

The libraries are also drawing in some truly small Czechs - children - who are treated to fairy tale readings and performances inspired by the animated TV series Vecernicek. But getting young children off to the library is not as great a challenge as attracting adults.

Although the Czech Republic has a dense network of libraries --among the highest in Europe-- that hasn't translated into high membership rates. According to a study by the International Association of Metropolitan Libraries a few years back, only 14 percent of Prague residents had registered at a library. By comparison, in some cities in the U.S. and Scandinavia, library membership rates ranged from 39 percent to 58 percent of the population.

Still, not every public library here is taking part in this week's events. Sitting this one out is the municipal library of Most, in northern Bohemia. Director Tomas Ondrasek explains why:

"At the Most municipal library, we try to celebrate Libraries Week all year round. We host many events and provide free Internet access after a certain number of visits, for example. We think that Libraries Week is too short a time in which to showcase everything it is possible to discover in the library."