Monday, 10 March 2008

A tale of two libraries, part one: Svetlina Chitalishte Library

This was my first visit to a former Communist country. Some people might argue that living in Sheffield for a year (which I did in 2003-4) counts, but Bulgaria has serious post-Communist issues. Then again, they've been coping with all sorts for centuries.

Under Ottoman rule in the 1850s, there was a revival in Bulgarian culture. Wealthy locals gave land and buildings to the newly-formed community clubs - chitalishta - allowing them to promote traditional activities, literature, and so on. Each chitalishte is independent, and is run by a local board. Most of them established public libraries, and they continue to exist today. There are about 3,000 chitalishte libraries. The country's population is about 7 million, so there's a feeling that they're possibly overserved.

We went to Svetlina Chitalishte in Sofia:

Svetlina Chitalishte, Sofia, Bulgaria

A few people have pointed out the similarities between Bulgaria's long-established system, and the current desire to move toward double devolution - shifting power from central government to local government, and from local government to communities - in the UK. The chitalishta are both in and of the community. We visited a nursery class (where very small children were learning English, as they used to learn Russian and German); there were some people using the gym; and there were posters for ballet, and traditional Bulgarian dance sessions. There's a lot going on in these places, but Svetlina Chitalishte is apparently one of the better examples.

The library is on the first floor, and it starts off well:

Svetlina Chitalishte Library, Sofia, Bulgaria

I practised my Cyrillic alphabet a little before the trip, so I recognise "biblioteka" when I see it!

All in all, the place was a little sad. Chipped paint, shabby furniture, some very old books... But there was a genuine sense of purpose from the staff. The library itself is a decent size, comparable to a good branch library. There is an OPAC, issue and discharge is automated, and staff have access to a union catalogue covering 300-odd chitalishte libraries using the same software vendor.

Svetlina Chitalishte Library, Sofia, Bulgaria

I was standing next to the magazine display when I took this picture (and I learned the Bulgarian for Ben Affleck from said magazines). The stock on the right is non-fiction, and there is a separate room for art and literature reference materials behind the camera and to the right. The room at the far end, past the card catalogue, was described as the special collections. It looks more like a reserve collection - old books in poor repair, but still with some utility. For a branch library, this collection seemed very broad: where our community profiling would lead us to stock, say, fiction and popular non-fiction, there were some very serious titles here.

Like any good branch library, there was a display of new children's books:

Children's Library, Svetlina Chitalishte, Sofia, Bulgaria

You can have bonus points for translating the titles and authors into English. And, of course, they had a stack of romance novels... So, altogether, the place had a very familiar feel to it.

Think about it for a minute: this is a community library, owned and operated by the community itself. It's similar to our branches in many respects - budgeting is a struggle, the fabric of the building is problematic, opening hours may not be entirely suitable. But there's a mechanism built in to ensure that the running of the place - from the hiring and firing down to new stock purchases - is overseen by the community.

One of the biggest problems we face, imho, is that our mechanism for public and political engagement - local Councillors - is not used well enough. Every citizen in the UK should be able to pinpoint and contact their Councillor(s), and communicate their issues and interests. We have this system, so we should use it.

Svetlina Chitalishte Library was encouraging, with its new stock, keen staff and plenty of potential. What let the place down was the presentation, as is so often the case in our own libraries. It was reasonably busy at 11am, with that usual public library stalwart: the man reading the newspaper. And they do a fair amount of work with classes from the local schools. But I think they should work together, rather than independently, to reuse each others' ideas rather than start from scratch every time, in 3,000 locations.

Basically, I liked the place.