The National Library of Latvia rears up like a ziggurat on the western bank of the River Daugava as it hastens through Riga towards the Baltic Sea. The building was devised in the decade and a half following the collapse of the Soviet Union, out of the ruins of which the modern democratic state of Latvia emerged. Opened in 2014 after six crisis-afflicted years of construction, this glass and steel hulk commands the flat plain on which the Latvian capital sits.
Its asymmetrical design, topped with a translucent lantern, was the inspiration of the Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkerts. It pays tribute to two Latvian legends, born of centuries of invasion and subjugation. One of these tells of a ‘castle of light’ that sinks into a lake, from which it will rise again only when the Latvian people cast off their shackles and wrest back control of their destiny. The other revolves around a hero who must ascend a crystal mountain to rouse a sleeping princess lying at its summit. In a country where a molehill represents a significant elevation, the concept is – if nothing else – testament to the power of the human imagination.
The new National Library is by far the most eye-catching emblem of Latvia’s regained independence in its capital. A library building may struggle to tug at the heartstrings in the way that a cenotaph to the fallen or a memorial to a great national liberator might; nor can it serve the functions of representative government as efficiently as, say, a gleaming new parliamentary edifice. Nevertheless, the symbolism is clear enough – freedom and independence are the necessary preconditions for enlightenment and national revival. As Riga’s resident KGB agents packed up their surveillance kit and tramped back to Moscow, the idea of a new monumental library took on a particular significance, for what sphere of activity better exhibits the contrast between freedom and oppression than reading, something that the Soviet authorities had taken such pains to control?
Yet generations of library users past would find the image of the library as temple of knowledge, gymnasium of freethinking and shrine to democracy a curious one. Libraries, for much of their existence, have embodied in microcosm many of the characteristics of the totalitarian state: as places where behaviour is monitored, conduct is regulated, access is restricted and information is rationed.
From the Middle Ages, when books were chained to the shelves on which they stood, to the 19th century and the creation of panopticon-like round reading rooms and even our own times, with the installation of card-activated turnstiles, security cameras and electromagnetic book tags, a cloud of suspicion has hung over the library user. No aspect of human comportment – from speaking aloud to washing one’s hands – is beyond the scope of library rules. In few other social spaces are regulations enforced with such vigour, not only by the authorities but also by one’s fellow users, a kind of community of informers.
To the air of mistrust that for centuries has pervaded the library add that of exclusivity. Before the age of mass literacy, the library was by definition a place of resort only for those in possession of a rare skill. But this has been by no means the only barrier to entry. Many readers will recall with a shudder the searching cross-examination one had for many years to undergo to gain admittance to the British Library. Behind this stood a venerable tradition of limiting access to such places to the tonsured, the initiated, the moneyed or those otherwise with the correct title, credentials or letter of introduction.
And while those who pass the entrance examination might like to think of libraries as places for intellectual roaming, proscription has just as often been the presiding spirit – one need only think of the campaign to keep novels out of Victorian public libraries, driven by the fear of their corrupting effect on readers. The act of compiling texts for a library is also by its nature one of omission, while the cataloguing system, with its bewildering series of numbers and letters, can seem as impenetrable as kabbalah. The homicidal maniac might, thankfully, be a rarity among librarians, but the tyrannical figure of Jorge in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in other respects points to where power rests in such institutions: only he knows the contents of the labyrinthine library; only he determines what the reader may see.
What, then, has enabled the library in Latvia to become a symbol of liberty rather than repression? Perhaps it has something to do with the transformation of the library itself in the face of digitisation. When Jorge Luis Borges wrote his short story ‘The Library of Babel’ in 1941, the notion of an infinite storehouse of books containing not just every word ever written but also every conceivable combination of the letters of the alphabet could still comfortably inhabit the world of fantasy. Now, such a thing is within the realm of the possible, not in the cloistered confines of the library but on the internet.
As information has seeped beyond its walls, the library has ceased to be a bastion of knowledge. Threatened with redundancy, it has developed a more benign complexion, as communal workspace and portal to the digital world. When the Brandenburg University of Technology in Cottbus, northeast Germany, opened a new library in 2004, it pointedly eschewed the traditional name. The building was instead branded an ‘information, communications and media centre’.
The National Library of Latvia has not turned its back on its roots quite so defiantly. Its architectural centrepiece is a bookcase – made, naturally, from Latvian birch – containing some five thousand books donated by visitors and distinguished guests. Thanks to a series of ingeniously placed mirrors, this ‘People’s Bookshelf’ seems to extend all the way up through the central atrium to the building’s apex sixty metres above.
Even so, this is very much a 21st-century library, all walkways, circular tables and swivel chairs. Unless you take yourself off to some far-flung corner of the building, the volumes in the People’s Bookshelf are the only books you are likely to set eyes on. But the past has not entirely vanished. If the idea of a People’s Bookshelf has a whiff of the era of Marxism-Leninism about it, don’t think about trying to browse it. None of its works are there to be thumbed by actual people.