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Gems among cluttered shelves

The reference library contains the most precious books and has plenty of seating space and natural light

The glory days of the public library may be over, but the one in Nicosia still has a lot to offer

 

Public libraries were an early and obvious victim of the era of Kindles, websites selling cheap books and the free information endlessly supplied on the internet.

Nicosia public library, established by a British governor, Ronald Storrs, in 1927, is no exception. The general perception is that the library is a poky little place that has little to offer an increasingly tech-savvy public.

The main Nicosia library is cramped and overcrowded (Christos Theodorides)
The main Nicosia library is cramped and overcrowded (Christos Theodorides)

At first glance, the general view seems correct. The library is in a good spot, right next to the municipality and the post office on top of the city walls, but apart from that first impressions are not favourable. The library is overcrowded, with old shelves and no spaces to sit down and browse a book. Modern technology is largely absent, so it seems particularly absurd that this packed library includes among its collection obsolete computing manuals dating all the way back to 2000.

The centre space of the one-storey building is a kids’ room which has little to attract children – no bright colours, toys or computers. Despite the laudable effort to interest children in books by inviting school classes one can hardly imagine that the bookshelves and the shabby surroundings can hold the interest of a young audience used to modern entertainment.

The children's section of the library
The children’s section of the library

There are two other sections, one with books which people can check out, and one with periodicals. Apart from the children’s section the library’s collection is mostly books about Cyprus, and this is where it gets interesting. The Nicosia library is the state’s attempt to gather and protect as much material about Cyprus as possible.

The really precious publications are kept in the reference library which is housed further inside the old city on Phaneromeni Street. The reference library, with its air of faded grandeur, is more appealing than the lending library. It is housed on the first floor of an old building with an impressive staircase leading into a high room with natural light, wooden bookshelves and locked bookcases. Old, yes, but not cramped, with space to sit and read and even a couple of computers.

The collection is eclectic to say the least. All books published in the Republic of Cyprus are kept here, the good and the bad. A Mills and Boon style romance written in German is among the collection simply because it was published in Cyprus.

The lending library is situated on the city walls
The lending library is situated on the city walls

The very old books are locked up and when they are taken out of the bookcases, the librarians make sure they are not damaged. This is necessary, as the collection dates back to 1647, when Malta Illiustrata was published.

These very old books, such as Goldsmith’s History of England published in 1805, are often in English. Whilst they were obviously not printed in Cyprus or about it, they are an integral part of the library’s history.

Founded by Storrs, the collection still offers, as described by Tabitha Morgan in her book Sweet and Bitter Island on the history of the British in Cyprus, “a highly selective colonial reading of the island’s past”.

At the time, Storrs launched an appeal to his friends for donations, and the results were often contributions reflecting what the British thought would be suitable reading material for Cypriots such as a collection of Byron’s poems from 1824 or an 1894 translation into Greek of ‘Character’ by Samuel Smiles.

The precious old books are kept in glass cabinets
The precious old books are kept in glass cabinets

There are many other later examples of the influence of the British, such as a yearly report by a British official from 1952 where the successful export of raisins to the UK is described as well as the need for more fireplaces in Cyprus hotels to expand winter tourism. The official also voices concerns over disagreements between Cypriot immigrants in the UK and the locals because Cypriots worked too hard, disturbing the sleep of the British when they laboured late at night and in the early morning hours.

Another gem is the digital library.

This, the website promises, “is an important research tool that ensures open access to information materials, covering a wide range of topics”.

The digital rare book collection is not huge but it is fascinating. In the geography section, for example, one book is titled Leprosy in Cyprus – published in 1890. Also included is sheet music of the opera La Reine de Chypre by Halevy and what is titled A list of Names in Armenian from 1896.

Part of the digital library are the ‘Blue Books’ with their statistics and financial information for Cyprus from 1886 to 1946 and the Cyprus Today magazine which covers cultural and social activities from 1963. Was there a wine festival that year and what was it like? The way to find out is to look it up in this magazine. There is also a selection of articles and a description of artefacts from the first World War and more.

The reference library in the centre of Nicosia's old city is housed in a grand old building
The reference library in the centre of Nicosia’s old city is housed in a grand old building

While all this is fascinating, it is hard to say the same of the obsolete computer manuals clogging up precious shelf space in the library on the city walls. Acting library director Dimitris Nicolaou accepts the point, but blames bureaucracy.

The librarians cannot just throw or give old books away, forms have to be filled in and signed, and things take time and are a lot of work. There are just 11 employees working in four libraries. Apart from the two already mentioned there is also a research library in Strovolos and a closed stack library.

According to Morgan’s book the library was in continuous demand when it was first opened. Nicolaou said there was still an interest in borrowing particularly since economic crisis started. On average, he said, 30 people borrow books daily and 50 visit for research.

Which leads to the question of the future. “Of course we have made plans to move, and are doing so again at the moment,” Nicolaou said. “We are about to submit our plans for an architectural competition.”

He is realistic. In the past, there were plans for a ten-storey building but he knows that this will not happen and has settled for four and is confident the building will cover the needs for a growing collection for the next 30 years. And it will be more colourful, include more technology, and a cafeteria where visitors can relax.

Plans to move the library have been around for at least 21 years. In 1995 the government purchased the SPEL building opposite the Famagusta Gate for the purpose but eventually decided to turn it into a gallery.

In 2000 the plan was to move the collections to the Filoxenia Hotel but in 2003 the decision was made to turn it into a hotel institute. The latest plan is that the library is going to use land next to the finance ministry. The land is available, the plans are ready, and hopefully there will be enough money to go ahead and finally give the treasures of the library a suitable place for their display and protection.

 

The Cyprus library

Governor Ronald Storrs established the library in 1927
Governor Ronald Storrs established the library in 1927

The Cyprus library dates back to 1927 with the establishment of the Cyprus Public Library on the initiative of the British governor, Sir Ronald Storrs. It operated under municipal control until 1954. Under the Cyprus Public Library Law of 1968 the library came under the control of the education ministry and its collections were merged with those of the ministry’s library and were moved to the Greek Saving Bank building in Makarios Avenue. In 1974 the library was relocated back to its original premises on the D’Avila Bastion of the Venetian walls of Nicosia. The Cyprus library was established by law in 1987.

Currently the library holds 165,000 books and 2,187 periodicals of which 125 are subscriptions.

Residents interested in joining the lending library need to bring their personal ID card for registration. Users can check out three books for up to 21 days and can renew and reserve books.

For more info see http://www.cypruslibrary.gov.cy/ or call 22-303180

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