Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 16, 2016

Library Week #5: National Libraries

Hugh of St Cher Brad Nixon 6625 (480x640)

It’s the conclusion of National Library Week in the U.S. I’ve enjoyed writing about libraries from a variety of angles, and especially enjoyed the lively response to the previous post, in which I provided links to fellow bloggers who write compellingly about libraries.

It’s time to say good-bye to the recognition, but not the use of libraries. They’ll be with us so long as there are human beings who have more than essential food and shelter.

Under Western Skies reader and frequent commenter, La Boheme suggested the topic for today, by mentioning that one of his favorite libraries is the massive U.S. Library of Congress. The world’s largest library (2nd is the British Library), its official role is as the research arm of the U.S. Congress, but it also stands as the de facto national library of America. What’s in it? Everything. They have not only American stuff, but stuff in 450 languages, and — according to Wikipedia (CLICK HERE) — two thirds of its annual acquisitions are in languages other than English. It occupies three gigantic buildings in Washington, D.C., named Jefferson, Adams and Madison (as if those cats didn’t already have enough things named after them in Washington).

Probably the most notable story about the library is that the original library established by the Congress was burned by the British (jealous, perhaps, of their 2nd-place bibliophilic position) in 1814. Congress bought 6,487 books from Thomas Jefferson (apparently ones he’d already read) to start another library. Unfortunately, a large number of those volumes burned up in 1851, and they started again.

It’s worth a visit to the Library when you visit Washington, and I encourage you to learn more about it. HERE is the website.

La Boheme’s comment started a train of thought that is now pulling into the station. What other countries have national libraries? I could think immediately of the British Library, the Bibliotèque National in Paris, but I got stuck there. I found a list of national libraries around the world at THIS LINK.

That is a list worth considering because, it appears, if you start a country, one of the things you do straight off is establish a library. I haven’t counted, but there must be more than 200 national libraries in the list.

Some national libraries exist primarily as repositories of the official records and proceedings of the government, but others are vast in scale and scope. They do not, of course, serve as immensely large versions of public libraries: they preserve, conserve, research and retain materials, but you simply can’t go to one and check out their Gutenberg bible or copy of Hammurabi’s Code for a few days, even if you’re a citizen. Sorry.

The British get official credit for starting the practice of a national library, although there are numerous, extensive libraries from earlier times that were mighty undertakings. The famed Library of Alexandria is certainly the one that comes most quickly to mind, although it was destroyed and scattered a couple of centuries B.C. Among the reprobates who’ve been blamed is Julius Caesar, but it’s not certain he merits that particular item on his C.V.

In 1753, the British Museum started a library, which was greatly expanded by incorporating some large collections including — dear to us here at Under Western Skies — the Cotton collection, which had not only the Lindisfarne Gospels but the unique copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can’t check those out, either, but you can see them.

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. f. 106-110 verso lines 1148-1184

Beowulf Manuscript

f 090-94 verso illustration

Sir Gawain MS illustration, ca. 1400

King George II made that library the official library of the kingdom, and part of its charter stated that it was entitled to a copy of every book published in Britain. THAT is one way to build a collection.

I’m fascinated, looking through that list of national libraries. More than that, I’m delighted. It’s one more demonstration of the core role libraries play in our cultures, the world ’round.

Without even leaving the As on that list, I’ll pick a country that’s always intrigued me, because for most of my life, it was virtually impossible for Americans to visit: Albania. Yes, there’s a national library: Biblioteka Kombëtare e Shqipërisë, the National Library of Albania, in Tirana, the capital. It was established in 1922, 10 years after Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire and 3 years before the 1st Albanian Republic was founded. Putting together your own country? Better start a library!

Have you been to your national library, oh readers? Perhaps in Ljubjjana, Madrid, Florence, Kolkata or Canberra? I’d ask if any citizens of China have visited their mammoth national library in Beijing, the largest in Asia, but, darn, no one in China has ever read Under Western Skies, because this part of the World Wide Web is banned there. Well, having a library doesn’t guarantee freedom to all information, does it?

I’d like to hear about your national or state library. Leave a comment.

Thank you very much for your support of libraries. It’s been a genuine pleasure to spend an entire week thinking about them.

How to conclude? Let us turn to Señor Borges, who as most of you probably know, wrote a memorable story called “The Library of Babel:”

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017



  1. You really got me with this one. Albania? I have to admit, I haven’t thought much about Albania. In fact, Albania came across my consciousness probably only once, when I read Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts a few years ago. If you want to learn about the roots of present day terrorism, that would be a good place to start.

    Albania struck me as such a surprising and off the wall subject for national libraries, that it got me thinking about great libraries that no longer exist. Like, the library in the medieval city of Louvain, Belgium. The library was founded in the early 15th C., when it would be an exaggeration to call Berlin a city; Berlin was then little more than a mud hut. According to Pulitzer prize winner Barbara Tuchman, Louvain was renowned for its 230,000 volumes and invaluable 750 medieval manuscripts. The city was known as a “jewel of Gothic art.”

    But the city and its library were erased forever in August, 1914. Why? Louvain, and Belgium, had a problem: they stood in the way of the German planned advance into France at the beginning of World War I. The Germans expected little or no resistance through little Belgium. But the Belgians, though not strong militarily, nevertheless did not much like the idea of a foreign army storming across their country uninvited. So, they put up a surprisingly stiff resistance to the German advance across their country. This slowed down and thus angered the German Army. Therefore, Belgium needed to be taught a lesson it would not forget. The magnificent, and irreplaceable Louvain Library, and the entire medieval city, would be burned to the ground by the German Army. And so they were, utterly obliterated into ashes. And, resistance problem thereby solved. This surely was not a lesson easily or quickly forgotten by the victims of this terrorist outrage.

    It’s only a guess, but this history lesson from World War I might explain to some extent the rather timid and laissez-faire attitude of the Belgians over the last couple of decades to the development of terrorist cells in the Molenbeek suburb. (“Don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you.”) But, it’s all academic now, after the terrorist attacks Paris last year and Belgium this year. There’s no ignoring terror now.


  2. Funny, I was thinking of Borges and The Library of Babel as I was reading this post — and lo, it appears in your ending!

    Nice conclusion to your National Library Week feature. Thank you for the engaging and informative series.

    Liked by 1 person

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