The history of this charming capital on the Gulf of Finland has often been one of occupation. Controlled over the years by Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Germany and the Soviets, in 1991, after the Singing Revolution in the late 1980’s, it finally regained independence. Originally established in 1907 under a rather long name that includes the magic words “free of cost”, Tallinna Keskraamatukogu has tenaciously sought to enlighten citizens ever since.
I strolled along tree lined boulevards passed the lovely curved façade of the Estonia Kontserdisaal and reached the busy Tallinn Central Library (TCL) in about ten minutes. It’s a large pink edifice on a cobbled walk studded with stone sculptures resembling birds. Adjacent to a college and tennis courts, a pub in the basement has a sunny patio giving onto a pocket park.
Ascending the steps, two rails seemed a bit steep for a wheelchair until I realized they must be for bikes or scooters. Off the lobby, a desk manned by accommodating Alvar, a cube with a big screen and pedestals for flyers and brochures present information and list regional happenings. A concert hall has a baby grand piano under a detailed oil of Old Town and lies conveniently close to the Music Department staffed by warm and welcoming Marje.
The newest section, audiovisual opened in 2002 and has a theater that fits 25 and places to play Xbox or watch DVDs. It covers musicians and most musical genres and materials come in a wide range of formats – LPs, 45’s and videotapes lie amidst the plastic jewel boxes and audios on CD. Personnel arrange concerts and recitals and band battles.
The impressive toilets are in a tiled chamber with lockers, gleaming mahogany benches and a huge mirror at one end.
TCL has been at this stately 19th century confection for 95 years. Adults have been able to borrow books since 1923, even during the German and Russian periods, when censorship was rife and much was destroyed. Service to younger residents started in the thirties – before that, students needed written permission from teachers.
Estonian literature is here too and about half the 120,000 titles are fiction. Most foreign texts are kept in a storefront locale about a kilometer away in the bottom of an apartment house where the 133,000 volumes for all ages come in Russian, German, French, English…, though other locations do have selections of books in other languages.
The organization has 17 branches, all with free wifi and software laden computers. A bookmobile called Katarina Jee carries about 4000 items and TCL has around 1 million pieces (over half in Estonian with Russian being the most common of foreign tongues).
In Children’s, Kairi, who studies Estonian theology, was very sweet and forthcoming. The three workstations have educational software and they lend video games. Kids can attend puzzle days, quiz bowls, treasure hunts, handicraft workshops, writer and therapy dog visits or vote for their favorite reads in prize competitions.
Rag dolls perch on blond wood furniture and sleek white A/V packed cases while cubbies in a cabinet hold stuffed animals and movies. Clef notes and origami birds on strings dangle around checkout, colorful letters provide obvious signage above vivid beanbags chairs and tall windows let in fresh air. Jigsaws live in durable plastic pockets and a boy sits on a little cushioned bench with built in storage underneath.
A padded alcove lets preschoolers amuse themselves in a safe environment.
Moving on passed handsome paintings and antique municipal maps, I came to pale shelves in a relaxing space painted a crisp blue and white.
The systems lends recreational gear like Paradox Community Library (see comments), and has pulse monitors, walking poles, Twister, barbells, skipping ropes, badminton sets and balls for several sports, though the pumps that inflate them don’t go out. You can shoot Novuss too. Distantly related to pool, it’s a popular Baltic pastime.
If you are in the library you can access databases of general and academic journals, Oxford music and art and ESTLEX for the country’s laws. Seemingly, national institutions have been busy digitizing everything they can lay their hands on, so the internet site links to many free, specifically Estonian, resources ranging from compilations of folk tales, historic periodicals and the ESTONICA encyclopedia to collections of biographies, films, statistics, literature and museums.
Upstairs, this facility has 13 PCs and for when they are all taken, an express terminal. Besides the public stations, laptops are available for the physically disabled at the location where the computer room is on the second floor and there’s no elevator.
TCL’s web page and a glossy promotional handout are also available in English and Russian. Their catalog, ESTER, is a collaborative effort of 15 Estonian libraries.
In Reference, Liina was quite friendly and helpful. You can take out up to 30 items for 21 days and they lend out ereaders which have titles in Finnish and German as well as languages more commonly spoken here. It’s possible to reserve nonfiction but you have to go pick it up at its home and and you can use your Estonian ID card to access the library.
TCL has lots of stuff for patrons trying to learn Estonian and besides the Ask a Librarian email service, members can connect via Skype weekdays from 12-6. They offer home delivery, and the website has a newsletter, an online diary from the music area, virtual exhibits and library tours.
Restored to its former grandeur around the millennium, after a catastrophic fire in the eighties, the building is simply stunning.
Oliver led me from this wonderful reading sanctuary, up a spiral staircase, to the archives where there are 1,800 old books and 2,100 copies, the majority in Estonian, but some in German and other vernaculars, plus newspapers from yesteryear (I missed a more current News Room downstairs as it has a different entrance).
The library surveys users to determine where needs lie and if customers are satisfied by their performance. Training options include computers and smartphone for seniors in Russian and the local lingo, exercise classes, and employment and resume assistance.
There are gatherings for Esperanto and Tolkien’s Elvish speakers, poetry slams, Bastille Day celebrations in French, literary festivals, author nights and city walks. Working with youngsters and planning events are just a couple of the existing volunteer opportunities.
TCL encourages inhabitants to learn about bibliographical studies and has a scholarship set aside for that purpose.
Perhaps because it’s a magnificent backdrop, TV shows occasionally shoot episodes in the library – one was a whodunit featuring an (imaginary) murder of an employee.
The system has an RSS feed and an active Facebook page that advertises new hardbacks and ebooks, book sales and the summer reading program, job openings and exhibits from singers, photographers, painters and the leatherworkers union, along with loads of snaps of young and old people happily enjoying reading and chess matches on a sunny terrace.
Truly, TCL Director Kaie Holm has a talented team here in terrific Tallinn!