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.
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.
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.
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!