Beyond words

On the eve of World Book Day, Ronald Cassar takes a leaf out of the National Library’s history.

The National Library, often referred to as the ‘bibliotheca’, is a national treasure, both for its architectural value as well as for the collections that it holds.

Situated off Republic Street, the building is a gem in its own right, complementing the elegance of Valletta’s buildings. Designed by the Polish-Italian architect Stefano Itarr, the building is an early example of neo-classical architecture in Malta.

The Doric and Ionic columns add symmetry to the façade while the first floor is supported on a loggia, with the main doorway in the centre. A balustraded balcony is located above the doorway and is also supported by Doric and Ionic columns.

The library building was scheduled as a Grade 1 national monument and is also listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese islands.

On entering the premises, you feel as though you are entering a sacred place. You automatically lower your voice and whisper. Researchers silently pore over books, manuscripts and documents. For a building which stores so many words, it has an aura which is indescribable, beyond words.

Maybe the aura is reflected off the precious treasures which the library stands guards over, including collections, books, documents and private letters, all housed safely within its walls. These treasures are of great importance not only for Malta’s history and development during the last millennium but also for the evaluation of European and Mediterranean history.

The National Library was founded as a public library during the last years of the rule of the Order of St John. The present building was completed in 1796 and occupied in 1812 during the early days of British rule.

The library’s origins can be traced as far back as 1555 when all books in the legacy of deceased knights were, by decree, passed on to the Common Treasury of the Order.

However, it was not until 1649 that a library, housed in a room over the oratory of the Conventual Church of St John, was formed after a petition to the Grand Master by Fra Luca Buenos.

In 1760, the Order inherited the valuable collection which had belonged to Cardinal Joaquin Portocarrero, himself a member of the Order and resident in Rome.

His legacy, numbering 5,570 volumes, was bought from the Common Treasury of the Order by Fra Jean-Louis Guerin de Tencin, a Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order belonging to the Langue of Provence.

De Tencin, regarded as the founder of the Public Library, formally donated all his books, amounting to 9,700 volumes to the library of the Order. His donation was made on the understanding that the libraries should be merged into a public library.

It was also agreed that suitable premises would be built for the new library. The book collections were temporarily housed in a building known as Il Forfantone in what is today Republic Street, corner with Santa Lucia Street.

De Tencin appointed Giovanni Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis as the first librarian and paid his salary himself. De Tencin died in 1766 before managing to secure funds for maintaining the library.

For a building which stores so many words, the irony is that it has an aura which is indescribable, beyond words

In 1776, Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan formally founded the Bibliothecha Publica and it was also called the Bibliotheca Transeana, in De Tencin’s honour.

De Rohan decreed the building of new premises to the designs of Stefano Ittar, a Polish-born architect residing in Italy. The building, situated in the heart of Valletta, was completed in 1796.

However, two years later the Order of St John was expelled from Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte and during the French two-year period, the books remained at their former premises. It was only in 1812 – during the British administration – that the new premises were officially inaugurated by the British Civil Commissioner, Sir Hildebrand Oakes. From then on, the Malta Public Library, as it was then called, continued to flourish with a number of new acquisitions.

In 1925, the library acquired its legal deposit status by an Act of Parliament and 11 years later was granted the prefix “Royal” by King George V.

The following year the Royal Malta Library took over the custody of the Archives of the Order of St John which were transferred from the Public Registry premises.

With the setting up of the new Public Library in Floriana in 1976, the library in Valletta was officially designated as the National Library of Malta and became solely a research and reference library. In this capacity, the National Library was entrusted with acquiring, cataloguing and preserving manuscripts and all printed books, as well as periodicals and journals issued in Malta.

Act II of 1925 instituting the Legal Deposit imposed on all Maltese authors and editors publishing in Malta or abroad, the obligation to deposit two free copies of each of their publications, one at the National Library of Malta and the other at the Gozo Public Library.

For this reason, the National Library has become the main source of Melitensia with the function of placing the written heritage of Malta at the disposal of researchers and the public.

