Every 1 July, people in Portugal, Brazil and other Portuguese-speaking countries celebrate World Library Day by posting photos of libraries, bookshelves, books, reading, and, of course, permutations of any of these things and cats. World Library Day is a day to show affection for these supposedly unfashionable institutions. It’s also a day that doesn’t exist, although the people who celebrate it don’t know it.
I came across this strange fact by almost making a political mistake that, I’m also almost certain, would have gone unnoticed. Last year I was about to table a resolution at Lisbon’s Town Hall, where I am an opposition councillor for the green-left party LIVRE, on the creation of a European library in the city. I had decided with our LIVRE Lisbon Town Hall team to table the resolution and publicise it on World Library Day, 1 July.
With the date marked on our calendars and the day itself already being celebrated by hundreds of individuals and institutions, including publishing houses, bookshops, municipalities, and universities on both sides of the Atlantic, I decided at the last minute to do a final check. It was only then that I discovered, to my amazement, that there was no official indication whatsoever of there being a World Library Day on 1 July that had been decided by any of the usual international bodies: UNESCO, international librarian’s federations and the like.
As I delved further, I stumbled upon a bulletin of the Portuguese Librarian’s Association where a meticulous librarian – aren’t they all – had puzzled at the same question and realised that World Library Day was a figment of our collective imagination in Portugal, created for no reason and supported by no historical event.
I knew that there was a World Book Day on 23 April. It commemorates Cervantes’, Shakespeare’s and “the Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega’s deaths which all occurred on the same calendar day of 23 April 1616. Though because of a calendar reform, 23 April 1616 in England when Shakespeare died, was ten days before the same date in continental Europe, upon which Cervantes and “the Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega died. But nope, no World Library Day.
A longer search on Twitter – a former social network that still existed last year – helped me crack the enigma of the World Library Day that didn’t exist. In the first years of that social network, there was no mention of World Library Day in either Portuguese or any other language. Then, in 2009, one small library on one island in the mid-Atlantic archipelago of the Azores – the Ribeira Grande Library from the island of São Miguel – organised an event for World Library Day. There were even some local newspaper articles and radio station segments about the initiative. That seems to have planted the seed. In the next few years, there were scarce mentions of World Library Day, but after 2011 things started to escalate: more people began to celebrate the day by posting on social media. Then institutions decided to do the same, not only in the Azores but increasingly in mainland Portugal. From there, World Library Day spread to other Portuguese-speaking countries, and even regions with linguistic and geographic affinities with Portugal, such as Spain’s Galicia.
World Library Day was never a mass celebration, but a few hundred or even a thousand posts were enough to convince people like me that it existed – I regretted having checked as soon as I found out that it was an endearing piece of fake news.
For good and bad, as we keep seeing in this column, politics needs memory and imagination. When memory and imagination are absent from public discourse, communities will anyhow conjure up memories and then remember what they’ve imagined. World Library Day spoke to the people who inadvertently invented it by commemorating a world of knowledge and caring, a world with time to read and cats to keep you company and distract you. The kind of time they would like to have more of.
The affection shown by the public towards this innocent social network creation is a sign of a real longing for something that we used to have. It proves not just that we need a World Library Day but that we need more libraries.
As sociologist Eric Klinenberg reminds us in his eponymous book, libraries are “palaces for the people”. Prime examples of civic infrastructure, like parks, museums, children’s playgrounds, concert halls, public gardens, swimming pools, and so on, this kind of infrastructure makes communities more inclusive and creates a better life for future generations. Because, as Klinenberg emphasises, it is not only common identities and narratives that bring us together but brick-and-mortar buildings. “Palaces for the people” are not simply built for pre-existing political communities, they create the people for which they are built.
At the same time, “palaces for the people” is an expression coined by the famous Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. At the turn of the century, Carnegie established more than 2500 libraries in the USA and around the world. If his was a top-down project to build libraries as “palaces for the people”, perhaps today we can create “places by the people” that instead are participatory by design?
In Europe, where talk of the “European project” and “European values” is particularly abstract and removed from everyday life, we would do well to have concrete and practical examples of what Europe can do for people – buildings you can enter, with objects that you can use, that bring the desirable future that Europe should be about to the present.
Talking about a common European house when there’s no real house to be talked about (and when a huge housing crisis is affecting a great number of young people in Europe) is meaningless. If Europe is about something, it should be about building stuff – not just imaginary bridges and windows on euro banknotes.
By the way, we tabled the resolution on the Lisbon European Library after all. It was unanimously approved just last week.
(Article published in the Green European Journal, 3 August 2023)