ATHENS – The National Library of Greece is making a bet on its future. From the historic neoclassical building in the centre of Athens, one of an iconic ‘triplet’ of imposing public buildings erected by Theophil von Hansen and Ernst Ziller in the 19th century, the library is methodically preparing for a historic move and its transition into a new era, housed in the airy yet monumental building erected by architect Renzo Piano for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC).
Paradoxically, after languishing unheeded for many years as its needs grew ever greater, the donation of the SNFCC to the Greek state means that the National Library is experiencing this great historic moment in the midst of Greece’s crisis. In its new 22,000-square metre premises, it will provide the Greek public with access to a wealth of Greek knowledge and literature, either directly or in digital form, or through temporary exhibitions.
At the building on Panepistimiou Street, feverish preparations are underway ahead of the move. The reading room has been temporarily closed to the public and every corner is a hive of activity, with library employees and external staff, conservators in white coats and plastic gloves preparing the collections to be transferred, once the SNFCC is officially turned over to the Greek State on February 23.
The move is expected to last up to six months and the library will then operate on a trial basis for about two months before an official inauguration in the autumn. The old building on Panepistimiou Street is destined to reopen as a reading room and as a conference and exhibition space in the city centre.
Preparing for the move
Talking about the preparations underway, National Library director Dr. Philippos Tsimboglou told the ANA that the library’s entire collection of books and periodicals, estimated at 760,000 volumes and other items, is to be moved.
“The order in which they are transferred will be determined by a series of factors, including weather conditions, humidity conditions, the progress of work in the two buildings and others,” he said.
The massive project of cleaning the collections has now been completed, and external crews have in recent months been working on fitting Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems on the collection. The work involves sticking labels on each volume and scanning 400,000 covers to create a complete electronic catalogue for the library.
The books, periodicals and newspapers, each item individually accounted for, will then be ready to be packed in boxes for the transfer to the new building.
According to Christina Tsaroucha, in charge of the National Library’s conservation workshop, this process is also an opportunity for conservators to examine the condition of the items in the collections.
She explained that special materials were chosen to affix the RFID, which do not damage the paper, since the labels needed to be stuck on “exceptional papers, decorated, using handmade marble glues, in historic bindings. For some of the more damaged or fragile volumes, where the paper could not come into direct contact with the label, these were first enclosed in transparent bags with the label inserted inside.
In cases where the bindings have started to come apart, the books are held together using white cotton tape. “We do not do restoration here, except ‘rescue operations’ on items where there is urgent need, such as when they are to take part in some exhibition. Restoration will begin in the very well equipped laboratory in the new building,” she said.
“In our sector, the equipment is very expensive so the new building is an opportunity for us to organise an ultra-modern lab to high standards, with new machinery,” she added. She noted that extra staff recently taken on by the Library – though far short of the 286 needed to run it at full efficiency – would increase the number of conservators working at the library to nine.
The National Library’s collection includes a number of original editions from the earliest days of the printing press, such as the 1476 book “Epitome of the Eight Parts of Speech and Other Sundry Necessities” by Constantinos Laskaris printed in Milan or a first edition of the Homeric epics printed in Florence in 1488 and others. There is also a large collection of hand-written codices, rare maps, engravings and other items either purchased, donated or presented under the depot legal, a law requiring that two copies of each Greek edition be given to the National Library dating back to its foundation in 1834.
Set apart in the preparation process were the books and publications that are exceptionally old or have rare historic or artistic value. They were added to the already existing special, closed collection of the National Library’s valuable items, including some 10,255 rare print publications, put together by Yiannis Kokkonas, a professor at the Ionian University’s Archives, Library Science and Museology Department.
On books and the love of reading
The real treasures of the National Library are not hidden only on its bookshelves but also within its Archives Service, which is being scientifically organised for the first time by historians Dimitra Samiou and Dimitra Vasiliadou. The library archive dates back to its foundation in 1834 and includes more than 40,000 items that are being constantly added to: loose documents and ledgers, correspondence with readers and state services, donation documents, requests by impoverished readers and students. Among those signing these documents are Emmanouil Roidis, Nikolaos Politis, Tellos Agra and other major Greek authors that served on the library’s staff.
“Once it is all fully classified, everyone will have access. The aim is to digitise and post it on the internet,” Samiou told ANA, noting that this will be a valuable resource for the history of the National Library but also for the