The National Library of Technology (NTK) in Prague is the largest and oldest library of science and technology in the Czech Republic. Its collection has over 1.2 million volumes, including unique rarities.
Housed in a modern building, built using the most modern environmental practices in the center of the Dejvice technological campus, NTK offers ideal conditions for students and scientists. The complex has 1322 places for study and 562 places for relaxation. The library has individual and group study rooms and classrooms, self-service printing, scanning and copying machines, self-service book check-in and check-out machines, information services, a cafeteria, an exhibition hall, a gallery and a congress hall. After normal working hours of the library, the round-the-clock night study room is also available.
Martin Svoboda has been the director of the library for over twenty years. During this time, the library has again changed its name. We asked the Head of this unique institution to tell his story.
– The history of the NTK begins with 300 gold coins given to the Professor of Engineering and fortification expert Christian Joseph Wilenberg in 1718 for the purchase of books and educational supplies. There was no building for classes as such, so students visited Willenberg at his home.
After 50 years, Professor Franz Leonard Herget managed to get the building for the Classroom Engineering Schools and enhanced the library by his personal collection.
In 1831, Frantisek Joseph Gerstner, rector of the Polytechnic Institute, gave Karl Balling (later professor and rector of the same institute, as well as the founder of the scientific foundations of brewing) the task of consolidating, organizing and accounting library collections.
In 1869, after the Prague Polytechnic Institute was divided into Czech and German schools, the library remained a common institution and was financed from the regional budget of Czech lands.
Then, in 1926, the Klementinum complex was adapted for the needs of the National and University Library.
In 1935, according to the project of the library director Antonin Moucha and architect Ladislav Makhon (Махонь), a radical restructuring of the Klementinum’s east wing took place for the library of technical schools, where an original space was equipped by the most advanced technologies of the time: telephones, electromechanical book conveyor and pneumatic mail, which was used to the very day of our move to the new building.
However, in 1960, the library was separated from the technical university system, renamed the State Technical Library (STK) and became part of the Central Office of Scientific, Technical and Economic Information.
Only in 1995, on the initiative of the Ministry of Education and the STK, negotiations were held between the rectors of the Czech Technical University (CTU) and the University of Chemistry and Technology (UCT), as well as the then director of the STK Milena Rupesova, as a result of which everyone agreed on the location of the new library building on campus of the Technical University – in Dejvice.
Former library director Milena Rupesova and head of the library department at CTU Barbora Ramajzlova persuaded me to apply for the position of director of the library, and I won the open competition and took office in the fall of 1997.
In 1999, an integral part of our project was the union of the STK, CTU and UCT libraries. After a joint discussion, the name of the National Library of Technology was adopted.
Why did the construction of a new NTK building take so long?
– Construction began seven years after I took over the office of the Library Head. I think that the construction process itself was relatively quick, only 28 months from the first dig to take-over, however, before it began, a certain path had to be taken.
When appointing me to the post of director of the library in September 1997, the deputy minister of education told me: “Director Svoboda, don’t think that you will manage only the library, your task is to build a new building for it.” That is why, already in November 1997, together with my colleagues, we came up with the first draft sketch of a new complex project.
In 1998, in accordance with the new University Code, the status of universities changed from state to public. Under the new code, the buildings and lands occupied by universities were passed into their ownership.
In 1999, we prepared a project to merge libraries, although negotiations on the general management of these libraries began only in 2004. This project primarily concerned not the building, but the creation of a real institution. I needed to calculate how much will such a complex cost? Fortunately, the architect Milan Liska, who had many years of experience in the construction of schools, helped us draw up the design for the assignment.
In 2000, the project was approved by Government Decree, and in May of the same year, an architectural tender was announced.
Mr. Liska actively participated in drawing up the requirements for the tender, but, regrettably, he did not live to see the opening of the library. He would be glad to see the very building which we together so painstakingly worked on.
In January 2001, an architectural tender was awarded to four architects who were former students of CTU. The empty lot for the complex, across the road from the building of their Faculty of Architecture, was familiar to them. It took several years to resolve the issue of financing the construction of a new library. The budget was approved in 2004, project drawing, obtaining all the necessary permits and tender for the general supplier took another two years. Construction work began in 2006, and by 2009 the Library was opened – 12 years after I became Director.
Which trends influenced the architecture and design of the complex?
– I got a lot of inspiration from British and American standards. As an automation expert at the National Library, in the 1990s I visited 25 libraries on the east coast of the USA, and also regularly attended seminars for automation specialists in different European libraries.
However, designing a library in 1998 for the 21st century was an almost impossible task. It was obvious that we could not predict: how will everything function in twenty or fifty years? Therefore, it was important for us that the building was simple, flexible and easy to rebuild. Even then, it was clear that books in the library would cease to be the most important component, as they would be available via the Internet. We wanted the building to be designed in such a way that it should contain a freely accessible public area, which could be a meeting place for students, residents and other visitors.
