January 31, 2013

Libraries in Romania: an update


The National Library of Romania, brought to you by Samsung.

It has taken more than 25 years but, at long last, the new building for the National Library of Romania has opened its doors. Hermina Anghelescu and Leonard Kniffel look into the history of the project and the current state of the library in an article for American Libraries this week, and what’s perhaps most surprising about the building from an American perspective is the fact there’s a huge Samsung sign hanging on the front of it—due to a two-year €300,000 financial agreement between Samsung and the Romanian Ministry of Culture, under whose aegis the library operates.

The building was begun in 1986 under the country’s last Communist leader,  Nicolae Ceauşescu, but construction stalled after his overthrow in 1989 and wasn’t resumed until 2009. The task of bringing the library back into operation is a massive one, and whether it’s achievable seems still very much up in the air:

Leading a tour through the facility for American Libraries in late September, Nicoleta Rahme, head of collection development, said the library staff of 240 is wholly inadequate and ill-prepared for the responsibilities they have inherited, including retrospective conversion of the library card catalog. Of the 13 million items in the library, only some 2.5 million are available through the electronic catalog and only 1 million readily accessible on site. For the rest of the collection, the paper card catalog still serves. She indicated that only one full-time staff member is dedicated to the digitization of library materials. With a mission to serve the Romanian nation, one can only wonder how this goal can be fulfilled, Rahme said. Currently the library does not offer remote access to any of its collections.

Rahme admitted that the library has no strategic plan, and she was unsure how the end of the Samsung contract would affect funding for the library and its staff.

Vodafone Romania experimented last year with a digital library in a Bucharest subway station — the station walls were covered with posters of book-stuffed shelves (see photos here) and the books had QR codes that smartphone owners could scan to get samples. To actually read the whole book, however, users were directed to the website of Humanitas bookstore, where they could purchase the book — making “library” a rather loose term here.

And there are real reasons for concern in another area of the nation’s literary sphere: though Romania was chosen to be the focus of this year’s Salon du Livre, the Romanian Cultural Institute, as newly constituted after the emergency decree in June 2012 by Prime Minister Victor Ponta that moved control of the Institute from the president to the Senate — a move that many have seen as purely political and intended to further more conservative, nationalist attitudes than the old Institute was promoting — has cut their translation subsidies budget deeply and hasn’t yet committed to co-funding the Salon du Livre exhibit, without which the exhibit won’t go through. This may be a reflection of economic belt-tightening, though in fact Romania has been doing better in past years than other EU countries. But it’s still a disturbing turn of events for foreign readers interested in Romanian literature, and doesn’t seem to demonstrate a sense of commitment to literature and literary exchange that institutions like the National Library and the RCI’s translation programs depend on.




Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.