Appreciating Athens

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.

IMG_3785Occupying 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.

IMG_3820By 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.  IMG_3795The 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.

IMG_3811This 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.

IMG_3801OPADDA 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.


From left, Anastasia and Fay

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.

IMG_3809We 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.

IMG_3836Facebook 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.

IMG_3818Beyond 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.

IMG_3838A  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.

img_3859-e1557958300623.jpgOn 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.

IMG_3842Kids 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.

IMG_3847We 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.


The Parthenon and the Aegean Sea from Mount Lycabettus, one of Athen’s seven hills

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!


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Noteworthy Nashville

Tennessee’ s most populous burg spreads out from the vast green swath of Bicentennial Mall’s cherry treed paths, the Capitol perched atop Victory Park hill and Legislative Plaza’s war memorials.

Anchoring one end of this surprising downtown oasis a few blocks west of the Cumberland River, the Nashville Public Library (NPL) is a graceful edifice dwarfed by hulking monoliths.

301Despite the perspective, the Main Library (ML) is actually enormous at three stories and 300,000 square foot.

On the brass reliefs of the front door panels a turtle basks on a rock in a stream and four opossum joeys cling to mama.  In the lobby, I immediately notice the gorgeous marble floors and accents – a luxurious setting for the comment box and racks of free papers, tax forms and bus schedules.  Kiosks let you renew a vehicle registration or pay the County Clerk and long bags for wet umbrellas prevent slips on the slick surfaces.

Beyond the foyer’s informational stands, I find Check Out, holds pickup and Returns and helpful Angela Smith.

017The parking garage taking up a good chunk of the ground level has four electric car charging stations and they validate.  A big conference center has a caterer’s kitchen and is rented out for weddings and parties and ML has a 230 capacity auditorium and a couple of smaller meeting spaces with projectors, mics, lecterns and A/V equipment plus study spots fitting several people.

A side entrance leads to gleaming wood shelves in Popular Fiction.  Light streams in through tall arched windows as you sink into a cushy leather armchair.  Computers on a low task desk run along one wall and in Media, CDs are sorted by category.  Inevitably I’m drawn to the extensive bluegrass and country selections, divided by letter as there are so many choices.  Phantasmagorical images of iconic tourist sights remind you this is home to the Grand Ole Opry.

093Up the first exquisite double staircase, I met friendly security guard Rochelle Lillard on the balcony circling the mezzanine.  Soft light from the atrium and sconces illuminate an exhibit of intriguing outdoor mosaic installations and related ephemera.

085The system supports adult and preschool literacy, has volunteer and internship opportunities and ILL.  Open 24/7 via Southeast’s vending machine, some sites have seed exchanges or lend iPads and laptops for in-house use.

In partnership with local organizations, the Foundation’s Salon@615 presents bestselling authors – in May, Melinda Gates made an appearance.  Friday Flicks and ML’s Indiana Jones Marathon are some examples of the many movie nights.

The website has a module for immigrants to practice English or prepare for citizenship and loads of downloadables – BoomBox and freegal for music, and for books, videos and more, Hoopla, OverDrive…  And of course, they have the usual digitized recordings and photographs, cemetery, obituary and newspaper indexes, and language, encyclopedic, health, consumer, periodical, investment, bilingual and business databases, but I’d never heard of BookFLIX, ODILO, SPEAKABOOS and TechBoomers or ArtistWorks, Gale’s Religion and Philosophy, Career Transitions or Colorín Colorado, a national multimedia project for ESL instructors and learners.

099The Nashville Room by the defunct Nashville Banner’s annals has a hushed atmosphere of bygone times.  Program specialist Dixie Johnson told me NPL hopes to have a women’s suffrage section by 2020 and despite abundant built in outlets, PCs, overhead lighting in the stacks and other modern touches, the quality furniture seems pulled from a 1930’s steno pool and cases of delicate ceramic flowers and celebrations of the YWCA recall the past.

Administration, Tennesseana, Genealogy and TN authors are here as are assemblages of memorabilia from Ryman Auditorium (one of the city’s most famous music venues) and Metro Archives’ shots from the 2010 Flood and the TN Titans stadium construction.  Four Writer’s Rooms are available on an annual basis to regional writers through an application and selection process.

The Civil Rights Room has a blowup of Freedom Rider and Congressman John Lewis’ arrest record and his prescient quote If not us, then who? If not now, then when? is emblazoned above Ionic columns.  Plush plugs make it possible to peruse the curved timeline of the era shown on the bottom right.

119The only free Civil Rights museum in the country, it has videos on a loop, oral histories and manuscripts concerning the desegregation of schools and public places.  Nashville has four historically black colleges (and another 20 close by), so students and graduates had a huge influence on the movement.

Staff give general guided tours and specific ones, e.g. of the Wilson Collection’s rare and handsomely illustrated tomes.  There are educational experiences and NPL reaches into the community on class visits.

In just one month, adults are taught French, folkloric dance, drawing and origami.  Play Jelly Bean Bingo, try out virtual reality headsets or go to crochet circles and cooking, Anime, adventure, Nintendo, Scrabble or English conversation clubs.  Bellevue has Spring Carnival for older adolescents while Richland hosts the Nashville Ballet.  Crafts include Mexican Coiled Fabric Baskets, birdhouses, henna tattoos and Guatemalan Worry Dolls.  Listen to talks on Life Skills, DIY, internet privacy, Sasquatch and Cezanne.  Attend a pop concert and a travel chat or dream discussions, Zumba, qigong, yoga, meditation and mindfulness.  At Be Well at NPL, seniors get safety tips, bone strengthening exercises and budgetary advice.


Impressive egress

Around since the late nineteenth century, in 1901 NPL’s predecessor became free and, under the condition Nashville would contribute $10,000 per year for upkeep, Andrew Carnegie donated $100,000 for a new building that opened in 1904.  In 1912 he gave $50,000 for two more locales, one the “Negro Branch Library” which closed in 1954 and is the source of the Carnegie headstone over one of the Margaret Ann and Walter Robinson Courtyard’s second level exits.


Surrounding a burbling fountain, stone benches and planters, foliage and brass sculptures impart a marvelous Italianate feel

Steadily growing, except for a Depression era lull, a bookmobile and a teen section came along in 1947 and by 1950 NPL had “quietly desegregated.”  The Friends started in 1957 and in 1962 the library debuted the first ever reading room at a municipal airport and its own FM radio channel, WPLN.  Continuing expansion, in June 2001 they opened this award winning stunner as their headquarters.

