By Margaret Bennett
I recently spent a few days in Italy, in the city of Bologna.
One of Bologna’s nicknames is ‘Bologna la Dotta’ or ‘Bologna the Learned’, as it houses the oldest university in Europe. So maybe it is not so surprising that Tripadvisor has a list of the ten best libraries to visit in Bologna alone!
Given the dire state of repair of our own central library in Sheffield and the effect of severe central government funding cuts over a decade, I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the top libraries in Bologna is in fact its central public library – the Biblioteca Salaborsa. And I’m happy to report that it looks to be in a perfect state of repair!
The library is housed in a beautiful, historic building near to the Town Hall in Bologna’s central square, Piazza Maggiore. The building has been a fortress, a botanical garden, a basketball and boxing arena, a trading centre, a restaurant, a bank and a puppet theatre during its 2000+ years of life. The public library is one of the best in a city of libraries, not just because of its stunning home but also the quality and quantity of its books. The public can walk in and admire its spectacular central atrium, reading rooms, lecture theatres and exhibitions. There are even 1st century Roman remains in the basement, which are also open to the public to wander around freely.
The public library has been in Salaborsa for 22 years but the first library open to the public in Bologna, the Aula Magna, was opened in 1756. It was a gift of Pope Benedict XIV. Its original walnut shelving holds 50,000 texts from the 16th to 18th centuries. Now part of the University Library, it is still possible to visit it on certain days, though sadly not when we were visiting the city.
We all say we value public libraries but I do wish we could follow Bologna’s wonderful example and put our money where our mouth is!