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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!