Old and New, Happy and Sad: Vilnius University Library

Vilnius New University Library 2013

Vilnius University Library, photo by @lynrobinson cc-by

I was both happy and sad last week to attend the opening of the new University Library in Vilnius.

Known as the National Open Access Scholarly Communication and Information Centre, (Library to its friends), the building was formally opened on February 6th in a packed celebration which featured congratulations from the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, as well as contributions from Director General, Irena Krivienė and the architect Rolandas Palekas. A choir sang and ballerinas flitted about the foyer, echoing the falling snow outside. The reception, originally planned for the evening, was held after the ceremony in the late morning in order to accommodate the President’s schedule. It would have been rude to refuse, so a joyous time was had by all, even if some of the attendees did have to go back to work afterwards. Wandering around the light, airy spaces, catching up with friends and colleagues whom I don’t see very often, I felt happy and privileged to be invited to join in.

Sad however, that my very wonderful friend and colleague, Audronė Glosienė did not live to see this beautiful library; something which she believed in so passionately, and for which she fought so determinedly.

In spite of economic difficulties, new libraries still catch the imagination to the extent that they attract financial backing. This new library was funded partly by the Republic of Lithuania, and party by the European Regional Development Fund. I have also just heard about the new undergraduate library given the go ahead for Leeds University.

Whilst this is excellent news, it is often easier to write about why not to build a library. Why not close them down and use the building for designer flats? The impertinent question dampening all our enthusiasm is “why do we still need physical library spaces in the (digital) 21st century?”

The reasons for this question will seem trite and obvious to anyone remotely interested in library and information science. The world is digital and wireless. We can access pretty much anything we need from wherever we happen to be. On our smartphones, tablets or laptops. Information comes out of the ether and computing is pervasive. Why would we want to go to a specific place to get something we can accessfrom wherever we happen to be?

Furthermore, there are the costs of maintaining a physical collection to consider. Although somewhat offset by the need to preserve digital files, physical documents require care and conservation. And a physical building needs maintenance, cleaning, heating and light.

So why build a physical library space?

This has been answered before in the concept of the library as a 3rd space. Somewhere that is not your home and family, and not your place of work, but rather a place you choose to inhabit – a 3rd choice of space.

A contemporary update on this is easy to get – just ask for a show of hands in answer to the question “would you go to a library?” The resounding response is “yes”. But why? Because the library is a place where it is possible to interact with other people. In our increasingly isolated, digital worlds, that small chance of a conversation is too good to miss. Like real-time, face-to-face lectures, the library offers a chance for social interaction. As a student, if your dormitory is grim, the library is probably also the place you go to soak in a clean, warm bright space too. With added network access and friends. Let us not forget that library and information science is about managing recorded information for human communication. It underpins our civilized society. The death of the library, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated.

So much for the new then – what about the old? I was treated to a tour of the fabulous Vilnius Old University Library, which was established as part of Vilnius University in the late 16th century. I first visited this library about a decade ago, and it was a pleasure to see how the recent government-sponsored renovations had turned an undoubtedly gorgeous, historic city focal point into somewhere pleasant and appealing to 21st century students – without losing any of its ancient ambiance.

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library - Renovations

Vilnius Old University Library – Renovations

Finally to mention the current exhibition in the main library hall, “Vetera Reducta” – the past regained. I often mention to my students that the one sure way to obliterate a nation’s identity is to destroy its cultural heritage – starting with the library. Vilnius is no stranger to this process. Yet the extraordinary efforts of Levas Vladimirovas, Director General of Vilnius University Library during the 1950’s, resulted in the recovery of over 18,000 books of Vilnius Public Library, and the old University Library. Amongst these treasures was the first Lithuanian printed book from 1547 “Martynas Mažvydas’ “Catechism”. Still celebrated in today’s digital age, books then, do not entirely die, and the physical object still holds its meaning to us.

Vetera Reducta