A User-Centric Approach

As a part of the course in International Librarianship, we visited the Biblioteca de San Giorgio in Pistoia, Italy. The trip there took us about thirty minutes by train. We decided to add the library to our itinerary after it was recommended so highly by the Information Resource Center at the U.S. Embassy. After arriving, we found ourselves in a medium-sized city, and we immediately noticed the coolness in the air and a welcomed breeze. After a week of enduring 100 plus degree temperatures, the coolness was refreshing and reinvigorating. After a short walk through the town, we arrived at the library.

The library building is large and industrial, without being imposing. Modern artwork is visible from front window displays. Upon entering the front doors, we reached a large entryway with a circulation desk immediately in front of us and a digital projection of the library’s website above that.

After looking around for a few minutes, we were energetically greeted by the library director. She welcomed us by saying, “We are so proud of our library. We want you to fall in love with it, too.” And fall in love I did.

The director briefly explained the library’s mission and that even though they are very proud of what they have been able to accomplish since opening in 2007, the library is still a work in progress. In many ways, it seems like the library staff will always view their library in this way.

The Biblioteca San Giorgio was built in an abandoned building that used to house a factory. The library director explained that since many of Pistoia’s residents are employed in factory or other industrial jobs, this was the correct choice for the community’s public library. In many ways, the building celebrates the culture of the community. This symbolism is extended throughout the library because there is a lot of brick and steel in the architecture of the building, which invokes the style of an old factory. Thoughtfully, signage throughout the library has been painted in the same font that was employed in the original factory. One of the most important parts of symbolism in a library is the message it sends to users. These symbols signify to users that this place is designed for them.

When we entered the main gallery of the library, we saw a small olive tree. Our guide informed us that it was meant to symbolize knowledge. This was a powerful symbol because it reflects the community it serves. The tree is actively growing. It is relatively small right now, but the room it is held in is large. There is room for expansion and growth.

After concluding our visit, it became clear to me that the San Giorgio public library clearly understood that symbolism is powerful, and to use it effectively could send powerful messages. I was impressed with what I saw there, and I couldn’t wait to tell everyone all about their vision and incredibly execution.

Over the Wall

After living exclusively in New York State for three years, traveling to a foreign country is a strange experience. Exchanging my dollars for euros was bizarre and exhilarating.

Then, after a few days, I became comfortable living in a foreign country. The initial shock of using euros and not understanding the language well begins to fade.

This was how I felt until our trip to the U.S. embassy reminded me just how foreign Italy is. Security at the embassy is high. Even though we had an appointment, the gatekeepers made a few calls before we were allowed to enter in the front gate. We then entered through a metal detector where the safety of my Burt’s Bees lip balm was questioned. Finally allowed to pass, they still held our cell phones at the checkpoint. Then I relinquished my passport to the officer, who gave me a visitor pass that explicitly specified that I was to be accompanied by an escort at all times.

One of us remarked that we hoped none of us would lose our passport on the trip, as it was difficult to enter the embassy when in possession of one.

After all this, we were finally able to enter the embassy. Immediately to our left, a large American flag was flanked by large portraits of President Obama and Vice President Biden. After seeing this, I was reminded that this is an exception to the rule in Italy. After all, this is technically American soil. A symbol like the American flag is so ubiquitous in the United States, but I did not notice its absence until it reappeared in this setting.

It was then that I realized that this was a very strange concept to get one’s head around. This is a place where the American flag was surrounded by many more Italian ones. Yet, in this setting, the American flag carries more weight.

I imagined the American Embassy to be a single building. Instead it is more like a gated community.

After a fascinating tour of the embassy, we visited the Information Resource Center. The center acts as the place that disseminates messages from the American government to the Italian people. They also help public libraries in Italy gain access to digital materials and help the media with information research. Many libraries do not possess good community outreach skills. However, the Information Resource Center defies this stereotype. The center targets the Italian people through outreach instead of waiting for patrons to come to them. They make sure they are known among the community.

This is a symbol of diplomacy because the center reaches across the physical borders of the embassy, over the high reaching walls to communicate with the Italian people. This model is one that all libraries can look to and adopt. If more libraries act like there is a wall between them and the public, they will finally be doing enough to attract new users. Because in many cases, the barriers to access to public libraries are much like a physical wall.

