Time is running out for the National Library of Bosnia
Author: Mirza Ajnadzic, BIRN, Sarajevo
Uploaded: Tuesday, 14 February, 2012
As the author reports, if the prolonged crisis in funding forces this landmark institution to close, yet another ‘national’ cultural institution will have vanished from Bosnia.
‘With no heat since 6 January, the water must also have been turned off in Bosnia's National Library (otherwise the pipes would freeze). With no water in the building, those patrons and (unpaid) library staff hardy enough to try to continue working in sub-freezing temperatures cannot use the WC either. Once the electricity is cut off at the end of the month, it'll all be over. No fire alarms or burglar alarms, no one to check for leaking roofs or broken windows - a nation's cultural memory abandoned. Meanwhile, Bosnia's 350+ useless 'ministers' - each with his own obligatory deputy minister (to meet ‘ethnic’ quotas), secretary and driver - continue to have heat and electricity in their offices. And they continue to draw their government salaries, while the country goes down the drain. Bosnia may be a poor country, but its government is not poor. It's just non-functional.’
Bosnia’s National and University library is in deep trouble. On 6 January the heating was turned off. Soon the power might be turned off as well, which would very likely lead to its closure. Closure of this national institution would directly affect the library’s 4,000 regular users, most of whom are students. In addition, if the library closes its doors, the future of its archives will be uncertain.
As has been the case with other institutions such as the National Museum and the Historical Museum, the danger is that the archives will deteriorate with time. ‘We have addressed the competent institutions several times, but unfortunately we never got an answer,’ Ismet Ovcina, director of the library, said. After the loss of the heating, it is already almost impossible to use the premises of the library owing to the winter freeze. ‘We are not closing our doors, but effective work is already questionable,’ Ovcina said.
If the electricity turns off, which the director says is highly likely, owing to the size of the debts that the institution has run up, closure will not be avoidable. This would have embarrassing consequences for the whole country, as the national library is a member of many international institutions and projects.
The National and University Library was established by decree shortly after the end of the Second World War, on 31 October 1945. This institution also received a university function, which is why the majority of users are scholars, professors and students. The library is actively involved in most projects connected with the post-war reconstruction of the country’s documentary heritage. It has established a centre for further education of librarians, founded a laboratory for the restoration and preservation of library materials and has established centres for ISBN, ISSN, ISMN.
It has also established cooperation agreements with numerous foreign libraries, including the National Library of Serbia, the National and University Library in Zagreb and the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Further, it is a member of the International Federation of library Associations and Institutions, IFLA, the Conference of European national libraries, CENL, The European Library, TEL and the Ligue des Bibliotheques Europeennes de Recherche, Libero.
Armin Hadzialijagic, a Masters student at the crime faculty in Sarajevo, says the loss of the heating has already made it hard to work there. ‘As it is ice cold inside, I don’t plan to go to the library. Even if I did, it would be hard to study,’ he said. Armin says the silent atmosphere in the reading room is very important for the success of his studies since he does not have the quiet he needs for work at home. As a student with little money to spend on books, the resources of the library are essential for him to get hold of the material that he needs. ‘That way I don’t have to pay 100 Bosnian marks every time for a book,’ he notes.
The core financial problem facing the library is that while it is a state institution, Bosnia has no state ministry of culture. Money for state cultural institutions is in theory provided by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Ministries of culture exist in Bosnia only the level of the countries’ two entities and in the cantons – units of government within the larger of the two entities, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But as a national institution, the library cannot draw on any of these culture ministry budgets. Although in previous years the Canton of Sarajevo has helped the library survive by allocating one-off grants of 125,000 euros, it was not obliged to do so and only came up with the money to prevent immediate closure.
The complex mechanism involved in financing cultural bodies in Bosnia, as well as its lack of transparency and confusion, is a direct result of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which saddled the country with a cumbersome system of devolved government. Revision of the accord has regularly appeared as an item on Bosnia's political agenda. But given the reluctance of both entities, RS and Federation of B-H, to agree changes in the matter of financing cultural institutions, no progress in this direction has been made.
Meanwhile the national library remains at the mercy of politicians and their whims. Whether the library gets the money it needs to carry on is up to them. But politicians seem reluctant to commit. The Sarajevo Cantonal Minister of Culture and Sport, Ivica Saric, answering a question about possible assistance for the library, recently said he would do his best but did not dare to promise anything. ‘I will do whatever I can to help, but I'm not sure if I’ll be able to,’ he warned.
The library is not the only national cultural body in crisis. Other major cultural institutions face even more difficult times. The Art Gallery closed on 1 September 2011, while the Historical Museum closed its doors on 5 January. The National Museum almost shut its doors as well, before recently obtaining a one-time grant from the Federation entity. If the Canton of Sarajevo does find some extra money, it is likely to go to these other institutions, which are in an even worse situation.
Library director Ovcina notes that the library can expect nothing from institutions at state level, although, ‘in any normal country institutions like this are funded by the state’. If the library does close, all the agreements that it has established with foreign partners will be null and void. According to Jasenko Pasic, a young actor and director, Bosnia is losing a part of its identity with the closure of one cultural institution after another. ‘If the Library and the National Theatre both shut down, what will remain of Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina?’ he wonders.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme. It appeared on the Balkan Insight website, 12 February 2012.