Poles do not read books...

Katarzyna Woynarowska

A statistical Pole reads books because he is forced to do that or reads for entertainment. 50% of Poles do not feel the need to read books at all. Only – as many as – the remaining part is interested in reading books. But recently these people have occupied bookstores, and publishing houses have shyly noticed some increase in their sales. The result is miserable but in some ways hopeful. The prices are the most frequently repeated reason why people do not read books. Most Poles who are not harmed by printed words explain that they cannot afford buying books except for school textbooks. We do not want to discuss the financial argument but the question remains, ‘why Poles, hungry to have contact with literature, poetry, etc., do not borrow books from public libraries – municipal, district or village libraries?’ And less than 10 % of literate population visit public libraries whereas for example, in the Scandinavian countries it is assumed as obvious that the level of the society’s education, the development of education, the cultural activities, the ability to move in the world of information is due to public libraries that function very well there. They are worth investing since the profits appear quicker than we think.
Where does the problem lie? The Ministry of Culture has had a close look at the Polish libraries and their picture is quite dramatic – half of the libraries need complete renovations; 15 % of the village libraries have no toilets; the collections are old; there are very few new books because libraries are the last items in the list of the priorities of the municipal or district budgets, and actually the means for culture are poor.
‘As any other interest you must develop the need to read books. When I see a young couple with a child who is allowed to open a booklet, touch it, turn its pages I have hope that the situation is not very bad. And I can see quite a few of such young families,’ says a librarian working in a municipal library.
Undoubtedly, it is worth promoting such projects as ‘Whole Poland reads books to children’ or the super fashionable bookcrossing, i.e. leaving books in public places for others to enjoy. The network of cheap bookstores proves to be good and so are sales in libraries, book festivals, literary or declamatory contests, course of creative writing, e.g. screenplays, or family cultural weekends. However, it seems that it is not sufficient. We need modern public libraries and that requires first of all appreciation of their social roles and finances.
‘Books will not overcome the Internet and TV. Let us not forejudge it. The theatre was foretold to fall but in fact, it prospers. I think that the same is with books. We will lose under one condition: if libraries remain storages with books covered with bigger or smaller layers of dust. Today we must again convince people that libraries are fine places, very ‘cool’ places’, explains Marzena Kubala from a small district library in Udalow in the region of Warmia.
How can libraries become ‘cool’ places? For example, when you can take a few books and sit in some comfortable chair in the library before deciding which book you want to borrow. And you will have the chance to drink a cup of coffee. You can also go to a little bookstore offering used books. A cool place can also be a library with a musical collection, with audio books, with educational records and computer games. A library with Internet stands, with a scanner, CD recorder, and Xerox copier. A library where children can listen to fables, where there are meetings with authors or discussions organisers for lovers of science fiction books.
This is not illusion. There are such libraries in Poland. They create multifunctional centres of culture, activating the local society. They draw young and old people since everyone finds what he looks for.
One can borrow books and other items from among 30,000 media: films, music, audio books, multimedia educational programmes and computer games in the Medioteka in Wroclaw. In the Language Café you can improve your knowledge of foreign languages with a teacher or a native speaker and learn things about the culture of a given country. Those who organise weekly discussions deal with concrete topics (e.g. national cuisine, music, history). The proposals meet the needs of readers. At the other end of Poland, in the extremely modern library in Olsztyn all stereotypes concerning libraries have been overcome. This library called ‘Planet 11’ offers literature and music. One can borrow musical works, surf in the Internet, do one’s homework and even wrote a CV or look for a job. The founders of ‘Planet 11’ state that they want to compete with TV or other fruitless forms of spending free time.
Modern libraries use the radio frequency identification (RFID). Borrowing and returning books take only several seconds. Such a technology is available in seven Polish libraries and other four libraries have signed agreements with the producer of this system. Every book has a chip, thanks to which it is quickly identified and delivered to readers who do not have to wait for the librarian to find the book on the shelf in the labyrinth of books. The desired book is delivered on a tape to the equipment that resembles a cash dispenser. This is a turning point in the librarianship and these libraries are the first self-service places where librarians watch the process of the smoothness of book borrowing.
‘I remember the Moscow underground, crowded with people at rush hours, and I can remember my astonishment because most passengers seized the support grips with one hand and held books with the other. Then I thought whether I would live long enough to see books as indispensable things in Poland. How can we achieve that without commonly accessible libraries?’, wonders Andrzej Kalinin, a writer and member of the Polish PEN Club.
What about the parish libraries? When the district libraries are closed the network of parish libraries can be some rescue? In some places books from the library that has been closed are given to the parish, which gives the Polish villages the possibility to maintain contact with culture.
The Church that is doing well in the Internet counts on modernity, i.e. digital libraries. At the web site www.fides.org users can find a professional digital library, which embraces 90 objects. ‘Fides’ is a rarity occasion for book lovers. They can borrow fashionable e-books and with a flushed look discover the treasures of the church libraries, manuscripts, unique old prints that are not normally accessible for an average book lover. In Poland the Diocesan Library in Sandomierz can boast of the first professional scanner for old prints. Its rich collection includes the text of ‘Bogurodzica’ that was digitalised, i.e. especially scanned, and will be soon available in the Internet. The church digital libraries are also the simplest ways to find the teaching of the Church, including the teaching of John Paul II.
‘Poles, read books!’ – you would want to write at the end of this article. ‘Poles, go to public libraries!’ – we should add. Our presence in them can – although in the times of the ruthless regime of money it is not so obvious – save these places from disappearance.
And without the habit of reading books we will become poor sooner and more painfully than because of any economic crisis…

"Niedziela" 7/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl