Friday, 5 June 2020

Beautiful Libraries & Travel Dreams by Catherine Hokin

Like every writer I know, I am wedded to libraries and bookshops and, ten weeks into this strange new world we are now living in, I am missing my regular haunts.

I have two libraries I regularly spend time in - my local university library in Glasgow and the Wiener Holocaust Library in London - and too many virtual ones to count. Independent bookshops in Glasgow are, unfortunately, thin on the ground but Edinburgh is only a hop away and we have a suitably eccentric second-hand bookshop at the bottom of our road that I really hope survives the current closures.

 El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore - Flickr
Travel seems a long way away but I have been digging through the photos and planning trips, and libraries and book stores are always part of the itinerary. Last year, while researching my novel The Fortunate Ones, I was lucky enough to visit Buenos Aires and the incredible El Ateneo Grand Splendid. This bookshop was built in 2000 inside the Grand Splendid Theatre which itself opened in 1919. The shop retains many parts of the original theatre, including the stage - which is now a cafe - the balconies and boxes and even the red curtains. I have never seen a shop like it, and we lost hours in there.

 Washington National Library - my picture
A few months before that, I was in Washington where I almost broke my neck craning for a better view of the magnificent ceilings in the Library of Congress.The decoration is breath-taking, the library is in the Beaux Art style which means it is theatrical and heavily ornamented. It was the largest library in the world when it opened in 1897, and still is. Its collections number more than 170 million items and that number is constantly growing - about 10,000 items are added to its lists every working day.

The Library of Congress is, however, a long way from being the world's oldest library. That honour falls to the Library of Ashurbanipal, which was founded in Ninevah in modern day Iraq in the seventh century BC. The ancient world also housed the legendary Library of Alexandria which attracted scholars from around the Mediterranean until it was destroyed by fire - either in 48 B.C., 270 A.D or at the end of the fourth century depending on which record you read. The oldest surviving library collection - roughly 1800 scrolls - dates from 79 A.D and was discovered in the Villa of the Papyri when Herculaneum was excavated in the eighteenth century. The scrolls were blackened and carbonized after spending so long entombed in the mud and ash left by the volcanic eruption which buried Herculaneum along with Pompei. Much of the catalogue has yet to be deciphered, but studies have already revealed that the library contains several texts by an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus.

Libraries have always been viewed as an essential part of our world and I, for one, cannot wait to walk into one and breathe that special printed page smell again. We are currently, I think, evaluating many of the things that are important to us, and I hope libraries continue to get the support and funding they, and we, need. In a time of fake news and sometimes too fast news, they have never been more essential to us - libraries provide equality of information and they are the custodians of truth. They are also, many of them, stunning works of art in their own right. I am sure many readers of this blog have their own favourites - Trinity College Library in Dublin is another of mine - but the following pictures are top of my my wish list. As soon as the world opens up again, I'm on my way...

Royal Library, El Escorial, Madrid, Flikr

 George Peabody Library, Baltimore, Wikicommons

1 comment:

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Beautiful libraries, indeed! Thank you for taking us on a virtual tour of these magnificent places, Catherine. The El Ateneo Grand Splendid is stunning - coffee, theatre and books make a perfect combination!

Like you, I am really missing my visits to libraries and bookshops. As you mention, that special printed page smell is always so welcoming. In the meantime, your blog has provided much inspiration and places to dream of.