Romania’s New National Library Remains a Dream Yet to Come True

More than 25 years in the making, the most significant public building to open in post-communist Romania faces an undefined future

January 28, 2013

Visible from nearly half a mile away, an enormous rooftop Samsung banner leads the casual observer to suppose that the imposing new building in Bucharest is the Romanian headquarters for the electronics giant. Not so. A small plaque near one of the massive entrance doors says that this is the National Library of Romania. The Samsung sign merely symbolizes a €300,000 two-year financial agreement with the Romanian Ministry of Culture, under which the library operates. The building officially opened in April after more than 25 years as a political football that involved regime changes and an ever-evolving administrative structure that left library staff with the challenges of running a proud national institution with no clear direction and a shaky operating budget.

The glass-and-steel headquarters close to Unirii Square opened with great fanfare but with phone lines not working, internet connections not available, and no library cards ready for patrons. Nevertheless, the massive atrium was replete with “moving paintings” on large screens mounted to atrium walls that gave the library the high-tech feel that the Samsung name implies.

The National Library occupies several floors, with escalators and glass elevators and ceilings, all with LED lighting. The Aedificia Carpaţi architectural firm won the contract with the Ministry of Culture in 2009 for the completion of construction work on the building, for €112,894,627, a 20-year loan that Romania’s government secured from the Council of Europe Development Bank.

Work started on the building in 1986, during the regime of the infamous Nicolae Ceauşescu, but construction came to an abrupt halt after the 1989 revolution that overthrew communism and ended with the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife. The building then stood half finished until 2009 when the Romanian authorities decided that the project should be finalized. The original 1986 structure received a modern look with the glass shell that envelops the building. The interior space design did not allow for too much alteration.

A few months before his demise, in the summer of 1989, Ceauşescu insisted on inaugurating the building. Part of the main entrance hall was staged as a library, he cut the ribbon, and the year “1989” was carved on the frontispiece, where it remained for the next 20 years as a symbol of unfinished business.

In 2007 the concrete ghostlike shell was entirely blackened to serve as the setting for the 20th Century Fox horror movie Mirrors. As in the Samsung arrangement, this was another instance in which the Ministry of Culture made the deal and kept the money.

Leading a tour through the facility for American Libraries in late September, Nicoleta Rahme, head of collection development, said the library staff of 240 is wholly inadequate and ill-prepared for the responsibilities they have inherited, including retrospective conversion of the library card catalog. Of the 13 million items in the library, only some 2.5 million are available through the electronic catalog and only 1 million readily accessible on site. For the rest of the collection, the paper card catalog still serves. She indicated that only one full-time staff member is dedicated to the digitization of library materials. With a mission to serve the Romanian nation, one can only wonder how this goal can be fulfilled, Rahme said. Currently the library does not offer remote access to any of its collections.

Rahme admitted that the library has no strategic plan, and she was unsure how the end of the Samsung contract would affect funding for the library and its staff. “The staff has to do everything,” she said, and sometimes that includes things that would be done in most libraries by custodial staff. She noted that the library is making every effort to keep meeting room space—and there is plenty of it—available for rent. Educational nonprofits do not pay; commercial enterprises do, she said. However, the library’s mission is to provide access to its collections, not to become a rental agency.

“I have to be optimistic,” Rahme said, “even though I cannot see the library ever having the 1,000-person staff I would like.” As head of collection development, her main concern is working with notoriously disorganized and elusive Romanian publishers to acquire the seven “legal deposit” copies the library is supposed to receive of every book published in Romania. The Legal Deposit Law of 1995 requires all of the publishers in Romania to send to the National Library seven copies of their imprints. The National Library retains two for its collection and redistributes the remaining five to other repositories in the country. However, not all publishers comply with the law, thus preventing the National Library from compiling an accurate National Bibliography that should include the editorial output at the national level. The library ends up with only some 2,000 new titles annually, which is a reflection of the state of the publishing industry in Romania. The library does not have the mechanism to track down the publishers who do not abide by the law.

At a recent conference in Mamaia, Romania, Rodica Paleologue of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) in Paris announced that Romania will be the featured country in a book exhibit (Salon du Livre) planned for March 2013 in Paris. A native of Romania, she also acknowledged that even the BNF was having trouble getting Romanian publishers to respond to the call for exhibition materials. The Romanian Cultural Institute hasn’t signed the agreement to commit Romania’s co-funding for the exhibit or to finalize the list of works that are to be translated into French and to be published before March. The Ministry of Culture hasn’t become involved in the planning either, and time is running out, Paleologue indicated.

Meanwhile, the old National Library stands shabby and soot-covered near the thriving nightlife area of central Bucharest, with a simple plaque noting its history. The French neoclassical-style edifice that was built in 1912 to house the Stock Exchange served as the national library from 1956 to 2012. Following a lawsuit, the building was returned in 2008 to the Bucharest Chamber of Commerce. As part of the national heritage registry, the building is in great need of restoration work.

Library education needs a shot in the arm

Asked what she would advise young people entering the library profession, Rahme said that library science education in Romania was so undervalued and in such a state of neglect that she would advise devoting more effort to acquiring demonstrable expertise in other areas such as marketing and management. After being discontinued during the communist regime, library and information science was reinstated at several universities in Romania as a specialization embedded in departments of letters or journalism. Unfortunately, it continues to be very traditional and students are not exposed to modern library practices.

