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The missing legacy - Robert Mizzi

The Cafe Premier site could have been handed over to the Malta Libraries and converted into a public library.

The Cafe Premier site could have been handed over to the Malta Libraries and converted into a public library.

A recent article in the Financial Times refers to the legacy of V18 when Valletta’s stint as the European Capital of Culture will eventually be over.

In my opinion, V18 presented us with the perfect occasion to create a long-lasting legacy that would have been used and appreciated for generations to come. Sadly, our European Capital of Culture is missing one important symbol that is inextricably linked to culture (although not everyone sees this): a modern, state-of-the-art public library for Valletta.

I can already imagine some of the readers bringing up the myth that we do not really need libraries now that we have the internet. I can ,of course, engage in a very long discussion on what a modern public library service is supposed to offer apart from the circulation of books but that is not the scope of this article. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing number of people, even in prominent positions, that still have an archaic notion of what public libraries stand for. To these people, I strongly recommend they widen their horizons and see what public libraries in other countries are doing for their communities. I would not be too surprised if someone points out that we already have a public library in Valletta and refers to the National Library. But I digress...

The fact that the powers that be never actually thought about the idea is in itself a damning confirmation that the decision-makers do not really believe in the power of public libraries and what benefits society can gain from investing in public libraries. Successive governments have done nothing but pay lip service to the cause of libraries over the past decades.

The only moment where libraries seemed to have hit the national agenda was in 2011 when, after seven years of trials and tribulations, we managed to finally see the Malta Libraries Act enacted. Following that, a much-needed reshuffle in the administration was done and, today, we have a young and energetic team leading the Malta Libraries but they are not being given the required resources to move forward. The annual budget has increased in recent years but is nowhere near what is needed for the running of a national library and the public library network. Recruitment of much-needed human resources is a rarity and, to add insult to injury, some ‘unsettled’ elements from the public service are still being forced on the Malta Libraries administration.

The Malta Library and Information Association had, in 2009, started an online petition to rebuild the ruins of the old opera house at the entrance of Valletta into a cultural centre that should have included a state-of-the-art public library. Over 400 people had signed the online petition and, as the Renzo Piano project gathered momentum, association representatives had presented a report to the Prime Minister at the time, Lawrence Gonzi. As soon as the project started it was clear the old opera house ruins would be turned into an open air theatre but Piano himself had given us hope by stating that “we want to put on the ground floor of the Parliament a function that is public. I don’t think that there will be shops there... the shops are already there. I think we have to put there a dignified, noble activity. We are thinking about a library...” (March 18, 2010).

Successive governments have done nothing but pay lip service to the cause of libraries over the past decades

We know what happened.

Politicians 1 Libraries 0.

Fast forward a few years and we had a change in government but a modern public library for Valletta never really made it to the agenda. With Valletta being nominated as European Capital of Culture and funds being injected into various projects, I was hoping that someone, somewhere would have an illumination but, sadly, this was clearly not the case.

As I monitored the various projects and initiatives being proposed in the build-up to V18, it became evident that not one single entity or individual came up with the proposal to build a modern public library in Valletta that would, in the years to come, be recognised as one of the main legacies of Valletta 2018.

I am all in favour of the new national museum for fine arts (MUŻA) and can only applaud the initiative to establish the Malta International Contemporary Art Space but if one were to look at public libraries and their roles in previous European Capital Cities of Culture, one would admit that this situation is rather embarrassing.

A few months back, I had a chat with a colleague and had hinted that I intend to write this article. I was told that the Cafe Premier site, the cause of unlimited political discussions and controversies before and after the last general election, could be handed over to the Malta Libraries with the intention of this place being converted into a public library. There is hope, I kept telling myself.

My hopes were soon quashed though. Last January 5, the Valletta mayor, accompanied by MPs from the two main political parties, was glowing when he announced that the former Cafe Premier has now been converted into the new premises for the local council.

Politicians 2 Libraries 0 and people ask me why I am not fond of politicians.

I am still hoping that one day (hopefully, in my lifetime) Valletta will get a modern public library – purposely built as a library and with the potential to become a hub for various activities and a meeting space for the community. It seems the powers that be need some illumination in this area so here are a few suggestions, drawn from over 20 years of experience in dealing with library issues and countless visits to libraries and conferences abroad highlighting the continued relevance of libraries in the so-called knowledge society.

I propose that an all-party parliamentary group on libraries is set up. This will hopefully raise awareness among parliamentarians and make them realise that, after a couple of years in the new Parliament, their library is still nowhere to be found. I wonder how they do their research (via Google, of course).

The group will work closely with the Malta Libraries and the Malta Libraries Council (an opportunity for the council to become relevant again).

A vacant dwelling in Valletta should be identified as a potential site for a multi-storey public library with space for activities etc. A community meeting place for Valletta not dominated by business.

The minister responsible for libraries commits to a consultancy on capacity building for Malta Libraries to ensure that the administration is equipped with the right resources to build on the excellent job they are doing with practically no resources.

A commitment to meet standards for our public libraries is made public and the responsible ministry commits to appropriate funding to ensure that these standards are met. The Malta Library and Information Association has published standards for branch libraries in Malta and Gozo a few years back.

There is still hope. If we can identify a site for a new public library in Valletta and make a public commitment by the end of the year, I would think future generations would view the new public library as a legacy of the European Capital of Culture. As one local politician was once quoted as saying, libraries do not win you votes (at least, not in Malta) but what I can guarantee is that libraries change lives and our future generations will be grateful if we give them one modern public library that could make us all proud – the V18 Public Library.

Robert Mizzi is an information professional in the private sector and a visiting lecturer at the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences of the University of Malta.

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