Books as Symbols

One of the most memorable days during the International Librarianship course came when the whole group shipped off to Rome for the day. A private bus transported us from Settignano (our home for these two weeks) to the Rome city center. The trip took around three hours, which seemed like a miracle in itself since since when I’m in Syracuse, Rome feels like it’s about a million miles away.

Upon our arrival in Rome, our Italian ambassadors (Anna Maria and Veronica) guided us through through the narrow, winding streets to the Casanatense Library. The Casanatense Library is the embodiment of Cardinal Casanate’s legacy. Cardinal Casanate was a librarian for the Holy Roman Church, and he donated 25,000 books for the use of the public.

When entering the main hall and reading room, we were amazed by the beauty of the room. The dark wood bookshelves contrasted with a large statue of Cardinal Casanate.

But something was throwing me off, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. It seemed like a perfectly typical reading room in an old library. Then I realized, it was boiling hot in the room. So I immediately asked the librarian, “How do you deal with the task of preserving the materials?” It was then that she explained that there was no preservation money this year from the government. Amazed, we continued on the tour.

The Casanatense Library has an absolutely incredible collection of rare books, including a first edition copy of Galileo’s Dialogues and an original Copernicus text. The librarian selected ten or fifteen items of this caliber for us to view. I don’t have to explain that we were all overwhelmed by this display. However, what most amazed us was that we allowed to touch the books. The librarian explained which of the books were quite fragile, but did not explain the manner in which we should or should not touch the texts. For me, this was the defining moment during the trip where I thought, this is unlike any experience I have had with rare books. It was thrilling to touch the books, but frightening because I was nervous I would damage the texts inadvertently.

Throughout the trip, I have been thinking of Roman and Florentine libraries as symbols. Often, in American libraries we try to emphasize that a library’s offerings extend beyond books and the collection. There is often an attempt to redefine the what the library is a symbol of. At the Casanatense Library, it became clear that these books were the library, and no other definition was needed. The books symbolize learning, achievement, and the Roman legacy,
and the symbolism was powerful, indeed.

Journey to the Uffizi

Today’s outing was a trip to the Uffizi Library and Museum. They both were amazing, and since I had been to the museum once before but never the library, my day consisted of a brand new experience and one that brought back memories of old experiences.

At the museum, I gained more from the experience than the first time I was there. I was able to accurately identify what I had seen the last time, remember the things I forgot, as well as introduce new thoughts and memories into my associations with the museum. In many ways, the experience was more valuable the second time around. I think this is pertinent because often, when traveling, one tends to dismiss an attraction if one has already seen it. The idea seems to be that there is so much to see and so many experiences to have when traveling, that none should be repeated. I vehemently disagree with this.

As I explored the Uffizi Museum, I stumbled upon a small statue of a lion from the first century. It was displayed in an exhibition about Gothic Florentine art, which as a whole was incredible. But this piece struck me. It was smaller than most of the other sculptures in the collection, and considering it was a depiction of a lion, it was not particularly fierce or menacing. In fact, it was rather cute. The statue was named “pietra forte,” which in Italian means strong stone (or sandstone.)

The commentary concerning this petite statue explained that the lion was meant to symbolize freedom and the strength of Florence. I lingered a moment longer, debating in my head. Clearly, in the past, Florence had been identified this way. But, in my personal view of the city today, would I choose to identify it in this manner? Are these symbols still relevant? How do the answers influence my view of libraries and Florentine libraries?

I am still working on my answers to these questions, but yesterday, my answers were no. To me, Florence has strength in the way that it has the ability to show its visitors all that it has accomplished in its long history. However, this simply a retelling of the past. Despite this, Florence’s current influence does not seem strong and powerful. I am still trying to work out where I stand on the “freedom” portion of this statement.

Over the next two weeks, I hope the depth of my understanding of this city will grow. At that point, maybe I will have a different answer. I cannot wait to see.

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Florence!

As I anticipate the upcoming course in international librarianship, I am overwhelmed with excitement, uncertainty, and expectations. It is a challenge to know what to expect. It is often helpful to know what my impressions and thoughts are before the course in order to remember them easily later.

Of my expectations, I expect to be thrown out of my comfort zone. I expect to be uncomfortable at times. I expect not to understand, both the language and the customs. But I also expect to have experiences that amaze me. I expect these experiences to come from the art, the literature, and especially the food. In the library department, I expect my viewpoints to change concerning what a library is, what it looks like, and how it should operate. I guess we’ll see!

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