Many library directors that American Libraries talked to agreed with Rahme and reiterated the fact that graduates do not have the expected skills and competencies once they land their first library job. A group of students from the Department of Information and Documentation from the Faculty of Letters, University of Bucharest, who attended a September conference at the Information Resource Center of the US Embassy in Bucharest, indicated that they had chosen this career path due to their love for books and despite of the profession’s low status in Romanian society.

The jewel of Romanian libraries

Reopened in 2001, the Carol I Central University Library in Bucharest is often described as “the jewel of Romanian libraries.” Formally established in 1895 by King Carol I, as part of the Royal Foundations, the library has played a significant role in serving the students and faculty at the University of Bucharest.

The imposing edifice is situated across from the former royal palace. Designed by French architect Paul Gottereau and opened in 1895 it was engulfed in fire during the events in December 1989, and half a million volumes were lost, 12,000 of them unique or rare items. Restored with UNESCO funding, the library was rededicated in 2001, with a new wing added to the historic building, and new collections resulted from gifts and donations from Romania and abroad. The library offers modern services and access to full-text databases. State-of-the-art technology available both in the new addition and in the Baroque reading rooms make it the premier library of the country.

The plight of public libraries

The Metropolitan Library of Bucharest (MLB) runs a network of 35 branches throughout the capital city (including the main branch in downtown Bucharest), serving a population of 2 million. Most of the branches are situated in old buildings that were confiscated during the communist regime; several of them are under litigation, claimed by the original owners. MLB has been able to secure the funding to have five locales purposely built as branch libraries. This is quite an achievement in a country where since World War II only some 10 buildings have been designed to serve as public libraries. In addition, MLB has opened six branches in other European countries to serve the information needs of the Romanian population living in those areas. Other public libraries have followed this initiative in an attempt to support Romanians living abroad.

In 2010 there were 2,836 public libraries in Romania, 78 less than in 2005. The laws that govern public library funding are not being enforced. Public libraries are funded by the local authority, and the level of funding depends heavily on taxes. The global financial crisis has also taken a toll on the local public library and its collections. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stepped with dollars and training.

Beginning in 2007, the Gates Foundation has included Romania in its Global Libraries initiative with some $28 million. The program is administered by Washington-based IREX, and by summer 2012 it had equipped some 1,500 public libraries with 6,460 PCs and 450 laptops and other devices, and with licensed software. In addition, the program has trained roughly 3,000 public librarians in providing modern library services and becoming library advocates, and it has contributed to the strengthening of the National Association of Public Libraries and Librarians in Romania. The local authority is responsible for covering internet access fees. Public library usage, currently at only 10% nationwide, is expected to grow along with Romania’s timidly implementing its e-government agenda.

As public libraries register more users in urban areas, rural libraries are struggling to attract customers. “In rural areas there has been a decline in the quality of education,” states MLB General Director Florin Rotaru “and for the first time in Romanian history we are experiencing massive emigration.” One of the goals of village libraries is to virtually reunite families who are apart. Children left in their grandparents’ care come to the public library to use the internet to connect with their parents who left to find work elsewhere.

In the face of the formidable technological challenges public libraries face in Romania, says Rotaru, “it is necessary to completely rethink libraries and services.” The most important factor in that rethinking, he says, is “changing the mentality,” not just of public officials and administrators, but of librarians themselves, “from conservative and traditional” with new laws and a financial structure that places technology and its potential at the forefront of education and library service delivery.

HERMINA ANGHELESCU is professor of library and information science at Wayne State University in Detroit. A native of Romania, she is the author of numerous articles and encyclopedia entries on libraries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and the post-communist period. She is the convener of IFLA’s Library History Special Interest Group. She can be reached at

LEONARD KNIFFEL is a writer and librarian living in Chicago. He is former editor and publisher of American Libraries. His most recent book is Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries (ALA Editions/Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). He can be reached at or on his website,



Globalization in Romania

“English is the language of globalization,” said Velizar Sadovski during the opening ceremony of the fifth edition of the international symposium “The Book. Romania. Europe.” Gathered September 23–27 in the Romanian seaside town of Mamaia, francophone librarians from 18 countries delivered 54 papers, primarily in French, which is the traditional second language of Romanians. Sadovski, senior researcher at the Institute of Iranian Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, was speaking to the fact that over the five years of the annual conference, papers and presentations delivered in English have increased as English becomes the predominant second language for more young Romanians.

The encroachment of English notwithstanding, the study of Romanian history and librarianship demands fluency in French, and many of the 165 conference attendees were fluent in at least Romanian, French, and English. Chief among them was Hermina Anghelescu, library science professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, who is a native of Romania and organizer of the US contingent. Her presentation consisted of a statistical overview of Romanian libraries since 2000, with some alarming numbers from Romania's Statistical Yearbook, 2011. "Romania's use of public libraries of 10% places the country on one of the lowest spots in Eastern Europe," she observed.

Sponsored by the Metropolitan Library of Bucharest, the symposium shines an international spotlight on Romanian libraries, and a number of the sessions focused on their pressing need to provide programs and services that are essential to the communities they serve. Other sessions concerned more esoteric topics such as “defining the early Greek presence in the Romanian lands” and “cultural transfer in the late Ottoman Balkans.” Discussion often centered on how the profession in Europe needs to adopt public-awareness techniques and service standards that will increase popular support for libraries.