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A library unlovely in lace

In his recent book The Library: A World History, James W.P. Campbell says: “Libraries can be much more than simply places to store books. Throughout the ages, the designs of the greatest library buildings have celebrated the act of reading and the importance of learning. They have become emblems of culture, whether it be for an individual, and institution, or even a whole nation.”

It’s a book that lends itself to browsing and reading by instalment, not least on account of its splendid photographs. Thanks in large measure to that quality, it has punctuated my summer reading this year.

As the title suggests, the book offers a tour through some of the greatest of their kind. From the 15th century Biblioteca Malatestina in Cesena to Yale University’s 1963 Beinecke Library, these places are a living commitment to written culture and civilisation.

Two of the libraries in the book I’m particularly familiar with. The first is the Abbey library of St Gall in Switzerland, a masterpiece of rococo design and a repository of a great many important books and manuscripts. The second is the Wren library in Cambridge, a clever piece of architecture that houses, among other things, books that once belonged to Isaac Newton.

The National Library of Malta may be nowhere near this superstar territory. That takes away not one jot from its value, in terms of both design and the quality of the collection.

I first became acquainted with the library through my grandfather, who saw to it that my Wednesdays off school were not entirely misspent. He would take me to places in Valletta and Cottonera he imagined might drum up some interest. The bibliotheca happened to be a regular on our didactic itinerary.

Problem is, the place doesn’t seem to have changed much in 30 years. For one, lace is still very much in fashion at the bibliotheca. Given that Queen Victoria was known to have a penchant for lace (Prince Albert’s tastes are not recorded), maybe it’s intended as an ongoing homage to the statue that sits in front of the building.

In this case, bizzilla (lace) has nothing to do with steamy rooms. Or maybe it does, because the lack of proper climate control at the bibliotheca is one of the things that leads to it. Bizzilla is the tragicomic word that people who are into this sort of thing use to describe books that are so worm-eaten that they look like Gozo’s finest.

Sadly, the National Library of Malta is falling to pieces

Sadly, the National Library is falling to pieces. This holds for both the structure and, perhaps more worryingly, the collection. The bookcases are for the most part creaky and look about as solid as a glacier in conversation with global warming.

Book spines dangle all over the place, and those that don’t tend to be denied the pleasure by rubber bands. (The combination of rubber and lace makes the average book conservator go weak at the knees, and for the wrong reasons.)

I was surprised to see Prince William tour the place last year. It may well have been his most dangerous mission ever, deadlier still than his stint in Afghanistan. Lace is light and harmless, a stack of lace plus some rotting bookshelves another matter altogether.

Which brings us to William of the House of Zammit. Five years ago, the head of Library Studies at the University of Malta wrote a stern letter to the Times of Malta in which he complained that the National Library was “ignored”. Rightly, and professionally, he took readers through a litany of neglect. He also said he had hopes for the future, but then maybe five years is not future enough.

The library today is still an extended Trimalchio’s feast for worms. Partly the reason is that, amazingly enough, the place employs no qualified book conservators. The few book binders who work there do their best, but that’s not good enough. The result is that precious volumes like Diderot’s Encyclopédie end up being ‘restored’ the rough way.

Partly, the problem is that the library lacks resources. There are one or two people who work there who are passionate about books and the collection, and who are experts in their field, but that’s about it. I’m happy to assume that the rest have nothing but good intentions, but we know what sort of paving stones good intentions make.

All it takes is a short visit to the library really. The service at the front desk is appalling. The front-desk staff have no knowledge of the collection whatsoever, and can therefore offer no useful guidance. The inspiration for book handling seems to be the method used by builders to heave knaten (stone blocks) around. Worryingly, anyone can just walk in and be handed the most precious of volumes to play with.

There are two issues here. First, things needn’t be like that. The National Archives in Rabat and the Notarial Archives in Valletta, for example, have made huge leaps of quality in recent years. Both are housed in mouldy buildings and probably suffer from the same shortage of financial resources as the bibliotheca. And yet they somehow manage to replace the sense of inertia with one of fresh air.

Second, my point is not to diss the people who work there. Rather, I write to bring to readers’ attention the disastrous state of a collection we ought to be proud of, because it contains a large number of valuable works and could read like a history of hundreds of years of learning and collecting. In any case it’s what we have.

That’s the injury bit. The insult is the ongoing spectacle, in the form of television clips and so on, that all is well at the National Library of Malta. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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