In order to safeguard its collections from damage, especially in view of the fragile nature of many old newspapers and manuscripts, the National Library applied for EU funds in 2009 to purchase digitisation equipment and has since then embarked on an ambitious programme of digitisation.

This ensures the preservation of collections through reduced handling of the original, while also providing easy accessibility to digital images of National Library material through the portal

Through the Malta Libraries Act (Act VII of 2011), which came into effect in August 2011, a totally new set-up for the libraries sector in Malta was established. The former Department of Libraries was replaced by Malta Libraries, the agency now responsible for the National Library, the Central Public Library, the Gozo Public Library, and the regional and branch public libraries.

Collections at the National Library

Library Manuscript

The Library Manuscript collection comprises nearly 1,600 volumes and is divided into two main parts. The first consists of a small collection of codices, mostly dating from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Predominantly having a religious theme, some of these manuscripts are beautifully illuminated works of art.

The other more modern section of the collection includes two volumes of watercolours depicting views of Malta by Danish artist Charles de Brocktorff as well as handwritten drafts of typescripts of later published works by Anton Buttiġieġ, Erin Serracino Inglott, Ninu Cremona and Guże Aquilina.


A small but interesting collection of works printed before 1500 which contains an engraved map of the Mediterranean showing Malta in the centre. The collection grew over the years. Of particular relevance to the local context are those books relating to the Order of St John.

Library Codices

The initial secton of the library manuscripts is made up of 14th and 15th century codices. The provenance of most of the 21 codices formed part of the outstanding collection of the Bailli Fra Jacques-LaureLe Tonnellier de Breteuil, a French knight and a keen collector of manuscripts and rare books.

Fine binding collection

The National Library boasts of some very rare bindings, including those bound for King Louis XV of France which had been donated to Tencin.


These collections are published materials in the form of books, pamphlets, newspapers, journals and single-sheet items, as well as audio and visual recordings by Maltese authors, or on any subject related to the Maltese islands.

Newspapers and periodicals

A considerable part of the library’s collection is made up of newspapers and other periodical literature, either published locally or else abroad, but of direct interest to Maltese affairs. Among the latter are a number of newspapers published by Maltese emigrant communities in various countries around the world.

Archives at the National Library

Archive of the Order of St John

The Archive of the Order of St John consists of about 7,000 manuscript volumes. This archive comprises the title deeds, privileges, correspondence and documents concerning the central authority – the Grand Master and his Council and the Chapter General, with the Priories, Commanderies and individual knights.

Archive of the Universita

The Archive of the Universita embodies most of what is known about municipal government in Malta and privileges and customs of the Maltese in past centuries.

The 658 manuscript volumes that make up this archive – spanning four centuries – record feudal concessions, privileges granted, minutes of the town council mostly covering the years 1450 to the Universita’s suppression in 1818, and activities of the town council such as the administration of Santo Spirito Hospital.

Treasury manuscripts

A separate archival group is made up of the records of the Treasury of the Order of Malta, consisting of 513 volumes divided into two series. These are the financial records formerly preserved in the Government Treasury.

The ‘Treasury A’ section is a miscellanea of documents produced both by the Order of St John and by the Universita dei Giurati of Mdina.

‘Treasury B’ documents consist of registers, journals of income and expenditure, libri esigenziale and cabrei of several foundations.

Librarians through the years

Gian Pietro Francesco Agius De Soldanis 1763-1770
Gioacchino Navarro 1770-1812
Giuseppe Bellanti 1812-1839
Cesare Vassallo 1839-1880
Antonio Annetto Caruana 1880-1896
Filippo Vassallo 1897
Alfredo Mifsud 1897-1920
Enrico Magro 1920-1922
Hannibal Publius Scicluna 1923-1947
Maurus Inguanez 1947-1955
Vincent A. Depasquale 1955-1980
John B. Sultana 1985-1997
Philip Borg 1998- 2009
Oliver Mamo 2012-2015
Cheryl Falzon 2015-

During gap years, there was no librarian in place.

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