The Vatican Library recently announced that it would be closing for repairs, and that it will not reopen until September 2010. Read the BBC News article for more detailed information.
The announcement has caused some outrage in the academic community, because the Vatican Library is one of the foremost research institutions in the world, holding rare materials that cannot be accessed anywhere else. Professors and scholars from around the world plan their sabbaticals and submit grants specifically to be able to work there. The BBC News article does a good job showing what a loss this resource is to scholars, but neglects a few points.
The first is that while many people are upset that the library is closing at all, I think the main cause for anger has been the short notice the Vatican gave – the announcement came out just a few months before the library will be closed for 3 years. That’s not a lot of time to reorganize research and publication plans or to reschedule planned research trips, especially for scholars who hoped to use sabbatical time for research travel.
There have also been a lot of complaints that the library should have to close at all; the BBC article even mentions that it stayed open during both world wars. But here’s the thing: I don’t know anything about the layout of the Vatican Library, so I don’t know whether it would be feasible for them to maintain some services during the renovations; if so, then they should do so. But from what I have heard and read, it’s not as though they are closing on a whim, or for cosmetic changes to the building; the repairs are very much needed – the floors are actually starting to sag under the weight of all the books. Personally, I would rather have the library close for 3 years to make the needed repairs than have the place collapse and damage or destroy all of those rare materials.
While the Vatican Library closing is a significant blow to scholars, and could probably have been handled better on the part of the Vatican, it should also be pointed out that its closing is not due to budget cuts, but instead to make the building safer so that the collection can survive another 550 years. This is not the case for many libraries all over the world.
Even the British Library is facing proposed budget cuts, apparently brought on by budgeting for the 2012 London Olympics. While they are not threatening to close the library completely, they are considering reduced hours, decreasing the materials and digitization budgets, and even charging patrons for use of the reading room.
But the real tragedy is happening every day here at home, where public libraries all over the country are losing funding and being forced to close or alter their services in order to continue to receive funding. The most famous case recently was the closing of the public libraries in Salinas, California, home of John Steinbeck, but libraries in New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee and Oregon have all been closed or threatened with closure recently due to lack of budget support. The public library in Rochester, New York was forced to accept restrictions to their Web services or else have the service cut entirely because the County Executive threatened to pull their funding if they did not comply. Other libraries voluntarily alter their services, making sure they are “pc” and non-offensive lest they create controversy and thereby generate lack of support for their funding.
I call this the real tragedy because while institutions like the Vatican Library and the British Library are significant, and access to their collections should not be restricted more than necessary to safeguard the materials, public libraries are (or should be) right there in your town, hopefully in your neighborhood. Everyone can (and should!) use their public library, and they can have such an impact on getting kids interested in reading and learning and should hopefully help sustain those interests throughout life.
But even within public library funding, there is a pecking order, as suggested in Jennie’s piece here, Fire raises questions about library equality. I can understand that some libraries will generate more support than others, whether it’s because of historical or celebrity connotations or just because they have a louder group of supporters, and it makes sense that institutions such as the Vatican and British Libraries would generate an international outcry since their collections are significant on an international level. But I wish that our support for libraries went beyond the ones that affect us personally, and that there was some way to ensure that all libraries everywhere could have the financial support they need to provide innovative, useful and needed services to their communities without having to worry that funding will be cut or services eliminated if they don’t adhere to the whims of the folks controlling the purse strings.
-posted by akdmyers