Online links to blogs, podcasts, Twitter, flickr, Instagram and Pinterest accounts and YouTube lectures.  Facebook sports rave reviews from adoring fans, announcements for groundbreaking ceremonies and sourdough sessions, promotions for e-materials and invitations for patron input when planning new facilities.

The most recent yearly statistics for ML and the 20 branches report a whopping 3,261,586 visits, a circulation of 5,648,749 and 2,214,447 items in seventeen tongues.

Entering Children’s, tot high slats hold tempting titles and futuristic neon fixtures present a subtly changing light show.

149Guarded by a lintel of rough hewn logs, lavishly costumed marionettes stuff vitrines in an alcove by the theater where kids discover the joys of puppeteering.  The Puppet Truck brings Wishing Chair Productions’ magic to the rest of Davidson County.

175Tables and a TV on wheels can be pushed into arrangements for viewing or studying in The Alley, for tweens only.  Youth’s skyscraper theme is echoed in backlit silhouettes rotating a rainbow of hues by the weird one legged stools for the internet terminals.

141NPL offers toddlers a variety of storytimes and has book groups for all ages and interests.  Dogs encourage confidence in early readers

In the program area, floor boards are patterned in alternating stains and a large mobile of headless beings floats among the stars above.  Toys and translucent tiles, crayons and a mini stage mix with Dr. Seuss prints.  Seating is on foam cubes or teardrop, eggplant and puppy shapes and a climbing wall (!) uses yellow and red alphabet handholds and a bright blue mattress protects falls.

161Primary colored architectural openings nestled in the shelves let younger kids scoot under them playing hide and seek .

Everywhere I look there’s a new delight guaranteed to please even the crankiest client.  Fantastical chairs line a hall, arms provided by wings or bent twigs.  In each corner smiling snaggle-toothed dinosaurs and similar giant creatures greet you cheerfully.

203End panels are tilted so suggestions stay put and the two tier water cooler has a bottle filler.  The book drop is a tiny version of ML and dioramas, carousels, and myriad distractions catch the eye.

Conveniently close to the courtyard where little ones can let off steam, caretakers also stick them in an incredible jungle gym of bridges, high-rises and subterranean passages.

207Youngsters have fun at Frankenart, Lego contests and Ukelele Jam or fashioning Japanese fish kites.  For kindergarten to eighth grade educators, curriculum kits come in over a hundred subjects from science to geography to humanities.

The third floor’s wainscoting is topped by wallpaper of scenes and maps of old Nashville.  The federal depository’s government documents are up here as well as Magazines so you can grab something to enjoy under the splendor of the bucolic tableaus on the magnificent Great Reading Room’s ceiling.

230Its glowing blue sides evoke a warm spring day and engraved bronze landscapes hovering above reference volumes and chandeliers add to the elegance.

Flexibility is paramount in the less formal Commons, where red armchairs on wheels can be grouped to suit.

In the Jobs Lab, individualized attention lets you complete applications and access resources to suss out the perfect occupation.  A large computer training zone has 22 terminals and a teaching unit.  Classes range from the basics to introductory coding.

244Outside, a labyrinth is imprinted on the carpet by oversize chess pieces and Connect 4.

Nearby, Library Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has arrays on baby signing and the latest assistive technology for consumers who use braille embossers, conversion software, magnifiers, scanners, big keyboards, adjustable furniture and amplifiers or borrow a wheelchair and get real time captioning or ASL interpreters for events.

276By the manga in Teens, a bulletin board of superheros touts Women in Comics.  Triangular tables overlook the patio below and competitors on consoles slouch on a couch, focused on the action on a shared monitor.  It’s extremely busy, so it’s hard to take pictures but manager Luke Herbst and Audry kindly agree to pose for me.

252I spy a cool wall calendar that lets you easily swap out a day’s schedule and see what’s going on at a glance.  Paintings done by talented YA’s hang by barstools clustered around little tables and customers love Fandom Fest 2019, the video game tournaments and plays targeted to teen tastes.

266Sign up and get certified or use Studio NPL’s innovative electronics for soldering, robotics, textile work, circuitry, 3D printing and graphic design during drop ins.

Rebecca Stone, the Lead Mentor-Program Supervisor, told me mentors rotate so each day brings a different expert.  Singers, songwriters, rappers, drummers and guitarists lay down tracks and besides the recording capabilities, the department creates chances for participants to perform in front of live audiences.

The space is packed with people using the new fangled equipment in the MakerSuite.  A pegboard is full of power tools and aspiring directors have a real boom camera.  An indoor garden is fed by blue drip lines and cables drop from above for extra power where it’s needed.  Posters advertise graphic design and photography workshops.  Wow, what an exciting place!

Back in the corridor I pass a display for the Transgender Day of Visibility before I hit the long rows in nonfiction and fine arts…

294… and a small quiet area boasting a peaceful view of the nature in the courtyard below.

My thanks to Kayla and Andrea Fanta in Marketing and Communications for getting me permission to take photographs in this charming and amazing asset for the residents of the Athens of the South.

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Handsome Huntsville

Nicknamed Rocket City for its long association with space flight, Huntsville is home to Huntsville-Madison County Public Library (HMCPL).  The oldest Alabama institution, it started prior to statehood in 1818 in a tiny shack and moved around a lot before a Carnegie building opened in 1916.  Currently it boasts AL’s highest circulation, lending around two and a half million items and getting about a million visits annually from the 360,000 or so residents.

From a distance it’s easy to see why the headquarters, Downtown Huntsville Library (DHL), inspires the moniker “Fort Book”, but as you approach, the hulking monolith sheds the foreboding aura and extends welcoming arms.  Pretty passageways studded by mini replicas of the peaked roof shelter customers from foul weather.


The First Baptist Church’s steeple on the right looks like it was designed by NASA

Intriguing indentations, arches and outcrops dot the structure and offer unexpected slices of sky.  Up close the brick facade reveals subtle patterns and designs.  Plopped on a bench covered in glazed tiles highlighting fauna of Alabama, I admire the flora flanking the well manicured entrance.  A bus stop, ample parking, a ramp, curvy bike stands and a drive-through bookdrop ease access.


FOL shop

In the lobby, racks of pamphlets and a big screen TV remind you of available services.  To the left, the large Friends store is raising money for summer reading, employee scholarships etc.   Join them or contact the volunteer coordinator to donate your time in myriad ways.

On the right I pass vitrines touting an upcoming ballet performance and displaying aggregations of turtles and shells before reaching a meeting hall…

350…where I browse the mini exhibition of compelling artwork for sale on the walls.

