Tuesday, 11 March 2008

A tale of two libraries, part two: Sofia Municipal Library

Old Communist Party building + shoehorned-in library = this:

Sofia Municipal Library, Sofia, Bulgaria

We met the Library Director, Georgi Belchev, in his office upstairs. He gave us the facts and figures - 1,000,000 items in stock, three (yes, three) branches - and described the 15 departments in the Municipal Library.

We know already that there are 3,000-odd Chitalishte libraries in the country, but there are only 27 Municipal library services. These are like our own public libraries, in that they're attached to and funded by local government. They provide reference and lending services (as do the Chitalishte libraries), and maybe 50% of them provide public internet access. But in Sofia, a city of 2,000,000 people, there are only three local government-funded libraries. This is the capital, and as such it's not representative of the norm, but I certainly expected a larger number.

You've already seen how fond they are of card catalogues... And those 15 departments? Actually, they're just rooms. As in, the art department is a small room full of art books. As it's a repurposed office building rather than somewhere designed as a library, the collections have to fit the space. We have a similar problem with our older purpose-built libraries: we don't use them they way they were designed to be used in, say, the 1930s. We have to compromise on the service we deliver because of the physical space available to us. I don't need to tell you the impact I think online service deliver can have in this area, but I've yet to see it make any real difference.

So, back to the shoddy photojournalism. This is part of the adult non-fiction area:

Sofia Municipal Library, Sofia, Bulgaria

The traditional layout, furniture and decor have gone from being out of date to charmingly retro. There was a very traditional feel to the whole place, and it probably suffers from having been a Party building in the past. The reading room is very trad, with its single desks:

Reading Room, Sofia Municipal Library, Sofia, Bulgaria

I really, really hate plants in libraries. There were lots in Sofia. What does it say above the door: library (in this case it says Stolichna Biblioteka) or garden centre? You have no idea how pleased I was when we got rid of the 20-year-old fake plants from the mezzanine in the Central Library a couple of weeks ago. Plants are bad, but fake plants are worse!

This is, I think, the type of library that many commentators on the position of public libraries in the UK would like to see. But there's a problem: we were there between 11am and 1pm, and how many library users have you seen in my photos? A monument to the accumulated knowledge of society is a fine ideal, but it's kind of dull and pointless.