A huge thank you to my wonderful aunt Maria Liakou who arranged for me to visit with Mrs Antonia Arohova at the National Library of Greece, Mrs Antonia Arohova for her warm welcome and talking with us about the library and to my fabulous cousin Vaia Rodi-Theologitou who loves walking to the new site every day and for sharing her walk and her enthusiasm for the new library with me.
As one belonging to the Readerly Tribe, there is a certain awe that I feel every time that I set foot in Greece. My skin tingles at the thought that I am walking on the streets where Homer was first committed to the written word. A time where writing and alphabets were a new fangled technology and Old Skoolers tsked tsked at early adapters, bemoaning the loss of memory skills. I love walking past theatres where Euripides and Aristophanes were new releases, where publishing formed its roots, storytelling found its scribes and Western literary canon was born. I love that librarianship was born in Greece, with texts copied and stored and libraries being a reflection of the culture and the products of thought that a great city bore. Despite these feelings I had connecting me to the birth of Western literary tradition, I had never visited the National Library of Greece.
So, here I am in Greece, my fifth visit since 1985, and I have finally managed to visit the National Library of Greece. It is shameful really that I had never made the time previously to visit but I have never had a love for Athens and I usually try to bypass her completely or at least only stay for a day or two. This time, my son and I stayed in Athens for six days. We visited with family members and played the tourist while we overcame the worst jetlag I have experienced (being in transit for 30 odd hours can do that to you). While I stayed with my mum’s cousin, she suggested I visit the National Library of Greece as a former colleague of hers worked there. My Theia Maria made the arrangements and on only our second day in Athens we (my aunt, my son and I) found ourselves at the library.
The National Library is a classical Greek building in the centre of Athens. It was established in 1832, only 11 years after the Independence of Greece and houses thousands of manuscripts and books from the 9th century onwards. On approach, the library requires you to look up to the building. Physically my head rises upwards at the grand structure, climbing up the library’s bright marble staircase to the entrance. I was thrilled to feel that beautiful hush, that silence that a great library needs to engender in its visitors. I love the silence of thought that a library can imbue in one. That sense, that one can be alone with their thoughts to allow them to form in your mind with no interruptions to jolt you from ideas. Outside, Athens bustling streets were redolent with the sounds of traffic yet only metres away we had found silence, the library’s thick marble structure deflecting the noise away from its inner spaces.
In the foyer, I spoke with the warm and friendly librarian Gregory Christostomidis who gave me a history of the building as well as the various collections housed in the National Library. Like many public buildings, photographs beyond the foyer were not permitted. I loved the old card catalogue at the entrance of the building, the heavy wooden doors and the glimpse into the colonaded reading room. Though grand from the outside, the library itself felt warm and cosy on the inside. We then made our way through the reading room to visit with the manuscript department. The reading room was just like all the grand reading rooms around the world, shelves of books, tiered walkways cordoned off from borrowers and readers, accessible to only librarians and special visitors. I was familiar with photographs of the room and somehow expected it to be huge but it felt smaller despite its towering columns and high ceiling. It is a grand room but the low hanging lights and rows of desks give it a sense of intimacy.
We walked through a wrought iron door and were led up a back stairway. At the top of the stairway were stacks with manuscripts peaking past their material casings. Here we met with Mrs Antonia Arahova the Head of the Manuscripts department and the former General Director of the National Library and Eliza Tziamali who also works in the Manuscripts department. We discussed librarianship, lending libraries, future libraries and all things libraries particularly my own favourite areas of legal deposit requirements and romance fiction. A lot of fiction is translated into Greek and all the translators works are received and catalogued into the National Bibliographic catalogue. I was pleased to hear that Harlequin translations are afforded the same level of cataloguing as other translated authors (though when I searched the catalogue I was unable to find authors I know have had their books translated into Greek – perhaps my search strategy using English characters on a Greek language catalogue caused this). We also talked about IFLA and Greek librarians both in Greece and in Australia. We then discussed their current inventory of stock which is enhancing the manuscript catalogue records and the discussion surrounding the new National Library of Greece and the suggestion for the manuscripts to remain in their current historic building thus preserving the current building’s purpose as a library. We talked about the new National Library of Greece being built by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Though the current building is lovely, current collections and public and national library expectations have outgrown its current structure (but more on that later). My visit came to an end with an exchange of emails and twitter handles and I am pleased to say I have already been in contact with Eliza Tziamali. As this was my first every behind the scenes visit to a national library, I have to say that I was thrilled. It was a fabulous experience, a friendly warm welcome which is typical of Greek hospitality and one that I will always treasure.
The next day, my cousin Vaia and I, accompanied by a couple of my nieces and my son, went for a walk through Kallithea where Vaia lives. Only a few blocks from my cousin’s home is the construction site for the new National Library of Greece which will be in the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Centre. The SNCC will house the National Library of Greece, including a research library, a lending library and children’s library, as well as The Greek National Opera and The Stavros Niarchos Park. There will be a modern agora at the centre of all these public spaces. From the top of the centre a visitor will be able to see Piraeus at one end and the Acropolis from the other. The design is by Renzo Piano and I feel like it is an understatement to call the centre impressive.
Athens has never enamoured herself to me. I have always found her hot, smelly, dirty and unappealing. I have wept for her just as Maria Farandouri does in Persephone’s Nightmare. However, this year’s visit has been different. She is dirtier, burnt out buildings from years of rioting, graffiti strewn walls on heritage buildings shouting her citizens’ pain. But among all this there are flowers hanging off every balcony, there is a certain order emerging from the driving chaos of Athenian streets, with avenues and avenues of three to seven storey apartments and their multicoloured awnings, local squares still filled with people who enjoy life and enjoy meeting up with friends for to quote my cousin “We are all struggling so we meet up and struggle together”.
There is a buzz in this city, not that arrogant swagger I used to hate, it is somewhat subdued, somewhat hopeful. A knowing sense of nationhood that they will overcome their current difficulties. And I see the cultural centre is an emergence of this hopefulness, it is the glimpse of pennyroyals, wild mint and cyclamens. A great city is measured by its public spaces and its libraries and cultural institutions. Athens has always had great public spaces that still inspire great thoughts, the Acropolis and its agora vibrate with energy from both its visitors and its citizens. Finally Athens, with her new National Library will be getting her own modern secular cathedral and joining other great modern 21st century libraries. One that will continue to inspire thought and imagination and readerly tribes and public engagement.
I am enamoured by the Athens of the future.