With so much of life in Italy blighted by news of economic depression and under the shadow of endless governmental crises, it was good to be part of an event in my adopted home town of Cesena in Emilia-Romagna that gave cause for optimism and pride.
After many decades of careful planning and patient work, the new central library – La Biblioteca Malatestiana – was finally opened yesterday.
Within the same complex, a 15th century humanist library has been listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register and justifiably celebrated. Now the needs of 21st century scholars are addressed with the beautifully restored and redesigned building.
This incorporates space which was once a secondary school. Elegant conference facilities, study rooms and computer areas acknowledge the fact that modern-day libraries need to embrace the technological challenge to the printed word.
In a throwback to the past, however, the cutting of the ribbon was only done after a prayer by a local priest (“Bless this house and all who surf in her!”). If culture and knowledge had truly progressed as it should have, this tradition would have faded out long ago. It is, after all, only humans, not supernatural beings, who will make this world a better place. Public libraries are not places of worship but centres of learning and the intervention of religion is as anachronistic as the custom in Romagna for letting a chicken loose in the rooms of a new home to ward off evil spirits.
That said, it cannot be denied that the investment in the new Malatestiana represents a huge leap of faith. On the top floor of the new library is a large, elegant study space which will soon be filled with students plugging their laptops into the power points provided at each work station. This plethora of small screens will give instant access to a library vaster than any single physical building could ever contain.
The newly completed renovations are based on the belief that hard copies of books will endure despite the digital challenge posed by the world-wide web. It is a bold assertion that these objects in their physical, non virtual form remain fundamental to literacy and learning.
Arguing that libraries still serve an important function in the modern world is to endorse the principle that scrolling is never the same as turning a page and that information not the same as knowledge.
To open a single book is to enter a silent dialogue between author and reader. The clamour of alternative viewpoints is harder to ignore when reading online because we all know that this babble of competing voices is only a click away. Like having a private conversation in a crowded room, it can only be done if both parties are able to block out the numerous distractions.
It is possible that future generations may come to look upon buildings like the Biblioteca Malatestiana as symbols of a past age. It remains to be seen whether libraries like this will become museums of information or theatres of enlightened learning.