Holds pickup is just inside next to New Science Fiction.  Staffers eagerly give assistance at the enormous desk dominating the main floor and overhead signs make getting around a breeze.

Share favorites on the patron picks shelf or acquire a second tongue using ESL and foreign language materials from the international area.   Nearby a security and equipment rental station has wheelchairs for those who tire quickly.  HMCPL has a darkroom and numerous study and conference spaces, some with A/V equipment, can be reserved for public events or for a fee rented for private functions or business use.

374Unique touches catch the eye.  A roped off array of easels under the stairs creates a pocket art show that must be appreciated as you head to the long CD and media racks.  A little sculpture of a building is fashioned from torn out pages.

And as an employee delightedly told me, the bell still rings on this cycle, which is used for deliveries and ridden in parades.

396In just one month the library puts on a plethora of programs.  There are movie and trivia nights, poetry readings and book signings.  Older folks are taught brain building exercises and attend explanatory sessions on Medicare.  Play Mah Jongg, Scrabble, and Bingo or stretch the mind at Chess League.  Practice Tai Chi and meditation or get answers to technical questions at Open Lab.  Workforce Development Lab helps you complete job applications.  Learn tatting, sewing, crafts and how to paint silk scarves.

Or just bask in the serenity of DHL.  Review the recommendations propped on end panels and enjoy the graphic novel and comic area and the action posters above the stacks.

384The website links to variously themed book groups, a blog, the catalog, newsletter, calendar, and job ads.  Download audio and ebooks, movies and music or get online homework help.  Encyclopedias and reference and periodical databases give career advice and have information on gardening, the military, grants, car repairs, test preparation, etc.

Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.  Facebook announces a plant swap, and a chance to make Valentine’s cards, or for your Teen or Tween to go to a Halloween Masquerade Ball.  The Lunacy (pun intended) Movie Series honors the anniversary of the moon landing.  Films about exploring our satellite as well as ones about encountering imaginary extraterrestrials finish with discussions led by a critic while another series is dedicated to screening mockumentaries.  Bring a sandwich to a Lunch and Learn on financial planning or HMCPL’s databases or bring dinner to a documentary.


Note the neat steeple also seen in the shot of DHL above

Posts trumpet grants for STEM programming, new items, concerts and an appearance by the state’s poet laureate.  Some honor donors and the retiring deputy director or introduce recent hires and a list of favorite romances.  Photos abound of workshops on vision boards, a local author fair, lectures on ham radios, diabetes, and media literacy and fake news or summer reading fun in a park including a giant slide, hula hoops, tug of war, face painting and bubble blowing.

Banners herald scavenger hunts, family board game days and for each night of Hanukkah, a suggested title connected to the Jewish faith.

Contributions from the Archives on Throwback Thursdays show ancient scrapbooks, past versions of the town and presidential visits from their files and from Downtown’s Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, new additions.  Videos of swing dancers, the “Beauty From Brokenness” mosaic installation and sneak peaks of new construction are click bait.

429Youth has not one but two fishtanks.  Oversize cobalt crayons provide direction through child sized flower shaped tables and primary hued wooden chairs, toys, doll homes and racetracks.  Kids’ drawings cover the pillars by an expansive storytime alcove and I spy a small garden just outside.

Tots have lots of options.  Marc Brown headlines a book festival.  Marvel at dog tricks or dress up for a costume party.  Holidays bring Easter egg hunts, scary tales and live music and at Christmas you can fashion ornaments, penguin socks and gingerbread houses, or take a picture with Santa.

There are art talks, and Chinese language and culture, Spanish bilingual and Rockin’ Storytimes, Kids and Kites Saturday, and Everyone Can Code Day.  Homeschoolers have get togethers and a robotics club.  Color, write, create origami animals or play cards at An Hour Unplugged or head to Bailey Cove for Toss Up Tuesday featuring STEAM topics for elementary students.

436A column in YA doubles as a chalkboard to pass on reading tips and tall barstools by the plate glass windows are perfect for hanging.  Teens have Zombie Prom and the system puts on Rocket City Nerdcon for gamers and fantasy and sci fi fans who love cosplay.   Makerspace! creative design software, 3D printing and CNC machining equipment is demonstrated at Studio Orientation.

Out and about with a bookmobile, a temporary popup at a shopping mall and outreach to elders, nursing homes and the juvenile detention center, staff sent a contingent to a walk-a-thon and one locale sponsored a 5K challenge.  A Puppet Troupe promotes awareness of HMCPL as do librarians preparing toddlers for literacy via Ready Readers storytimes at Head Starts and pre K’s.

472Back at DHL, the Family Computer Center has attractions to amuse youngsters and internet for the parents.

The second level has views of the Appalachian foothills and for the public, lockers, loads of meeting spots, and a free phone and six vending machines in the snack lounge by magazines.

479The business, technology training and computer centers are so well used I couldn’t take photos but there are over fifty public consoles.  Classes range from the basics to Google Drive and Apps.

Opened in 1987, DHL’s three stories and 123,000 square feet contain the administrative and technical offices and more than a half million items and seat over 900 people.  Per Director of Public Relations, Melanie Thornton, it’s the busiest of the twelve sites.  But HMCPL is expanding and their foundation is currently running a capital campaign to quadruple the size of the branch serving South Huntsville.  The new Madison facility has a cozy fireplace for quiet reading and hosts a sunset cinema on the outdoor patio.  Pet adoption and a therapy feline are part of a Caturday celebration and they bring seniors together for card tournaments.


Illuminated by a skylight

The Tax Assessor, a few government departments and the Madison County Law Library share the atrium’s third floor and desks ringing the void overlook the action below.

483Cases present Huntsville history.  The Heritage Room and Jane Knight Lowe Gallery are up here too.  In Archives Rare Books, microfilm drawers line the walls amid historical portraits and busts.  A lonely typewriter adds to the atmosphere.

They teach genealogy classes and the digital collection has historical, rare and fragile things, e.g. Civil War letters and diaries, church records and more than 25,000 images plus an index of the obituaries from old newspapers.


Soaring ceiling

The system has personal shoppers and lends e-Readers preloaded with titles from categories like YA lit, romance, urban fiction, knitting, mystery…  For a nominal charge ILL materials or check out a 4G wi-fi hotspot for up to ten devices.  Parents borrow Playaway Views mobile video players to occupy offspring on tedious car journeys.

Conveniently located, HMCPL is a short stroll from a path along Indian Creek Canal that bisects Big Spring Park.  Passing ponds, fountains, Muscovy ducks and a red lacquered bridge the trail leads to a spurting mossy rock and the vibrant downtown.

