Global Conference in Prague, 2023 Reporter's Notebook Top Travel

In Prague, a tale of two libraries

Prague's Baroque Library. (Gemma Christie/YJI)

PRAGUE – A progression of art, culture, style and equity. All expressed here in two libraries; the  Městská Knihovna and the Baroque Library in the Clementinum Astronomical Tower and Baroque Library, which was founded in 1781.

Viktorie Goldmannová/YJI Click on the image to see more ‘Postcards from Prague.’

As a student who volunteers in my school library, I found it fascinating to discover the changes in the architecture and design of the libraries we visited during the Youth Journalism International Global Conference in Prague.

We made a stop at the Městská Knihovna, the Prague library which houses the infinity book tower. I thought it was like most other libraries I’d been in, except the majority of the books were in Czech rather than English.

There were, of course, bookshelves, desks for studying and computers in the Městská Knihovna – a sign that libraries now are just as much for students to study as well as a place for people to read. At the end of the room there is a large desk where a librarian sits and oversees all transactions. 

The user-friendly Městská Knihovna Library. (Gemma Christie/YJI)
Bookshelves in the Městská Knihovna. (Naz Mergen/YJI)

But from our limited view of the Baroque Library, I could see just as many shelves as in the Městská Knihovna, but very few chairs and next to no tables. There was no desk for a librarian, as the wealthy people who were able to read during the Baroque period wouldn’t have needed to be overseen.

The Baroque bookshelves were all so tall that they needed a ladder to climb to the top. The height of the shelves definitely contributed to the impressive 27,000-plus volumes stored in the Baroque Library.

There is a line of large globes of the world and fancy clocks that sit in the center of the Baroque Library. The line of decoration stands in a column down the middle of the room.

It didn’t leave a lot of space for many people, showing the elite nature of anyone who entered the library.

Looking into the infinite book tower. (Gemma Christie/YJI)

Despite the simpler nature of the Městská Knihovna, it was home to the infinite book tower. The tower consists of a large cylinder of stacked books, with a hole in the middle so you can see inside. There are mirrors at the top and bottom of the inside, creating the optical illusion of an infinite tower. 

I felt that this, as a statement of art, symbolized the infinite knowledge anybody can gain from reading books.

The main noticeable difference between the two libraries is that the Baroque is majestic in its presentation. There are delicate skylights in the ceiling surrounded by intricate frescoes, designed by artist Jan Hiebl. The general palette is golden and the detail in every carved pillar is evident, even from a distance. 

The Baroque Library doesn’t need to store artistic tourist attractions like the infinite book tower – the incredible architecture speaks for itself.

The luxurious features are likely to have been in place because it would have only been wealthy academics who could use the library to read. Therefore limited numbers of visitors reduced the risk of damage to the expensive design, and any breakage could be easily replaced.

Children wait to peer inside the infinite book tower. (Gemma Christie/YJI)

The Městská Knihovna was more of a practical design, probably due to the fact that it’s open to all members of the public. Therefore damage to elaborate design could be expensive.

The simpler design shows how we have progressed from seeing the ability to read as a privilege to having it as the norm now. The libraries are accessed by everyone. 

Městská Knihovna was a large, open space with a domed ceiling and large, glass skylights. I noticed that the bookshelves were very spread out, to allow more people inside, evidence of the vastly increased literacy rates.

There were also no ladders to these newer shelves, which made them more accessible to the elderly and anybody who has trouble with mobility.

While I preferred the Baroque Library to the Městská Knihovna, I would highly recommend a visit to each. Two places with the same purpose, but greatly different in their presentation and a symbol of the progression of culture, art, style and equity in Prague. 

Gemma Christie is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International from the UK. She wrote this piece.

Author Gemma Christie at the Prague library with fellow students. Clockwise from left: Lyat Melese, Anjola Fashawe, Gemma Christie, Naz Mergen and Bilge Güven.

Read more from YJI’s ‘Postcards from Prague’ series about the 2023 Global Conference.

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