In this regard, NTK is an exceptional project.
The library actually starts on the second floor. And the first floor consists of a cafe, a bookstore, a municipal library branch,a copy center, a gallery and a conference hall. Since the library was opened, we have held hundreds events a year, including courses in the study of foreign languages, trainings, conferences and other meetings. In 2010, we even had a wedding!
The complex has four entrances. Why so?
– It was done in order to create a crossroads effect inside the building. These numerous entrances / exits make the building more convenient, allowing people to use them as the shortcut route from one part of the Dejvice campus to the other. It has become a very effective solution for the “revitalization” of the building. According to the latest statistics, more than five thousand people go through the “intersection” every day, and thereby increase the fundamental vitality and create a special atmosphere in our building.
The atrium is decorated with unusual drawings. Please tell us more about them…
– The central work of art in the atrium of the NTK expresses the essence of the library as a public institution and a space that makes visitors think about what is “different” and “important”. In the invited competition for three European artists (Dan Perjovschi, Carsten Holler and Carsten Nikolai) the project of the Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi won. His sketches were made in the technique of “alla prima” in black ink on concrete. The space of the atrium, thus, became a gigantic album in which the artist presents sketches on various social and political issues.
Even until 2-3 years ago, these two hundred avant-garde comic-style drawings were the only permanent installation of Perjovschi.
His works offer visitors a certain release from tension that occurs during intensive study and work.
And what is an unusually decorated floor in the library?
– A colorful drawing of the floor inside the building is based on diagrams of the tension in the floor plate. Architecture and civil engineering students understand this concept as soon as they enter the building.
Is it costly to operate such a magnificent complex?
– Finding financing to create a library is one thing, and finding financing to maintain it in a proper form each year is a completely different matter. One of our requirements in the tender of architects was economical energy consumption, or rather, saving operating costs. It is clear that allocating sufficient funding for construction is a serious problem, but asking for money every year for operating costs is unlikely to be a lesser problem. As a director, I set myself the goal of achieving a good balance between the costs of operating an institution and the costs of acquiring new assets. I am pleased to note that due to the tender and excellent design, which used all the concepts of “green energy”, we spend much lower than initial estimates in terms of operating costs. The very idea of how to make the building as environmentally friendly and cost-effective as possible was a constituent part of the design from the very beginning.
Which of the prominent figures and important persons visited the library?
– A variety of Czech and international scientists, diplomats and artists visited the NTK building. For example, four Nobel Prize winners in chemistry in 2012, the famous Czech scientist Antonin Holy in 2011, and artist Ai Wei Wei in 2017 visited the NTK among many others.
There were prominent politicians, including the current president of the Czech Republic. The first and second primary presidential pre-election meetings were also held at the library.
Are there guided tours of the library, including for tourists?
– Tours about our history and the services are free of charge for information service employees or students of secondary schools, colleges and universities, employees of research centers, libraries and information centers, as well as supporters of youth scientific and technical education and training in engineering and applied sciences and social sciences. As for tourists, we do not particularly advertise these excursions, so I definitely can’t say whether they are popular among visitors.
What are the attendance statistics and how is your library funded?
– We predicted that at the beginning of the opening of the library the number of visitors will increase, as new students will come every year who will “learn” to use the library. There is a counter at the entrance and sometimes it shows that more than 1380 people are present in the building at the same time.
Every year we capture more than 800,000 visitors and are approaching the limit of design capacity – 900,000!
The library is funded by the Ministry of Education of the country.
This year, September 9th marks the 11th anniversary of the opening of your library. Is this day celebrated?
– In honor of our birthday, we hold an annual conference called KRECon (Knowledge, Research and Education Conference). For our 10th anniversary, we also exhibited rarities of our collections of the 16th-17th centuries for a week. After that, they were returned back to the storage, where a certain temperature and humidity are maintained to preserve them.
What do you think is the future of printed books, will this format disappear?
-It doesn’t look like that books will disappear. The most requested resources in the library are chairs, tables, heating and Wi-Fi. However, paper books are still popular.
Here, at the NTK, we can measure their number in kilometers, and these are 32 kilometers of books – sources of knowledge!
As the director of the library who manages of one of the most outstanding public buildings built in Prague over the past 20 years, do you feel you have achieved success?
– Nearly. There are some more things that need to be improved. The management of the library is not like the discovery of the laws of nature – it is providing support at the appropriate level to those who make such discoveries, and this is also a science in its own way. I always wanted the library to be not some beautiful statue, but a real building, and I hope that we managed to do this with the NTK.