525Inhabitants of the region are so fortunate to have HMCPL.  What a great asset!

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Sunny San Pedro

IMG_3231On a winter jaunt to beautiful Belize on the Caribbean side of Central America, I went to the San Pedro Library (SPL) which serves long and narrow Ambergris Caye (pronounced amber-grease key), home to about 14,000 and the biggest of the nation’s nearly 500 islands.

Not counting cruising day trippers, Belize attracts over 400,000 visitors a year, not far off its half a million population.  Most are here for the fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving just offshore where the small country owns more than a third of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

IMG_3186On the beach, at the south end of San Pedro, the main town, SPL occupies a sturdy two story cement structure designed to minimize the impact of salt, sand and spray.  The building faces away from the ocean and is protected by metal shutters during storms and when closed.  Golf carts and bicycles, the primary modes of transport on “Isla Bonita”, are parked out front by a low wood rickrack fence.

Library Assistant Idin Velasquez and I had corresponded before my arrival but she was away on family matters so I introduced myself to Luwesa Porchue at the wood paneled circulation desk.


Reference works in the glass cabinet can’t leave the premises

She really enjoys working here and helping the clientele and as Technical Assistant is responsible for their online presence.

We chatted for awhile and she mentioned that the busiest times are often before and after school and at lunch when students from the parochial institution across the street stream in.  Open six days a week, the two employees manage to handle extensive hours and, despite the limited personnel, are working on creating programs for teens and older users.


Wedged between cases of adult items, a tower of tiny primary hued seats brightens up the aisle

Members take out two things at a time for two weeks and borrow from anywhere in Belize for free.  Considered a branch of the Belize National Library Service and Information System (BNLSIS), customers are given a code to access EBSCOhost for Caribbean Search periodicals, journals and e-documents, Explora, Learning Express, health, home improvement and auto and engine repair databases and downloadable books.

BNLSIS has published some Belize specific titles that are available here, and sends regular shipments of new books and supplements regional funding (plus SPL can keep any money they make through their own fund raising efforts).


Stunning butterfly

Like Luwesa, the room is cheerful and welcoming.  Cool tiles and colorful sand dollar curtains keep the heat down and murals, hangings and a map and the flag of the country adorn the walls.

IMG_3213In the Kid’s Area, construction paper ornaments in Mardi Gras tints dangle from the ceiling and Milne characters prance above short coral and aqua shelves.  A little green house proffers paperbacks and the latest acquisitions are prominently displayed.

Volunteers, often high schoolers doing community service, do twice monthly storytimes for six to ten year olds and one on one reading tutoring that sometimes uses Scrabble as an aid.  Staff visit nurseries in March for Child Stimulation Month, show a movie during the holidays for youngsters and hold summer reading and literacy camps.

IMG_3218Adult magazines and newspapers have a rack near titles for adolescents.

Belize has a plethora of official languages but English predominates though the majority of Europeans here are German speaking Mennonites.  SPL has a few things in French, Spanish and Chinese but most of the books are in English except for about twenty examples of Belize Kriol (Belizean Creole) and Yucatec Maya.

IMG_3205SPL began in 1973 at the Catholic Parish Hall and was originally managed by the local high school and its students.  In 1981, it moved here, beneath the tourist board on the top floor, but as they recently vacated the premises, perhaps the library will be able to expand up.  It could really use more storage.  Generous residents give them loads of secondhand items which are stacked in corners until they’re added to the collection or put aside to sell.

IMG_3228Monetary donations help when there are emergency expenditures and let them buy fixtures and hurricane supplies while the time and materials provided by the supportive community and businesses over weekends designated for improvement projects really spruce up the place.

Over the years, various organizations and companies have contributed equipment and technology.  In 2009, the Paul Hooker Media Center opened with six new computers for patron use and his wife Pamela also purchased a film projector and two screens in his memory.

IMG_3211SPL has wifi and Luwesa mentioned that they are getting new machines soon so the children’s computer, software and internet classes can continue.

The Facebook page is packed with videos of young singers, rapt faces listening to luncheon tales, kids eating snacks after a presentation and happily jumping and laughing and playing spelling and cooperation games led by a cadre of yellow shirt clad volunteers.

Posts include banners advertising a fine free Valentine’s and a cancer awareness exhibit.  The calendar shows Halloween costume contests and Christmas carols and crafts, prizes and presents.  There are critical thinking units, puzzle and cinema nights and an intriguing listing for capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, music and acrobatics.


Permanent book sale by the front door

The camera slowly pans over spanking new chapter books – a great way to easily promote tantalizing titles.  Photos abound of studious scholars, budding artists, the library booth at a celebration in the central square and its Seussville float for a radio station parade as well as professional development workshops on the mainland.

Shot just outside of SPL, one video highlights the fun in a palm shaded spot perfect for a multi day cultural event.  Attendees learned the Garinagu (an indigenous people) version of Frère Jacques and dancers wearing brilliantly colored traditional dress pushed the picnic tables aside so everyone could join in a dance circle until bested by expert ladies gyrating in a hula style to the progressively faster beat of hand drums.

Easter egg hunts, sack races, piñata popping and al fresco films utilize this sandy space too.

IMG_3188Citizens treasure their amazing natural resources and there are numerous announcements for sessions encouraging conservation and environmentalism, even teaching about reef friendly sunscreen (the regular kind also pollutes the clear waters of its spectacular cenotes).  Whether it’s the annual report of the Department of the Environment or environmental impact assessments for proposed resorts, you can find it at the library.  They host discussions and forums on offshore oil, link to informative videos on climate change and take Earth Day very seriously.  Youths learn about endangered native birds through activities like Pin the Beak on the Parrot and fashion vivid avian inspired masks, helmets and garb.

belize from above

From above

Ambergris Caye is very lucky to have such a talented and committed pair of women running the library!

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Beautiful Budapest

Though consistently ranked as one of the most exquisite destinations in Europe, I was unprepared for the staggering splendor of this city. The mighty Danube separates the castle, fortifications and quiet shady streets of Buda’s limestone and dolomite hills from cosmopolitan Pest, but the latter is home to the majestic Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár (FSZEK or Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library).


Pest from Buda

Quartered in the stupendous 1880’s Neo-Baroque Wenkcheim Palace, the library is the central facility serving 48 branches in the city’s 23 districts.  Their more than three million potential users make up a third of Hungary’s residents.

