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Need for new library intensifies

As the building debate draws on, storage space for new books runs out

Posted: May 28, 2008

By Kimberly Hiss

It’s a cramped ride in a hot elevator that doesn’t meet safety regulations to the third floor of the National Library. When the building, called the Klementinum, was used as a Jesuit college in the 16th through 18th centuries, this level was a dormitory for monks. Now the dim, labyrinthine quarters serve as storage for approximately 3 million books and other documents that make up half of the library’s collection (the other half is stored at the offsite Hostivař facility).

In a building that was constructed as a chapel in the 11th century, converted to a Dominican monastery in the 1200s, became a college in the 1500s and was founded as a library in 1781, such retrofits are common. What was once a grand, formal dining hall, for example, is now a study room.

While such a past adds to the library’s rich heritage, it also impedes its functionality as a modern storage and research facility (the windows of the study room can’t be opened to improve light and circulation for fear of damaging frescoes).

In 2007, many of these problems looked to be solved when the design for a new facility, developed by the UK-based Czech architect Jan Kaplický, won the National Library’s competition. But opposition to the unorthodox, bloblike proposal dubbed the “octopus” and planned to be built in Letná Park, mounted almost immediately. Now, 14 months later, the debate — fueled by criticisms from the public and government officials alike who are concerned the design would clash with the city’s historic character — still seems nowhere near resolution.

Meanwhile, the problems that necessitated a new library in the first place intensify. Of most concern is the fact that the library’s collection — increasing at a rate of 100,000 books and documents each year — is running out of room.

“Especially after 2012, the crisis will develop very quickly,” said Director Vlastimil Ježek. “If we don’t open a new facility by 2015, the operation of the National Library will collapse.”

The library is required by law to store two copies of every document ever published in the Czech Republic, everything from books and maps to pornography and supermarket leaflets.

Storage space aside, there are other concerns. While temperature and humidity conditions are suitable for the books, research conditions for the visitors are not. When a patron in the first-floor study room requests a title, for example, it can take at least two hours for the volume to be retrieved by librarians pushing wooden carts down dark, narrow aisles. If the requested book is stored in Hostivař, that turnaround time increases to one day, during which time the volume could suffer damage in transit.

Sitting in an office with a blob library design poster on its door, holding a notebook with a blob sticker and wearing a blob T-shirt, library spokeswoman Kateřina Nováková explained that Kaplický’s design won the competition based on its success in addressing these logistical issues (rather than its outward appearance). Instead of being retrofitted, the building was actually designed as a library, and developed with the input of Klementinum staff.

With five stories totaling 35,000 square meters (376,737 square feet), the new facility would include storage for 10 million volumes. All books would be stored onsite in a temperature-controlled setting and be handled by a robotic retrieval system that could deliver a volume to a patron in four minutes.

“There’s no reason for the building not to be built,” she said.

For his part, Ježek calls Kaplický’s problem-solving interior design “just ingenious.”

Tired debate

Meanwhile, the concerned parties are weary of the controversy. When asked to discuss the troubling timetable for the new library’s construction, Kaplický’s London firm, Future Systems, politely responded that the architect would not comment on the library, and suggested contacting the office later, “when the situation was resolved.”

In response to requests for comment from Prague Mayor Pavel Bém — including questions regarding talk in real estate circles that the library’s approval is being held up as a result of hotel developer interest in the site — a City Hall spokeswoman said that Bém “has responded to such questions many times in the media and at this point feels he has nothing to add.”

Ježek, however, has no choice but to remain optimistic.

“I won’t lose hope. We urgently need the new space,” he said. “It is a modern library building that has moved the hearts of many librarians all over the world.”

— Hela Balínová contributed to this report.

By Kimberly Hiss

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