Brief Reflections on Czech Libraries

National Academy of Sciences Library

I recently came back from a two week library seminar held in Prague. It was put on by UNC in collaboration with Charles University. It was an incredible experience. Not only did our group get to spend time in an amazing historical city, but we got special access to the treasuries of old books and manuscripts, and heard lectures and received tours from members of the National Library (Klementinum), Parliament Library, Charles University Library, a hospital library, the Municipal Library, Libri Prohibiti (Library of Prohibited Books), Monastery Libraries, the Library of the National Academy of Sciences, and the Liberec Library of Peace & Reconciliation. I met some wonderful new librarians from around the country – Chapel Hill, Pittsburgh, Georgia, New York, Rhode Island, D.C., and even Hawaii and Vancouver. It was fantastic.

I could write a book on everything we did over the two weeks, but here are some pieces of interest I thought I’d share:

  • The classification is wack! It seems each library does something a little different. Some use UDC, and the hospital library used MeSH, but most seem to just make up their own system. Little to no consistency between libraries.
  • In the public libraries, users must pay a small membership fee to get a library card. No library cards are given out for free. This usually was around 200 crowns per year, which is about $8-10. In the case of the National Academy of Sciences Library, you needed this membership card just to access the building. It’s a trivial amount of money, but it’s money none the less.
  • The internet is also not free in the public libraries; the terminals are similar to those you would find in an internet cafe. But this also means that there is no filtering.

Municipal Library

  • Only one third of the students enrolled in the LIS school of Charles University want to actually work in a library. Most are focused on information sciences outside of a library setting.
  • The subscription databases are mostly based in the U.S. Many of the databases the libraries subscribe to are ones I am familiar with, including EBSCO, ProQuest, and Web of Knowledge.
  • In some cases, we were told that the subscription databases did not require a library card to access remotely; you could just get to them through the library’s website. I still need to test this…
  • During the communist era, people would create tiny books that would fit in their pockets, complete with a magnifying glass in the spine, and sneak them over the borders. Whole communities of people would be involved in these transactions. I know if I lived in that era I’d totally be in.
  • Old books are beautiful. Sturdy covers that last through the centuries, often really ornate; books were pieces of art. Illuminated manuscripts are also a treat to look at. Can you imagine it taking 5-10 years to create a single copy of a book? We were even allowed to touch some of them which was fantastic.
  • Old libraries are also beautiful. Globes and other decorative knowledge items were often a part of libraries. The library as place were very impressive.
  • I’d love to have a nostic family library in my house. Information and knowledge was of such value and esteem. It was power and prestige. Not that it isn’t anymore, but without a doubt libraries back then were much more appreciated that they are now.

Zlata Koruna Monastery Treasury

It’s also worth mentioning that this trip confirmed that librarians are way fun people. People outside the library world don’t realize this. As well as the rad Czech librarians and students, I got to know some some fantastic people from around the States that I hope to stay friends with in the future. Overall it was a great time. UNC puts this seminar on every year, so if you’re interested in doing something like this (there are also seminars in Oxford and Slovenia) take a look at their website.

Group in the National Library’s Courtyard


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