Besides being the biggest public library of Hungary, FSZEK is also the country’s sociology library and has two special repositories: the Music Collection and the Budapest Collection which has rare books including some really valuable items dating back to the fifteenth century that necessitate using gloves.

I met Fanni Zahovai, Kulturális Szervező, (Cultural Organizer), at the main door and she brought me to see Dr. Péter Fodor, General-Director, who had kindly invited me for coffee.


Dr. Fodor

His glorious office was once the library for the duke and his family.  This interior glows.  Spectacular surfaces and moldings top the rare tomes lining the walls.  By a window overlooking a gushing fountain in a pretty green square, stately wingbacks grace a Persian rug.

Dr. Fodor has been here twenty years.  Appropriately for the environs, his PhD is in history.  Sipping refreshments we spoke about FSZEK and its 450 employees of whom 270 are librarians.   Overall, they see 5.6 million or so visitors yearly and the annual budget of 2.7 billion forint (@ 9.5 million USD) comes from the city and is supplemented by fees from renting its historical rooms for different events.

Fanni started our tour by the original entrance.  Alabaster urns and rococo ribbons adorn a red carpeted ascending passage under delicate flourishes surrounding a skylight.  Halfway up it turns, divides in two and explodes into intricate banisters and balustrades, portholes and petals and fantastical fire breathing dragons, a ubiquitous symbol in the country’s mythology.

My jaw agape, we proceeded to the Golden Salon, formerly the boudoir of the countess, and then the Main Salon.


Taking the 33,000 volumes of the statistical bureau, the library officially began operations in 1904 in the main part of Budapest City Hall.  In 1927, the city bought the palace and after four years of reconstruction and making the most of cavernous storage by installing elevated tiers and dumbwaiters, they moved here in 1931.  Painstaking renovations ensured the decor and fixtures necessary to accommodate its new public purpose complemented the magnificence.  Surviving 1945’s siege of Budapest, FSZEK grew quickly, even setting up trams as mobile libraries, and in 1950 received responsibility for villages and towns in the vicinity.


Philosophy and psychology texts now populate the former smoking room, but its previous function is evident in heavy velvet drapes and loungers on gleaming parquet gathered by a lovely blue and rose ceramic hearth.  Brass sconces shine on glittery wallpaper above the fireplace and built in hutches.  Circular steps lead up for a closer look at the gilded timber ceiling.


The gorgeous filigree on the ceilings continues as we stroll through the Silver Salon and get into the ballrooms.  All of these salons now serve as reading and meeting rooms.

Between the two ballrooms you can see a small orchestral balcony, where bands once played waltzes beneath grand Venetian chandeliers.


After the old dining room, outfitted in studded leather upholstered seats and green shaded bankers’ lamps with figureheads looming on the corners of the carved oak panels, we go toward the modern wing.


At the turn of this century, a spiral staircase was added to connect the mansion to adjacent buildings.  The award winning expansion brought the library to eight floors (six for the public) in 15,000 square meters.  There’s seating for a thousand, 160 computers, and fifteen reading rooms.


The edifice opens up into an airy futuristic space

Flashing banners on the website promote a singing poetry duo, a quiet hour for the autistic, and a film group.  Links advertise new books, an RSS feed and bibliotherapy sessions.  A series featuring young talents brings chamber music from a piano and violin combo and a trio of sopranos promises a delightful night.  The language corner has loads of materials to learn or teach English and information and guidance about studying in the British Isles.  They have a number of ebooks on Hungarian and foreign sociology and research databases include EBSCO, JStor, Gale, ProQuest and a repository of content covering the EU, Encyclopaedia Britannica and news, academic and general periodical resources.

The multistory study has long forest green formica tables curving around floor to ceiling panes giving onto an outdoor area sporting junipers and a view of the older section.


Up on the mezzanine, curving stacks behind the balcony seating hold bound volumes of old newspapers.  Because of the historical materials here, more than half the patrons are scholars who just complete a registration form to peruse non circulating items.

After choosing from a vast display of recent acquisitions, browsers plop in lush blue chairs near a marble stairwell enhanced by arched stained glass windows.


The small exhibition gallery on the second floor changes monthly.  At the time of this tour pictures submitted for a Chinese photography competition deck the walls of the gallery.  Women in the fifties, a hosiery factory and Iceland’s miracles are a few examples of the tantalizing themes of the numerous exhibitions hosted by the network.

The system has card tournaments, parties and classes on smart phones for seniors.  All ages prepare for the holidays fashioning wreaths, ornaments and angels or listening to festive poems and interactive recitals.  Meet up to practice French or English or join a cooking or handball club.  Attend an author appearance or go to a dance or a lecture on numerology, natural medicine, the bible, mental health, urban architecture, bird calls, or Buddhist philosophy.

In the reading room of the Budapest Collection, in a spot celebrating the library’s heritage, a preserved card catalog sits next to vitrines of antique cards and documents written in calligraphy.  Scenes of bygone days and a map of the city from 1903 mounted on poster board give a glimpse of the past above cases filled with boxes of old photos.  A window reveals the catwalk outside and the two levels of the courtyard where a huge tree reaches up to the sky.


Low racks make it easy to flip through the CDs

Normally occupying nicely landscaped premises across the street, the music collection’s home is undergoing a rehab so the near daily concerts and talks are suspended for the time being.  The repository specializes in national and international classical compositions and has some jazz and folk materials.  Containing orchestral and vocal scores, ballets, oratories, piano arrangements, works on theory and instruments, opera videos and biographies, it offers places to listen to LPs and cassettes plus recording and production equipment.


The Dragon Library welcomes young at heart customers aged 0-101.  Resembling a gingerbread cottage with garlands and wooden posts and shingles, a fairytale atmosphere prevails beneath rainbow splashes and origami mobiles.  Encouraging youthful imaginations, it was designed in the Transylvanian folk style by a Hungarian interior designer living in Romania.

Kids have plenty of options.  There are parlor game afternoons, quizzes, riddles, brainteasers, summer camp, painting and crafts like felting and typography.  Preschoolers to tweens enter drawing contests.  Make puppets out of yarn and paper then use them to put on shows.  Online, FSZEK reports multiple groups of children visiting monthly and mentions intriguing programs like “Dragons of the Past – Dinosaurs in Hungary” and “Future Dragons: Robotics.”


Honoring its name, stone dragons ooze down the brick steps of the patio.  Tots must delight in climbing all over the gigantic creatures.  They have storytimes and for parents and babies, the web page touts the most infant friendly locales, tuneful interludes and get-togethers.


