Κεντρική Δημοτική Βιβλιοθήκη Οργανισμού Πολιτισμού Αθλητισμού και Νεολαίας Δήμου Αθηναίων (Ο.Π.Α.Ν.Δ.Α.), or translated, the Central Municipal Library of the Athletics and Youth Culture Organization of the Municipality of Athens (OPADDA), is conveniently just steps from Larissa subway stop, next to the capital’s main railway station.
Serving the Attica region (basically the city’s metropolitan expanse), it is one of the oldest libraries in Greece. Started by Mayor Petrakis in 1835 it opened to the public in 1936.
Occupying various quarters, in 1986 OPADDA added professional librarians and moved over by the new Town Hall in Kotzia Square, settling into its previous home, a neoclassical structure that sadly was badly damaged during the horrific 1999 earthquake. Closed until renovation of its new premises was completed in autumn 2002, they’ve been at this yellow stucco edifice on Domokou Street ever since. Automation of the catalog commenced in 2002 and in the summer of 2018 they started using openABEKT.
Potted plants line the marble steps leading to a bust on a plinth by the entrance. Upholstered maroon chairs beckon you into the lobby where Hellenic flags evince civic pride and huge maps of the environs cover the walls.
By the circulation desk, Anastasia, my contact and guide, greeted us warmly and brought refreshments and chocolates.
We chatted a bit then settled my husband and moved into a room presided over by welcoming Rania. Framed scenes of yesteryear complement modern blond wood furnishings. Glass cabinets atop cupboards’ sliding doors hold treasures from bygone eras and we perused postcards and sepias and centuries old tomes on the cradle of Western Civilization. The library’s archives contain government documents going back to 1833, journals starting in 1834, oversize volumes of bound newspapers dating from 1863, and numerous photographs and historical items plus repositories donated by or acquired from some of Athen’s prominent citizens.
OPADDA has more than 55,000 titles squeezed into numerous alcoves off a long corridor decorated by old card catalogs, antique vitrines and cases of ancient texts. Since there really isn’t space for it all, rolling stacks come into play.
This formidable collection extends an already huge service population. Athens proper has about 670,000 but between three to four million of Greece’s nearly eleven million inhabitants live in the surrounding urbanity. The nation’s largest city has five branches, two for adults and three for children, and is the biggest system after Thessalonika and Veria in the north.
Though workers are paid directly by the municipality, the library has a materials budget of about 40,000 euro annually. Open weekdays, it’s free to all Attica residents. A phone bill gets you a card and permission to borrow two books for two weeks and renew for one. If you’re naughty and return things late, borrowing privileges are suspended for a bit. People living nearby, e.g. in the port of Piraeus, renowned launching point for island bound ferries, can also use OPADDA, but have their own small facilities too.
OPADDA has two reading enclosures for diligent scholars that double as cinemas or venues for lecture series as well as a room of stackable chairs set up for giving talks or teaching classes. Wifi is available and there are OPACs specifically for their holdings.
Anastasia introduced me to Fay who likewise spoke excellent English (any faults in translation are mine). They said it takes four years of college to become a librarian. Fay had studied Greek culture but for the last year has staffed a bookmobile.
Each year, UNESCO chooses a World Book Capital somewhere across the planet and Athens was chosen in 2018, so Veria kindly lent a van to OPADDA from May 2018 through April 2019. When I went, Fay was finishing up what must have been a fascinating tenure. A section of the Facebook page is peppered in pictures of the truck in various locations around town, often taken at creative angles, or of kids devouring books in a quiet corner of the vehicle. The schedule is posted as are updates on its position and impromptu advice from impatient clients when Fay mentions traffic problems.
We continued our tour through the cheery red racks of history, literature, psychology, philosophy and the arts, passing notices pinned on a bulletin board of happenings, festivals and museum exhibits in the vicinity, and a flyer about IFLA being held in Athens this August.
At the security station I talked to Michael, graciously on loan from the Athens military.
Facebook lists well attended presentations and a featured video reveals small imaginatively costumed figures excitedly whirling to what looks like a large Oom-pah or marching band while balloons gaily float over the dancer’s heads. There are poetic paeans from positive patrons, shots of soulful sopranos accompanied by guitarists and bathed in violet rays and advertisements for Open University, recent acquisitions and free ebooks. Amusements include legends in song and an accordion player for Holy Sunday (Easter).
Unfortunately many of the announcements are graphic and while I admired the stunning posters, I can’t translate them as I have absolutely no knowledge of the alphabet except for π, but judging from snaps of children wearing paper hats stirring gooey concoctions and relishing party treats, a good time was had by all.
Beyond nonfiction, pleasant diffused light from window blinds and dangling spherical paper shades illuminates popular items on tilted displays and lying face up on large tables so customers can browse easily.
OPADDA has author appearances, illustration and writing workshops, and celebrates Greek heritage with realia exhibits and seniors’ oral histories that evoke remembrances of things past.
Despite being a library for grownups, in 2012 they designated a little space for adolescents. In 2017, it expanded and moved into the building across this lovely courtyard.
A wheelchair ramp accesses a foyer where youngsters drape coats on rainbow hued poles and pegs. This site is for ages six and up and is next door to a kindergarten.
A Toddler’s Library for infants to age five is a few miles away and has a cafe, bassinet outside playground and a private nursing nook. Opened in February 2016, it’s the first of its kind in Greece and the Facebook page has banners for learning sessions for preschoolers, special story tellers and speeches on visual literacy targeted to caretakers.
Here, you’ll also find accommodations for parents. Comfy seats are positioned by a highchair for babies, there’s a cooker to boil milk for bottles and the family toilet thoughtfully has wipes and hand sanitizer by the diaper changing spot.
On the sides of the shelves a key indicates the meaning of the colored dots on the book spines. A chalkboard easel, globe, plastic abacus, crates of toys and an electric keyboard provide distractions to occupy tots as older siblings look over the picture books and YA titles. The library has some English, Russian and French stuff and welcomes class visits. Personnel often collaborate with schools and design programs for the Ministry of Education which sends them to K-12s all over Attica.
The adorable area brings nature inside. Silvery vines climb the walls and mobiles resembling puffy clouds hang from the ceiling. Storytimes and movies are frequent functions and I glimpsed piles of pads in tints of lime, forest and pale green.
Kids make marine dioramas out of recycled objects, fashion pretty tissue floral arrangements and craft masks from construction paper. Facebook has calls for volunteers to help during summer reading campaigns and pictures showing crowds of children listening raptly to fairy tales, drawing and painting. Boys and girls attend dramas acted out by the theater group or participate in their own plays.
The complex even has a two tiered stage that hosts numerous events for youths.
We really enjoyed speaking to Anastasia and Fay who could not have been nicer. They gave me a great booklet (published by the cultural authority) called Heritage Walks in Athens and Fay, a climber who’s been to the States to scale peaks in Wyoming and around the West, imparted some tips for our upcoming journey to the clifftop monasteries at Meteora.
As in their rave reviews on social media, I found enthusiastic, happy, friendly employees who (to quote a user) “seem to love what they do” and are ready and eager to assist. What a wonderful asset for this delightful and enchanting land!