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Fate of landmark book collection hangs in balance after botched reconstruction failed to address key problems of storage and environmental conditions.
|Library's underground warehouse|
Reconstruction work on Serbia’s National Library, which lasted for four years, finished a year ago at a cost of 4.3 million euro.
But not everyone is impressed with the results – mainly because only part of the library, the area used mostly for users – has actually been renovated.
The rest of the Serbia's largest and oldest national institution remains untouched, looking much as it did 40 years ago, when the building was erected.
Meanwhile more than 6 million books, newspapers, and other publications, tightly packed on some 80 kilometres of shelves in underground storage areas, remain in poor conditions, with no space left for new additions.
There is neither acclimatisation nor equipment to measure and regulate moisture, and the fire-protection system is outdated, posing further dangers to the collection.
Experts says it is unlikely that the state will come up with any more money to finance permanent solutions to the problems, which would involve complete reconstruction of the vault and new underground storage areas as well as new external warehouses.
Because of this, the library has set up its own foundation to raise funds from donors and sponsors.
Their goal is to at least obtain funding for new compact bookshelves, which could double the library's capacity for coming years.
The National library of Serbia receives each year about 20,000 mandatory copies of books from publishers, which then need to be stored in the underground warehouses.
Space runs out:
The National Library was built in 1973, when it was assessed that its underground storage capacity would last for the next 30 or 40 years.
Even then its equipment was not a technical wonder for the time, though it served its purpose.
Problems with insufficient storage space emerged in 2005 when the plan was to solve the problem by writing off some books.
However, in a badly managed procedure, some 15,000 books ended up in a trash container in front of the library, among which were valuable tomes that once belonged to the royal library.
When the authorities then allocated 4.3 million euro to reconstruct the library, expansion of storage capacity was somehow left off the library's must-do list.
Instead, the money went on reconstructing the infrastructure of the reading room, including buying costly chairs and carpets.
Work also lasted four years, instead of the planned nine months. When the reconstruction finished last year, the library was officially reopened, billed as a modern cultural institution.
In the meantime, last year, the library manager, Sreten Ugicic, was sacked.
His offence was to have publicly supported a Montenegrin writer, Andrej Nikolaidis, accused of insulting senior Serbian state officials by claiming that they run hegemonistic politics towards Montenegro.
After historian Dejan Ristic was named acting manager, the fact that had been previously hidden from the public - that only 6,000 square metres (one quarter of the library) had been reconstructed – emerged into the spotlight.
Old books in danger:
Today the space for storing new books is fast running out and the equipment for preserving the existing collection is outdated.
Employees have to improvise to keep moisture and temperature levels acceptable in the storage areas, with no real control over conditions.
Because of this, parameters in the storage areas vary vastly, endangering the collection.
The head of the library’s protection and conservation department, Zeljko Mladicevic, says that only a crude ventilation system is in use in the underground storage.
“But that is not enough,” said Mladicevic. “We need a constant temperature of 16 to 18 degrees celsius, especially for rare books and old manuscripts.”
Olivera Stefanovic, head of the special funds department, said she felt ashamed because of the state of the storage areas.
“Our storage is the worst place in the library,” she said.
She said that the ventilation system in some places pumped grime back into the building, so that the staff had to move some valuable manuscripts, such as those by Vuk Karadzic and Laza Lazarevic, to the middle of the room to prevent damage.
Milisav Vulovic, in charge of security and technical tasks, said the storage area needed to be divided into smaller, fire-protected sectors.
“We’ve received this suggestion from the police,” he noted, adding that the installation of a modern ventilation and acclimatization system was equally urgent.
“However, this would mean moving out all of the books, which would pose huge problems,” Vulovic said.
The most endangered items of national heritage are stored in the vault, which is home to 12,000 books defined as cultural heritage and protected by law and 300 manuscripts.
|The corner in which Miroslav's Gospel is kept|
Atmospheric conditions in this part of the library are regulated solely by the equipment used to preserve the “Miroslavljevo jevandjelje” - Miroslav's Gospel - one of the oldest surviving documents in Old Church Slavonic, listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
The head of the department for old manuscripts, Tatjana Subotin Golubovic, said the conditions on the vault are highly unsatisfactory.
“The equipment that preserves the Miroslavljevo jevandjelje keeps the parameters constant in one corner of the vault but only a single meter away the conditions vary from Sahara desert to tropical jungle, depending on the outside conditions,” she said.
Foundation may help:
The staff mostly agree with the manager that the best solution for the library’s many problems is new compact shelves, as well as obtaining state and other funds for new equipment.
Acting manager Dejan Ristic recalls that the library has established a foundation since June to attract sponsors and donors.
“We’ve already secured two donations, from a commercial bank and the US embassy, from which we will get the equipment to conserve and restore old manuscripts,” Ristic said.
He believes that the library will collect enough money to buy at least a part of the new equipment they need.
“We have around 80 kilometres of bookshelves and one set of compact shelves, about 500 metres long, costs about 25-30,000 euro, and we need about 160 of them,” Ristic explained.
New compact shelves would increase the library’s storage space by about 50 per cent, and buy up to 10 or even 20 years’ extra storage time.
However, Ristic accepts that this is only a temporary solution.
“A possible permanent solution would be to build new external warehouses, but those are expensive, so cannot even consider this idea in the current crisis,” he said.
Former manager Sreten Ugricic denies responsibility for the current woes of the library, although he participated in drafting the reconstruction project.
“Ask the employees why no one insisted that storage became a part of the project; I don’t work there anymore,” Ugricic said.
Employees say one problem was that the reconstruction priorities were wrongly set.
Experts from the library weren’t consulted, according to the head of the department for development of the library system, Vladimir Sekularac.
The decision to focus on reconstructing the users’ area was made without them, he added.
“The board of the library has the jurisdiction over decisions. We can suggest and give advice, but it’s up to them what the priorities are,” Sekularac continued.
Meanwhile, Serbia’s national book heritage seeks a permanent solution.
Asked for worst possible outcome, Tatjana Subotin Golubovic replies succinctly: “If these unique items get destroyed, that's it, that is the end.”
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.
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