A sunken carpeted spot keeps toddlers safely penned under mom’s watchful eyes.  Wheelie bins of board books, coloring supplies, shelves of toys and stuffed animals, dolls in ethnic costumes, trolls and clown statuettes keep tykes amused and a cabinet has an enticing array of magazines.


Atop pillars, planets replete with curlicued antennae shoot multicolored beams while a knight-errant, his steed and noble figures crayoned on translucent paper covering the windows are backlit by the sun.

Adolescents read YA titles and graphic novels from spinning columns, take creative writing courses, have texting and coding clubs, manga and anime discussions and role playing games.  The teen zone at a branch is a den of beanbags and lava lamps.


Self check station

FSZEK houses more than three million items and well over two million can be borrowed.  Microfilm, maps, kits, audio tapes, DVDs, slides, CD Roms, engravings, images, posters and English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian publications as well as smaller stocks of other languages round out the collection.

Being a public library serving disabled patrons is a very important role. The sight challenged get personal assistance and magnifiers and a Braille editor and printer. Scanners and character identification software hook to two vocalizing PCs. Online, three dots in a square go to a version for the visually impaired of yellow and white text against a black background and no images.

A free heavily used service of participating districts for those unable to come in due to injuries or physical limitations delivers tons of units.


The coach lights, slatted pine barn doors and wrought iron heraldry in transoms are reminders that the soaring atrium is situated where once a portico sheltered horse drawn carriages.


But now the café’s tables sit on a wonderful black and white design near a bust of FSZEK’s namesake and first director: Ervin Szabó.



I am so grateful to Fanni and Dr. Fodor for showing me around and helping me write this article.  The Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár is truly a stunning tribute to an amazing place!

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Buoyant Bratislava

In the Little Carpathians, Bratislava and the hilly suburbs surrounding its old town are home to about 650,000 people.


A castle, Parliament and a UFO tower affixed to a bridge keep watch over this delightful city just an hour from Vienna and two from Budapest.

Part of Czechoslovakia until the “Velvet Divorce”, in 1993 it once again became a capital, this time of the newly formed Slovak Republic, aka Slovakia.

The metropolis has five districts and several have their own libraries and branches. But Mestská knižnica v Bratislave (Bratislava City Library or MKB), the main facility, has three separate indoor locations providing free wifi, reading rooms and public computers plus an al fresco setting. All are in walking distance of each other in the pedestrian zone.


Manager Helena Mlejová graciously agreed to show me the library, so my husband Michael and I met her by satirical posters encased in glass under a sheltered passage into the courtyard of an ancient MKB building in the former Jewish quarter. Shaded by towering trees and sporting outdoor shelves and wrought iron patio furniture as well as flower boxes, tables and chairs on the balcony above, it’s a pleasant entrance to the Department for the Blind and Partially Sighted, Nonfiction, the administrative offices and a bindery.

Established in 1900, the knižnica moved to its current premises in the fifties and sixties. Free to under fifteens and the physically and mentally challenged, the annual fee is four euro, but pensioners and students get a discount and companies and legal entities are charged eight euro to access the 260,000 items. They have around 55 employees and are a depository for all Slovakian publications. The budget of seven million euro from the mayor, fines, fees, successful grant applications and rents of ground floor spaces like the adjacent souvenir store pays for salaries, operating expenses and materials.


Exiting the recently installed audio signal equipped elevator on the third level, I admire the intriguing arrangement over padded leather and chrome armchairs as we approached a huge, mostly white, expanse where the décor consists of abundant tactile objects. Among the numerous audiobooks, MP3s and cassettes are a magnifying talking PC and scanner, games and cards with oversize numbers and pips, a Braille typewriter and a portrait of Princess Diana receiving a bouquet from a young boy when she opened this section in 1991.

Slovakia’s premier institute for sightless resources is in a small town that has a school for the blind, but twenty libraries scattered throughout the country also have permanent and rotating audio collections and postage for special requests is free.


Veronika is preparing Grétka to be a companion canine so we spent a few marvelous minutes tossing toys and reveling in playful nips and puppy breath. As in the United States, she and Helena both took five years of university courses for a master’s degree, but Veronika focused on helping the blind.

Patrons have discussions with blind writers, guide dog training orientations, a cinema allowing the visually impaired only and free ILL and eaudiobooks. The Way of Light is a presentation of paintings and photographs from the blind and partially sighted and during April’s Bratislava Days, MKB sells donations and weeded volumes for 50 cents. Always a hit, the sale earns 8,000 euro or so and proceeds buy new materials for the blind.


Gripping square hand holds we descended the coppery marble steps to the lockers and bulletin boards of Nonfiction.

Helena speaks perfect English (any mistakes in translation are mine). She’s worked here for ten years and supports the technology. Last year, she spent several weeks touring US libraries so is well aware of how American facilities operate and our issues and considerations. She explained that MKB is quite concerned about user privacy and copyright so adheres to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. Part of the rules affect movie screenings, photographing customers and, unfortunately, lending physical and electronic audiovisual items, so the only downloadables for the (non challenged) public are in the national ebook account.

On this level, a big study area has reference tomes and internet terminals. Modern fixtures complement the contours of the old structure and philodendron vines crawl up the sides of stacks while oak stave buckets hold tropical ferns.


The website links to academic and general databases, an RSS feed, an English version, media articles on MKB, service statistics, business plans, satisfaction surveys, organizational charts and contacts. To maintain transparency, invoices, contracts, income sources and calls for proposals for construction projects are all posted on line. Partnering with Charles University, international organizations, foreign and local libraries, clubs, community centers, foundations and schools, they get some financial aid from the country’s culture ministry, the Arts Support Fund, and the regional government and organize professional development exercises for public knižníc in the vicinity.

We strolled a few hundred feet to the juvenile department. Enticing windows are filled by crepe flowers and suggested paperbacks and in the foyer orange reigns supreme tinting a circular railing and stairwell, furniture and doors. Framed children’s drawings done for previous Bratislava Days adorn the walls. The theme is always about the city and this year it’s The Story of One Place.


The playroom has popular and new releases and lounging options ranging from soccer ball patterned beanbags to thick carpet squares to white pads cut in odd forms so magic markers can turn them into turkeys or stegosaurus. Similar shapes hang from the ceiling above crate of dolls and toys that occupy youngsters awaiting story time. Radiators are a vivid purple and scarlet, a tall red metal rack supplies oversize read aloud books and toddlers have a sturdy rainbow hued dining set.

