Saturday, September 12, 2009

Fresh Promises

The Centre Party is promising a new stoplight in Pirita. The Reform Party is offering “fresh energy” and they say they’ll make Haapsalu the Venice of the North. All those things are nice, but what I’d really like is for the national library to be open more than seven hours a day. After all, if it is, as its website claims, the “custodian of our national memory and heritage, the centre of Estonian literature...” and “the most valuable information provider for our legislative body and other constitutional institutions,” then can all that really be accomplished in a mere seven hours? If there are other research libraries in the world open so few hours a day, I’m not aware of them. Washington DC’s Library of Congress is open thirteen hours a day. The British Library is open at least ten. Even la Bibliothèque nationale de France is open nine to five. But the Estonian National Library opens later and closes earlier than even a Paris clothing boutique.

The national library may not be as popular as a stoplight in Pirita, but it’s at least as useful. If you arrive for the library’s opening at eleven, the music is inspiring. I’m no expert on music, but I can testify that the Rahvusraamatukogu Theme Song fills the building with hope and promise, as if every day might be witness to some young researcher emerging from deep in the stacks screaming “Eureka!”

Simply entering the library is a pleasure. The security guards are truly polite gentlemen. They have a memory for faces and offer a friendly welcome that makes me feel as if the national library were my very own office building, which, as a taxpayer, I suppose it is. These men are a reassuring presence in a building with hundreds of thousands of books, knowledge and tradition. From their shined shoes to their neatly combed hair, it’s clear that they, like everyone else in the building, value what they protect.

Architecturally speaking, the national library is one of the few Soviet-era buildings I’ve seen that the rain hasn’t almost completely washed away. It’s like the Linnahall, except for that the builders were sober the day they mixed the concrete.

I am not alone in my appreciation. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t spot an Estonian intellectual somewhere in the library complex. I’ve seen Andrus Kivirähk at least a half dozen times, and Andrei Hvostov is a regular in the library cafeteria (he orders porridge). I’ve also spotted Hardi Volmer, and I have one unconfirmed sighting of Jaan Kaplinski.

Perhaps these people, like me, come for the hope and optimism. Even on the darkest winter day, light can be found in the building. The view from the eighth floor (and the natural light on the reading tables) rivals anything you’ll find in the city’s expensive glass office towers with their Stockholm-level rents.

It’s said one benefit of modern Estonian office life is stylish coworkers, and if that’s why you like the office then the library won’t disappoint: there are babes aplenty in the sixth-floor law reading room. I’m not sure what this says about Estonia. In my country, female lawyers are to be strictly avoided. But the law reading room has advantages which attract everyone: It’s the one place in the library you can get up to take a phone call and still keep an eye on your laptop through the glass wall.

Not all is wonderful at the library, of course.

The café is a bit overpriced: Almost twenty kroons for what is possibly Northern Europe’s worst espresso in a venue that hasn’t been remodeled since Lenin’s day. And the café’s oldest employee (born in 1870, as was Lenin) has a habit of glaring at you if she thinks you haven’t returned with sufficient speed the newspapers you borrowed from the café’s counter. “That’s my private copy,” I’ve learned to tell her, which is sometimes true, but always sends her packing with a suspicious sniff.

The café is wonderful, however, as a place to watch conference participants decamp to the cafeteria. They’re often formally dressed and walk with a spring in their step, fresh energy (the real kind) from having learned something new, or at least from having cheated the bossman out of a day’s labor. And the coffee-klatching pensioners are priceless, tables full of chattering septuagenarians dressed to the nines.

What I most like about the national library is that it’s the haunt of normal people, and island of humanity in a city that sometimes seems inhuman. Tallinn, to me, suffers from an identity crisis, and the national library is one place you can count on for “normaalne.” It is one of the few places in the city you will never encounter a black luxury sedan parked on the sidewalk blocking the door.

But while it’s normaalne, it’s perhaps too normaalne for politicians, and therefore unlikely to become an object of anyone’s campaign. Although I’ve seen writers and composers and other cultural figures there, I have only once seen a politician: Jaak Aaviksoo (in the lobby) inspecting the poster for an exhibition of war photographs from the Middle East.

It might be unfair to conclude we don’t see politicians there because a library is the seat of learning and politicians are a breed who believe they already possess the answers. Perhaps there’s simply free coffee on Toompea? Or could it be politicians find nothing sexy about the library? But just because the librarians haven’t yet posed in Playboy (with reading glasses on the tip of the nose à la Rein Lang), it doesn’t mean that the library isn’t sexy. You’ve just got to spend some time in it to understand.

The coming elections are the first I’m allowed to vote in—I’ve finally fulfilled my five-year residency requirement—and to win my vote it’s going to take more than a new stoplight in Pirita or a cleaned-up Ninja on a poster with Tiit Terik. But “fresh energy” isn’t going to do it either, whatever that slogan is supposed to mean. How about a fresh new hour or two at the national library?

Read it in Estonian in Postimees.