By Leigh Hallingby
I had the pleasure of spending two glorious weeks from Sunday, May 24, through Saturday, June 6, 2009, in Prague in the Czech Republic (CZ) taking a summer school course entitled “Libraries and Librarianship in the Czech Republic.” Better known as the Prague Seminar, the course is sponsored by the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science (UNC SILS) in conjunction with Charles University in Prague, Central Europe's oldest university (founded 1348). Attendees who are in Library school can take the course for 3 academic credits if they also write a 15-20 page on some aspect of the seminar. Or attendees can do what I did and take it, minus the paper, for their own fulfillment and enjoyment.
Our 2009 group included ten American “students” (four named Elizabeth!) plus a faculty member from UNC SILS. We represented all age decades from the 20’s through 60’s. The seven who were taking the Seminar for credit were from five U.S. library schools. I was using my own resources and vacation time for the Prague Seminar. As a librarian at an organization which works extensively in the former Soviet Union, I found the course a prefect intersection of subject matter and geography.
The Prague Seminar has been in existence since 2002, and over that time a wonderful curriculum has been developed and refined to near perfection. Monday – Friday of each of the two weeks we were fully occupied, mostly with field trips within and beyond Prague, and also with lectures at Charles University. A factor that greatly enhanced the Seminar is that we always had with us at least half a dozen CZ students and faculty from the University’s library science program. We enjoyed their company immensely and of course get totally spoiled with our own personal guides and translators.
We eleven Americans all checked into the 3-star Hotel City-Centre, where Prague Seminar attendees always stay for the two weeks. It is clean and comfortable, as well as perfectly situated for tourism, dining, and shopping.
A bit about Charles University which was our first stop on Monday, May 25th. Although the heart of the university is in the center of Prague, an actual campus as we know it is a luxury that a medieval university in a highly urban environment cannot afford. So, as appropriate buildings have become available here, there, and everywhere around the city, the university has acquired them (the library school building being a perfect example, as there are no other University buildings near it). There are some Soviet style high rises quite far from downtown that serve as dormitories for the University. Of course, this lack of geographic continuity makes the sense of community that a campus engenders impossible. I realized immediately what a luxury it is, especially in New York City, to have as many college campuses as we do.
In Prague we also visited the Klementium, which is the State Library (in a beautiful former Jesuit monastery), Parliamentary Library, Municipal Library, the library of a Baroque aristocrat, two monastery libraries, and Libri Prohibiti. The last, especially fascinating, is collection of thousands of underground books from the Communist era (1948–1989) that were secretly hand typed, with as many carbon copies as possible (maybe 15), and then bound in cardboard. Some are CZ translations of important works by Soviet dissidents, for instance, and some were new writings at the time by authors such as the former CZ Prime Minister Vaclav Havel, for example. Some of the typed manuscripts were smuggled out of CZ into countries such as Canada, where they were printed and bound as books and then smuggled back into CZ for much wider distribution than the carbon copy method allowed.
We had lectures in Prague over the two weeks on, among other topics: the history of Charles University, CZ history, various aspects of CZ librarianship, world cultural heritage on the Web, and how visually-impaired people deal with scientific information.
Going well beyond Prague, we took three day-long trips outside of the capital city to: Southern Bohemia to visit the Zlata Koruna Monastery and its reading room of rare books and prints; Northern Bohemia to visit the Reconciliation Center, opened in 2001, which includes a regional library and a lovely triangular-shaped synagogue; and Moravia to visit the Chateau Library of the Kromeriz Palace and a public library. One difference I observed in the CZ public libraries compared to the Bergen County, NJ, system that I use is that CZ people pay an annual fee to be members of the local library and obtain borrowing privileges. Also, the kinds of user-friendly online systems that we Americans have become accustomed to for interlibrary loan within a county-wide network are not available. Further, the hours, especially in the evenings, are quite limited in CZ.
A few comments on the monasteries and their libraries: I have always thought of monasteries as being spare places with minimal decoration, but will not think of them that way any more after visiting three magnificent CZ Baroque monasteries. They all started out modestly in the Middle Ages, but as they were reconstructed over time due to the devastation of fires, wars, etc, were rebuilt in the Baroque style of the era. Now all have lots of Baroque “frou-frou,” painted ceilings, etc., which seems like a real disconnect from monastic life. The Strahov Monastery in Prague has as magnificent a library as one will ever find anywhere, and though it is not normally open to tourists, we were privileged to spend more than an hour in it. One of our librarian guides explained that a major reason the monasteries are so elegant is that they became wealthy due to many donations (including from "sinners") and to successful businesses they ran.
There were some tourist activities added onto our excursions. In Prague we took a boat trip on the Vltava River (AKA the Moldau) and a walking tour of the Old Town (Stare Mesto). In Southern Bohemia we visited Cesky Krumlov, a historic town designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. In Northern Bohemia we walked in a “sandstone rock city” in a state park. And in Moravia there was a tour of the castle’s ancient wine cellar, accompanied by some tasting.
Beside the wonderful academic content and field trips, we experienced the joy of living for two weeks in the splendid city of Prague with its endless supply of fabulous buildings, especially in the Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. The weekend in the middle of the course was free for exploration of the city and/or countryside. For attendees who want to “do Prague,” the Seminar does not allow enough time for tourism, and an extra day or two on one’s own is recommended.
Participating for two weeks in the Prague Seminar was a fabulous experience on all levels: professional, cultural, tourist, and interpersonal. More information about the Prague Seminar can be found at http://sils.unc.edu/programs/international/prague.html. UNC SILS also sponsors a similar annual Seminar in England at Oxford University: http://sils.unc.edu/programs/international/oxford.html. And please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or wish to know more about either one.