Plush animals sit on a sill and stools are made of tree stumps. The pockets of a silk fire breathing dragon are stuffed with crayons and treats and bright beach pails pose as garbage cans. Origami butterflies and leaves are strung across the area and by the battery recycling and shopping baskets, short tiers contain the newest acquisitions – circulating board games.


Friendly Eva told us the 15-16 year olds at a local school of applied arts made this incredible desk. Their clientele goes from newborns to teens so a second space has magazine spinners, graphic novels, manga series and cushioned crimson cubes. As a supplement to the primary and secondary schools they carry some textbooks and curriculum perennials and literature in German, English, French and Russian. Slovakia produces five or six periodicals for youths which can be borrowed.

The library cooperates with a natural history museum for some kids’ sessions and has competitive literary quizzes, a graphics and photography camp, theatrical performances and author appearances. Drama pupils tell international fables, a musical poetry duo celebrates the 130th birthday of a famous Slovak writer or hear humorous rhymes and discover animal communication methods. Activities stress education and culture so there are reading groups, Slovakian fairy tales and book talks (with prizes) and for families, parenting titles and health advice.

Next on our list was the stunning music and arts division.


Covering art, music, architecture, cinema, crafts and gardening, it’s the visual highlight for me. Handsome mahogany fixtures proffer scores, libretti and museum catalogs. Plenty of face out shelving enables browsing and serendipitous selections. A long room has instruments to play, row after row of LPs and a gigantic console outfitted in speakers and turntables and all the components, old and new, necessary for enjoying the myriad types of recordings. Across from it, low couches let you listen in comfort as fresh air floats in through windows overlooking the patio below where an industrious cat prowls, steadfastly eliminating all mice.IMG_2901

Alfonse Mucha prints grace the space and over the sheets for 50 masterpieces propped on the Yamaha electric organ, a number of lovely black and white sketches were produced by Kristina’s talented hands.img_2877.jpg

An antique card catalog sits on a marble plinth and by violet corduroy seats and a big planter we spoke to Kristina and Renata under swinging burnished gold stars.

Satiny stack ends hold plants or recommendations and are topped by maroon arches that echo embellishments of the tables.

Appropriately the art gallery is up in the attic. It’s got an upright piano and kitchen and accommodates fifty.


Vibrant murals deck the garret and light streams in via skylights imparting views of the spires of Old Town.

MKB has housed exhibitions from potters and hobbyists as well as tatters, weavers and animated film makers on subjects from genealogical charts, maps and ceramics to embroidery, illustrations and textiles.


Leaving, I spotted these delicately colored tiles by the notices in the vestibule.

At six p.m. they were hosting a poetry event in the penultimate locale – a grassy outdoor oasis in the city center stocked with reading materials. Relax in the shade beneath umbrellas by the sculpture garden or review the sandwich board advertising the evening’s entertainment. When we crossed the lock bridge above later that night we saw a number of people still mingling long after the affair had finished up.

During the summer they’ve featured Romani jazz, a blues band, drummers, pop concerts, an actress and chanteuse singing Piaf and Dietrich standards and a trio from Prague accompanied by accordion and guitar.

Facebook has announcements for upcoming functions and gives head counts for past ones and when Queer Jane, an indie punk folk group was here, over 900 attendees managed to squeeze in.

The page has nearly 1500 followers and posts thousands of snaps. An adorable one introduces Grétka saying she’s available for walkies and loads of them show kids making ornaments and decorations and inhabitants smiling broadly at various library happenings. I laughed out loud at a shot of a sign proclaiming “Dinosaurs don’t read; now they’re extinct. Coincidence?” and for every anniversary, holiday or birthday, there’s a plug for their items on that topic.

Other offerings include literacy classes, how to photograph babies, the weekly schedule for the outdoor stage, fantasy evenings, lectures, autumn camps, a visit from a witch, a puppet show, poetry festival, travelogues, comics workshops, seminars on innovative techniques for the future and a Tibetan teacher who will help you find inner peace.

There are videos of a piper and a pianist, an unconventional children’s book using a strange method of pagination to create one long picture that cleverly folds into itself, and a guitarist and flautist giving a holiday recital.


Last but not least, the Fiction and Foreign Languages Section is five minutes away on foot. We chatted to Alžběta for a bit. Although mostly fiction and travel guides, they have stuff on Bratislava history and specialize in the humanities.

Pretty quilted sofas and curved upholstered seats back up to glowing panels with marble accents. Display space is built into the cases and desks have a convenient ledge for purses or bags. Bright blue lettered sticks jutting from between books make it easy to locate titles. Chose from educational journals, tons of bestsellers, bins of Harlequin romances or go online at the stand up stations below bulbs dropping from a curved minimalist bar.

Heavily Hungarian and German, just 15% of the population was Slovak before World War I. Actually part of Hungary until 1918, there are a number of books in that tongue since some seniors still speak it. English, Czech, Italian, French, Spanish and Russian round out the collection. Focusing on the elderly, there’s memory training and PC classes and consultations.


Helena is on the left and Alžběta the right

I am so thankful to Helena for revealing the fabulous place that is Mestská knižnica v Bratislave. Her assistance was invaluable for my understanding of the amazing things they do. The citizens of this fascinating city are extremely lucky to have such a dedicated staff anticipating their literary requirements and keeping them amused with quality programming!

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Cherishing Český Krumlov

IMG_3259Nestled in the heavily treed hills of the South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic, Český Krumlov (pronounced ˈtʃɛskiː ˈkrumlof, or to my ear, chesky kroomlov) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site three hours from Vienna on mostly tiny roads. Despite a population of barely 13,000, drawn by the fairytale appearance of an aqueduct shaped fortress, cobbled pedestrian-only streets, magnificent castle gardens reminiscent of Versailles’, and countless and constant elevation changes, nearly a million sightseers flood the small community each year.

Because the town truly does cherish its heritage, and the incredible building occupied since 1991 by the Městská knihovna v Českém Krumlově (or MKCK – translates to Municipal library in Český Krumlov) is a great example of its preservation of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque beauty.
The library entrance is adjacent to kostel svatého Víta, the Catholic church that owns the 14th century structure. Formerly a prelate’s residence, it surrounds a central courtyard and the ground level is studded in nooks housing stone saints.

Started in 1879 by the table society “Křen” (inexplicably this means horseradish), MKCK was founded in a pub by patriots interested in propagating all things Czech, especially literature. The first books were locked in a chest under the care of the inn keeper. Deemed a library in 1921, it competed for funding with a rival German speaking organization until after WWII. In 1959 it received responsibility for the district and took over the task of assisting smaller libraries. The process of computerization began in 1992 and the internet came in 1998.

