Poland's neighbourhood libraries help promote reading

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Polish people read less than many other Europeans, but efforts to improve the country's network of public libraries can help change.

About one in two Poles read a book in the last year, according to Eurobarometer, the EU's public opinion research institution. People in Eastern and Southern Europe generally read less than those in Nordic countries (in Sweden, 90 percent of people read a book in the last 12 months), but Poland fares worse than even some of its Central European and Baltic neighbours.

Among the reasons quoted by analysts are the education system, which does little to encourage reading while burdening kids with too much homework, and the underfinancing of public institutions which promote reading.

But this can be changed through the efforts to extend the country's library network.

Poland has a nationwide system of public libraries, which originated in the early 20th century and developed in the later part of the century. The network is big and reaches villages, small towns and all neighbourhoods of big cities.

In capital Warsaw alone, there are 185 branches of neighbourhood libraries, affiliated to 18 bigger libraries belonging to each of the city's districts. In the Mazowsze region where Warsaw lies, there are over 600 such library branches. In all of Poland, there are close to 8,000 public libraries.

But the system has been struggling since the end of the last century, with capitalism coming access to culture from many alternative sources. At the same time, public institutions like the libraries were initially left underfunded, especially in the early period of transition to capitalism. As a result, access to culture has become dependent on financial status.

In the last decade, however, people facing rising costs realized that borrowing books or movies and reading newspapers in the reading rooms of libraries could help keep their budgets under control. And the state has got more involved in trying to salvage and develop the public library system.

"We don't have an easy task. People from the capital city, where there is a rich cultural life, don't have to make special efforts to take part in it. In these conditions, the offer of the library has to be very attractive, innovative and obviously free as well as answer to the real needs of various social groups," Miroslawa Majewska, the director of the Zygmunt Jan Rumel library in the South Praga district of Warsaw, writes in an article about the activities of the library she runs.

Located in an unassuming grey building crammed among high blocks of flats and parked cars, the Rumel library organizes a whole array of cultural activities in addition to lending books: there are reading and foreign language clubs for children and seniors, special services for people with disabilities, music performances and book talks.

About 80,000 people use the South Praga libraries every year, Sylwia Alicka, the head of the Foreign Language Collection department in the Rumel library, told Xinhua. Given that the total population of the area is 178,000, this means almost half of the residents in the district have used one of the services of the local public library.

"I could practically live inside this library," jokes 35-year old Teresa Badila while sipping a coffee from the vending machine in the library's lobby. "I come here to work on my computer in the reading room, and in the afternoons we often come with the kids to play for a bit and take some new books home. I'm trying to teach them English."

Public libraries like the Rumel survive on a combination of municipal funds, grants and readers' support.

"There is never too much money for new purchases of books," Sylwia Alicka says. "For sure, libraries need more funds for educational and cultural activities."

In March this year, Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Glinski, announced an additional investment of 20 million zloty (about 5 million U.S. dollars) for the renovation of public libraries in the country. "This is a drop in the ocean," Glinski said.

The extra money is part of a larger four-year national programme to support readership among Poles, which makes over 400 million zloty (100 million U.S. dollars) available for public libraries in the form of grants.

The biggest beneficiaries of these efforts are potentially those Poles who, were it not for the public libraries, would be discriminated in their access to culture because of their financial situation or other reasons, such as disabilities.

"All libraries, not just the neighbourhood ones, are very important, because they are open places. They can be used by anyone, no matter where they come from, their world views, their financial means," Alicka says.

"It's all for free. To get the same books for my kids in the nearby bookstore, it would be so expensive. Not to mention I'd have to buy a fancy juice or something so that they can play with the toys there," Badila, the library user, told Xinhua. 

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