Europe has no shortage of libraries and yet there is no European Library. How can that be?
An internet search reveals that until 2016 there was an inter-library service called The European Library, which was then merged into what we now call Europeana. Created in 2009 by a European Commission amazed by the potential of Google Books, Europeana is a long way from fulfilling that promise. It’s not a European library but rather an online repository of digital specimens from European national libraries.
In higher education institutions, in departments of European studies, and in Florence at the European University Institute, there are good and sometimes excellent research collections that can be described as “European”, but they are not public libraries open to ordinary citizens in the middle of the bustling streets of our capitals – precisely what a European Library could aim to be.
But wait a minute – couldn’t we say that any large library in Europe is a European library? In a sense, yes. The British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France are extraordinary libraries and they are in Europe. But they are, like many of the continent’s most important libraries, national libraries, which give themselves universal missions in the name of knowledge, or also because of their countries’ imperial pasts.
Many national libraries were founded in the 19th century, precisely when today’s nation states were consolidating. They were created as part of explicitly national projects. They proved successful precisely because libraries are inclusive instruments for creating identity and civic spirit – Palaces for the People, as we saw in the previous column – that collected all the information available on the most advanced media at the time for the formation of citizenship and national elites. But these are not European Libraries as we might have invented them in the 20th century.
What makes a European Library then? First, it should be a real building, several buildings in fact, at least one for each EU member state and, in time, perhaps even more. Online repositories are useful and practical, but they are distant and immaterial things.
The “European idea” is already too abstract. For it to become tangible, it must be made of brick and mortar, a house you can enter and where the European Union (and other entities that want to join it by international treaty, such as candidate states) says “Come in, this is your house.” For identities need concrete realities on which to be based.
A European Library needs to be more than what libraries were in the past; today, no good contemporary library is. In addition to a considerable collection of books and translations in at least all the EU languages, the legal deposit of all the publications of the European institutions, the collection of works directly or indirectly financed by EU money, a European Library should provide access to all kinds of digital collections, subscriptions to European and global academic presses and journals, sound, image and video broadcasting services – a wealth of culture, knowledge and science in the most diverse formats and media.
What’s more, a European Library should be a meeting place. It should have studios and study rooms where working groups can hold meetings, record a podcast, or prepare for an event. Exhibition halls with temporary and travelling exhibitions; auditoriums with dedicated programming spanning across several countries at the same time. It could have a press room to host debates on current affairs in Europe, its countries and humanity as a whole. It could have an Erasmus Club where exchange students could meet. It could have an information centre for scientists applying for European funding projects and spaces for knowledge transfer. It could house the delegations (which already exist) of the institutions, enabling economies of scale. It would, of course, rely on local imagination and ingenuity. In Aarhus, the local library has a gong that plays a pleasant sound every time a baby is born in the city’s maternity hospital and its parents want to announce it to the world. Who knows what each collective of architects and programmers, from Lisbon to Vilnius, could come up with?
The US Library of Congress was once just a small collection of a few hundred books in a forgotten room. Sometime in the 19th century, it was even consumed by a fire. Only gradually was it imbued with the project of becoming one of the largest libraries in the world. In the USA, the tradition was born that each former president could promote the founding of a “Presidential Library” as a civic and community symbol of presidential federalism (Obama is creating his on the South Side of Chicago). A European Library would be an analogous example, but more collective and inclusive. Perhaps shaking out to be the second phase of the New European Bauhaus project launched by President von der Leyen, the European Libraries in each member state would be a place of memory and imagination of the history and future of this continent, making much-discussed “European Project” tangible.
The European Union, as we all know and complain about, has concentrated on what is often more complex and remote: food safety rules, phytosanitary procedures, customs duties, directives and regulations, and so on. Most of these things have a very real impact on our daily lives. But by the time they do, they have been rendered invisible. In its effort to depoliticise decisions in the name of technocracy, Europe won many small battles but is in danger of losing the biggest one, the hearts of its citizens.
On the other hand, relatively minor realities (from a budgetary point of view) such as the Erasmus Programme act as great forges of European identity in the lives of younger generations. Like the inter-rail programme, these experiences are immersive, transforming the lives of the people who do them and opening up new horizons about their personal history while allowing them to understand – without imposing a standardised version – our collective history.
But Erasmus and Interrail are decades old. They are also experiences that only occur at a certain point in life and that are not accessible to all Europeans. What if we had a new idea, which became a recognisable landmark, with its own architectural language, present every day in the landscape of your city?
The European Library could be that idea for the 21st century.
(Article published in the Green European Journal, 31 August 2023)