Moving into the Buda Castle twenty years ago is history by now. And so are the plans and activities of the preceding 25 years, which on 2nd April 1985 were crowned by the event that we are commemorating today. It is partly library history, and partly the story of individual careers, our careers made up of the small events of our working lives. It is a story that forms the basis of the years following 1985, establishing the role and significance of the present and future national library.
Besides today’s session of commemoration, a scientific study of those years through historical research is required. For those who took part in all or some of this long period, perhaps it is more telling to flash up some of the jointly experienced successes and difficulties that I tried to recall at the session in 2002 held on the 200th anniversary of the library’s foundation. Although I am obliged to repeat some of those points, now I will address primarily those participants who got acquainted with the Széchényi Library here in the Buda Castle Palace, those who have become guardians of, contributors to and transmitters of the national collection that looks after the written heritage of Hungarian culture in this complex.
It was at 9 pm on 22nd December 1984 that, witnessed by reporters and cameras of the Hungarian Radio and Television, we said good-bye to the last reader in the National Museum’s reading room, completed in 1847 and opened in 1867. The moment had come that our predecessors and we had been very much looking forward to from the early 20th century: the library was to continue its activity at an independent new location, more suited to its significance and collection. From the beginning of the century, several plans and initiatives had been tabled for solving the problems of the institution, which first had a shortage of storage facilities, and later also of reading space. Let me just recall some suggestions, not even in their chronological order. One was to build covered suspension bridges to connect the Festetich and Esterházy Palaces, the former National Assembly building in Sándor utca (which at present houses the Italian Cultural Centre) and the National Museum. Another idea was to build in the two covered inner courtyards of the Museum. Then after Word War II, giving the former Stock Exchange building, the present Television Headquarters, or the Customs House, the present University of Economics over to the library was also contemplated. Finally in 1959, the decision was made that the Krisztina District wing of the ruined and burnt out Buda Castle Palace was to become the home of the national library. Planning and construction started in 1960, and the ceremonial opening, that we are today commemorating, took place 25 years later, in 1985.
Today we are celebrating that particular day. However, the library’s 25 years’ history had been marked by continuous planning and preparation. Unfortunately, many of those who had framed and carried out those plans are no longer with us. Also, many of those have passed away who had, often anonymously, left their lasting marks on the operation. On this day, it is the honourable obligation of today’s librarians to remember all of them.
It would take too long to list all the decisive work done in the given period. As a reminder, let me pick out some:
called telelift) and designing its trajectory. Through the years, plans, ideas dreams, and even some of the actual work done often proved to be in vain or were modified due to limited financial resources or because of technical progress and changing library functions.
The initially planned system of reading rooms was changed because the special functions of the literature and history library had to be undertaken. Plans for housing the various organisational units were repeatedly changed as a result of corrections and compromises due to diversifications and consequently growing staff numbers. Collecting and arranging the stocks of reference libraries was often interrupted and resumed because of financial problems and the uncertainties of completing the building. Keeping pace with technical developments, plans for computerisation were also continuously modified (e.g. the then state-of-the-art plan of a mega-machine originally thought to be placed in the huge hall of floor II). Similarly, instead of the planned storage area connecting the two towers and optimising equipment of the storage space within the Castle Hill, due to financial restrictions a traditional storage was realised. All those who were active in this period were obliged almost daily to take new decisions, to rethink and even to start all over again, never losing their professional dedication.
From the early 1980s, as completion was already within sight, urgent tasks based on real needs were growing in numbers. It was still in the closed storage space of the ruined building, working under very poor conditions that we had to establish the final classification and labelling of the reference libraries, whose acquisitions had been interrupted, as well as to supplement the missing items and construct the signs directing readers. This was necessary so that all that was left was to place the 70 thousand volumes on shelves according to these carefully detailed plans. The reference library has been growing ever since, although occasionally affected by a tight acquisition budget, and has been one of the national library’s main attractions in the eyes of researchers and readers.
The division of space in the new building, the optimal placement of organisational units to create the best working conditions was no smaller task, therefore led to heated debates. Designing shelf by shelf where to stock the some six million units of the full collection of the time, with regard to future acquisitions, was an equal challenge. In 1985, we managed to overcome these problems. However, we should not forget that the 1960 requirement for space to fill over 50 more years had shrunk to 25 years by the time the library could move in.
The new operation under novel conditions required the preliminary elaboration of a number of regulations, such as the following:
Rather than being negative, I intend to be objective when admitting that we did all this fully aware of the fact that this beautiful site, the country’s second largest building, which was originally erected to house a royal palace, was not going to be an optimal location for the national library, despite the most conscientious design and construction efforts.
