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Seen here braving a winter storm in the Baltic state of Latvia, the country’s new National Library in the capital, Riga, is a futuristic temple to the printed book that almost looks like it belongs in a Star Wars film. Inside it is not only warm, it is also home to a striking architectural feature. Stretching away to the heavens like a book version of the tower of Babel, is the Peoples Bookshelf, surely is one of the bibliographic wonders of the world.
Designed by the renowned Latvian-born architect Gunnar Bickers – who created the whole building as a ‘Castle of Light’, taking its inspiration from a Latvian folk tale – the People’s Bookshelf is the focal point of the library. Through the clever use of mirrors, the books keep repeating to the ceiling, rather like the famous ‘infinite library’ of the South American magic realists, Jean Louis Borges.
But what makes this innovative centrepiece truly special is what it represents – namely a physical record of how much books mean to people. Each of the more than 5,000 books has been donated by a member of the public who have written inside what that title menas to them. It is an inspiring, on-going initiative that began in 2014 when Riga became European City of Culture.
“We wanted to do something special, so we invited people to choose one book that meant something to them and to write inside just why it was important to them,” explains the library’s Head of Communications, Anna Muhka. “We invited people to donate these books to the library and the response was amazing. This new National Library replaced the old one on the other side of the river. We had the idea of forming a human book chain, from one library to the other. All the donated books were brought to the old library and then we had this chain of people lined up on the bridge, passing the books from person to person.
“It was really something special. The day when we did the transfer was very cold – minus 15 – but 30,000 people came along! We had whole families there. And people were all talking about the books, about why they had chosen their particular titles.”
The first book donated was a Bible and over the months the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament has donated a title, as has the Prime Minister of Japan. The Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons is due to donate a title this spring. The titles on the shelves are in some 30 languages and one of the most donated titles is various Latvian editions of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.
The library sees 1,000 visitors every day and double that figure at weekends. Its mission statement is ‘to build and maintain a repository of national and world literature, to ensure long term and free access to it for all Latvian citizens, and to promote its creative utilisation’. There are more than 4m items in the collection all-told, including maps, political pamphlets, theatre programmes and miscellaneous printed material relating to Latvia and the history of its people.
There are maple floors and beech desks and even a quiet, meditation room. But what visitors most remember is that tower of titles – a visual manifestation of people’s love for the printed book.