In the lobby, notices in Plexiglas and free standing bulletin boards keep the populace apprised of happenings.
At the main desk, I am greeted warmly by Hana (seated) and Gabriela who tell me Mgr. Martin Nechvíle is expecting me. While waiting, I glance around appreciating the contrast between dark oak beams overhead and colorful modern furnishings and fixtures.

A corner resembles a parlor. A blue sectional has throw pillows, a fluffy matching carpet and an oblong coffee table. Potted ferns, philodendrons and window boxes add touches of greenery.

Tots waiting for parents on pint sized red and yellow seats have puzzles, toys, crayons and a case of games and picture books for amusements.
Martin is charming and after gifting me a tote bag and pin takes me on a tour. MKCK has wifi and eight public computers that are free to users and for the first half hour, to visitors. Classes are offered on using the internet and the e-resources and Excel, Word and Power Point.

Two other locations serve Český Krumlov, but this is the biggest. Annual cards are free to personnel, under sixes and over seventies and 140 koruna (@ $6.50) for adults or institutions (e.g. daycares) or 70 CZK for children. They have CDs, audiobooks, ebooks and ILL. Borrow ten items – books and games are lent for a month, magazines two weeks and you can reserve materials and renew via email, online, in person or phone.
Martin has been director here for three years and as we pass a ledge displaying recommendations below this lovely scene, I realize his archaeology degree is appropriate considering the treasures and relics and that they’ll celebrate the 140th anniversary in 2019.

The website has English and German versions and links to popular and new titles, read aloud books for infants and toddlers, the calendar, bibliotherapy and area news highlighting lots of cooperation between the country’s facilities. Details of tasks and training provided to knihovny in the vicinity and prices for hiring their elegant halls are posted as well as annual reports and a plethora of pictures from field trips exploring the village’s remarkable architecture, game tournaments, art workshops, author events, creative writing courses, music and dance performances and documentary films presentations.

Databases put a Czech bibliography at your fingertips, plus archives, the national union catalog, Šumava (nearby forests roamed by Celts) and world literature, and dozens of Czech classics for free download as ebooks or audiobooks.
Behind this pleasant spot, the floor becomes a balcony and short stacks abut the railing overlooking a lower level with projection equipment that doubles as a screening or meeting room. Stairs lead down to this collection and terminals have orange hedgehog mice and upholstered high backed seats.

MKCK puts on photography exhibits, travel talks, lectures from experts on topics like healthy eating, being a police detective, fashion and techniques to improve your memory. They have book clubs, a presence at festivals and do guided tours for St. Wenceslas Night. Just scrolling through Facebook gives evidence of how they help the community’s well-being. Thousands of shots of happy customers of all ages attest that a rip-roaring good time will be had at library sponsored affairs.

We move towards Periodicals where 118 magazine and newspaper subscriptions fit tidily in slots divided by clear plastic…
… and meet Jarka by books on UNESCO attractions worldwide and Šumava and local history volumes. I chuckle when I see, next to a euphoric euphorbia, sweet clay angels made by tiny hands watching from high atop a console.

Martin mentioned they have a budget of 7,000,000 CZK and eleven employees here. Since the building is so old, alterations need permission, so the steps are difficult for seniors or patrons carrying prams but eventually an elevator will be installed.

We see his office which has a striped couch and chairs perfect for staff conferences.

Then passing a huge glossy glass and teak credenza we reach Children’s.
It’s got a stuffed dog to sit on, mobiles, cushy mini benches and cubes adorned with playful dinosaurs that stow neatly into a table of suggestions. Adolescent artwork and a racetrack rug alongside crates of board books, face out shelving on white wire racks and cutout kittens are all graced by views of the turrets and steeples of Old Town.

Kids play instruments at recitals, join in for crafts, Halloween activities and drawing dragons or enjoy puppet and talent shows. They can read to earn money to be donated to a chosen charity and the fantasy, sci-fi and horror BOoK! Con has a short story writing competition and a contest for those up to age 15 to paint or pen a piece about animals.

Online, educators have 33 different programs options that people involved with youngsters can order for their wards to attend during the school year. Topics cover finding information, net safety, cyber bullying, holiday traditions around the world, Christmas fairy tales, ghost stories, comics, sing-alongs, nonsense poetry, the insect empire, opera and the fate of Jewish youth during WWII.
Visible to the left of this arrangement in black and white, a long table is lit by hanging globes and sun streaming in through sheer curtains. In September they have sessions for parents on leave for their new infants. Giving valuable instruction on working from home, starting a company, advanced MS Office, photo editing, website construction and improving computer skills and CVs…, it even offers daycare (the announcement on Facebook was accompanied by a solicitation for babysitters)!

In an alcove just off the learning zone, a mini kitchen seems humbled by the crystal chandelier swinging from the heart of an ornate buttressed dome above.

We are entering the original part of the complex and everywhere the marvelous touches of yore delight. The arches, stained glass in rock niches and carved doors are striking and what has dimmed with age is being restored.
On the left above the glowing leather chesterfield, a mural from the 14th century is being painstakingly uncovered.

Monks made beer here and the edifice’s religious past is evident in the frescoes lining our path.
As we wander the corridors, Martin unlocking and locking doors, I gape at the exquisite antiques…
…and the splendid ceilings, until we arrive at the pièce de résistance.
The library lives in about 900 square meters not including the 1400 square meters in the older premises used for concerts and events or rented out for weddings and gatherings. Though fees earned are retained, energy costs are expensive.

Almost hidden among the rococo motifs, Martin points out an extraordinary 1765 fireplace fringed in lustrous wood topped by a prancing troubadour and costumed eighteenth century figures shadowed for a three dimensional look. Beyond, a large dining chamber with white linen and bent ebony seats welcomes hungry guests. A phenomenal venue for a ceremony!

Nearing the end, we come to the gallery (which can also be leased) in the cool confines of the cellar.
I had met local artist Eva Karmazínová previously as I first came during the lunch hour. Set off by stark plaster walls and softly lit by tall lamps, the fantastic sculptures and oils, portraits and nudes propped on waist high blocks and attached to black grids were produced by her. She said she is very glad to have this studio.
Sweeping vistas on several sides complete the wonder that is Městská knihovna v Českém Krumlově.

What a magical place. Everyone was very nice and friendly and how kind of Martin to reveal all the amazing spaces in the compound. The citizens of this adorable destination are indeed lucky to have access to such an enchanting cultural center.

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