Finally, after several decades of dreaming and trying to come to terms with realities, the day of the last major trial preceding the opening had arrived: Early in October 1984, the Széchényi Library started its two-stage move to its first independent home since its foundation. For the full duration of the move, we had a day-by-day, and even an hour-by-hour schedule, considering the numbers and suitability of vehicles required for transporting the different types of documents, as well as the daily capacity of the Fősped delivery company, the time, space and staffing requirements of loading and unloading, as well as the best timing of moving containers, furniture, work equipment and machinery. The first stage lasted from October to the end of December, when the material temporarily placed in the two tower stores was transferred to its permanent location. (This material comprised precious books, newspapers and valuable small prints in booklets, termed as “Hell” stored in cases from the 1960s onwards, partly in the Kiscelli site, partly in the Keszthely Castle.) Carefully following the original schedules, after three months, in January 1985 we could start moving all the partial collections, furniture and equipment from six different points in Budapest. And by 31st March 1985, the move was complete!
We left the home of the library, which it had occupied for 140 years, and could enter our spacious bright new palace with a happy feeling of work successfully accomplished. Let us admit that the joy was mixed with a degree of nostalgia, remembering the ice-cold corridors of the National Museum lined with ancient tombstones, the overcrowded workrooms with arches, the beautiful Széchényi Room of the Manuscript Collection the founder’s statue guarding the gate, the old wooden shelves of the current newspapers stocks, the spiral staircase of the reading room, the outdated typewriters, adrema, the monitoring desks of the reading rooms… everything that we had inherited and that represents the national library’s traditions, everything that the few rescued pieces and photographs in this newly opening small museum will remind us of.
Picking out certain stages of the way leading to 1985, those who were not actively involved might not feel the weight and the uplifting power of the task we had succeeded in carrying out. And we should never forget that at the same time, the library was meeting all of its basic functions in full. There were no stoppages in enriching the collection (through deposit copies, internal and foreign acquisitions), processing new items, building catalogues, publishing the current national bibliography, the up-to-date re-cataloguing the collection of unique periodicals (which was then still done in a systematic manner), information supply about professional literature, microfilming Hungarian stocks for their protection, protecting and restoring the cultural heritage and managing central services for Hungarian librarianship (e.g. distributing deposit and multiple copies, constructing central catalogues, dealing with inter-library loans, etc.) It was only the readers’ service that had to close down for the last three months of the move, namely from January to March 1985. What is more, even in the rush of preparations and during the actual move, we managed to uphold the tradition, which we no longer follow, that all of us, but especially those who supply information and assist readers, get an in-depth knowledge of the operation, history, structure, cataloguing and sign system of the whole library before they take their jobs. As this is a basic prerequisite for quality services, in the same way as before, a series of 3-month consultations assisted newcomers at the beginning of 1985 in getting an overview of the National Széchényi Library’s history, networks and operations. At the same time, preparations were underway for organising the opening ceremonies, welcoming the directors of 13 foreign national libraries and compiling the first exhibition, which was to commemorate the national library’s “collectors and patrons”. Six months after the opening, in the autumn of 1985, also as a result of the organising activities of the library’s staff, we opened the comprehensive exhibition that for the first time displayed Hungary’s medieval codices kept in 20 domestic and 21 foreign collections, and which for the next four months attracted thousands, waiting patiently in long queues in order to pay their tribute to the Hungarian past and Hungarian culture.
It is my conscious decision not to give any names in the process of recalling the past, as we have no time for a full list, and no criteria for selection. Perhaps never had the community of librarians been so close as in those particular years. Most of the staff were always eager to do the most important and most urgent tasks, with no regard for working hours, holiday entitlements, job descriptions, or the character and weight of the work ahead.
I started out by saying that the events of twenty years ago are history by now. It is possible that everything that I have recalled in a nutshell puts this period of history into a heroic light. Moreover, amid the rapid changes of the present world, not everyone may be able to evaluate the above quoted achievements of twenty years ago and sometimes even earlier as “up-to-date”. However, I feel that in the life of an over two-hundred-year old collection, apart from 1802 when Ferenc Széchényi established it, there are no new milestones or landmarks; everything is a worthwhile continuation of the institution’s preceding decades and centuries, in which generations of librarians have been committed and proud contributors, as well as conscientious maintainers of the library’s traditions and values. Today’s celebrations should urge us to further this continuity, because in the course of future decades and centuries, this will always be the most solid foundation of the Hungarian national library and its mission.
Mrs. Lidia Ferenczy email@example.com