Libraries needn’t be all about fusty finger-wagging and fines, as Ljubljana has proved with its Libraries Under The Treetops initiative. Duncan Rhodes experiences the quiet joys of some al fresco erudition…
They may form the backdrop of action-packed scenes in movies like Harry Potter, Ghostbusters and Breakfast Club, but in reality a trip to the library is rarely the highlight of anyone’s day. Dusty, dimly-lit and sanctimoniously dull, they perhaps exude a certain central-heated appeal on a bone-chilling winter’s afternoon, but they are pretty much the last place any sane person wants to be on a warm summer’s one. At least outside of Slovenia, because, as the name suggests, Ljubljana’s Library Under The Treetops is distinctly different. Forget the imprisoning civil architecture of the average bibliotheque, hemming one in with its cheaply plastered walls, jaundiced strip lighting and oppressively low ceilings, fear not the steely, horn-rimmed gazes of robotic librarians as they administer you an exorbitant late return fine (what’s three months between friends?), and dismiss the sad shuffling gates of etiolated students, crushed by the weight of their overly ambitious theses on the fiscal policies of The People’s Republic of China from the 1950s to 70s.
No! Ljubljana’s Libraries Under The Treetops are, contrary to societal norms, spacious, green, airy, oxygen-infused affairs of relaxed bookish camaraderie. These ad hoc athenaeums spring up every summer in the Slovenia capital in an ever increasing number of leafy locations, offering the weary traveller the chance to plonk their posterior onto a cushion or folding chair and bury their head in a book for as long, or as short, as they please. I came across my first one when marching across Congress Square right in the heart of Ljubljana’s old town. I had been in full-on tourist mode and determined to take in as much as the city as possible, but once I spied the funky deckchairs and the attractive cartons of books, set in the grassy midrift of the plaza, and glazed by the late June sunlight, I felt, if not a compulsion, then an urge at least to stop for a while and slow things down. Appropriately enough I pick up a copy of The Hedonism Handbook, angle my chair to the sun and lazily skim through some sage advice on the merits of idleness and pleasure. One quote by Abraham Lincoln amuses me: It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues, says the dead pres. It’s certainly a saying that could hide a multitude of sins.
After closing my eyes for a minute or so, I wake up from a pleasant dose to find two young ladies sitting just a few yards from me. I overhear them speaking English so that’s my cue to get their opinion on these arboreal archives. Zara is a 19-year-old Slovenian girl from Nova Gorica who is reading (in English) a book called Surely You Are Joking Mr. Feynman? She is showing her Polish friend, Irena, around the city and explains how she came to be here:
“I didn’t know there was a library. We were just at the Preseren square and I wanted to show my friend this square as well, because – even when there is not a library – people usually are just sitting here, playing guitar. There are also concerts sometimes. When we saw this, we just stopped to relax for a while. I think this is very nice because it’s educational and you get to know books. It’s also a great way to spend your free time, instead of being on a computer.”
I ask Irena what’s the appeal from her tourist’s point of view and she’s equally positive. “I think it’s a great idea, I haven’t seen it before. I can have a rest, not just read a book – these chairs are quite comfortable! I can talk to my friend. And it’s really nice that the books are also in English, because I don’t understand Slovenian, so that’s great!”
I ask if it makes sense to start reading a book that you’re going to have to leave behind shortly, but Irena doesn’t see that as a problem. “Sometimes we can just start reading a book, and then if we like it we can borrow it from the library…. I mean the real library! Or just read it on the internet for example. It’s a good opportunity to start reading.”
The girls disappear to explore the rest of the city, and it’s time for me to do likewise as well. I encounter some other libraries…
Back home from my Ljubljana visit, and stuck at my dreary and dismal desk, and I’m still intrigued enough by L.U.T.T. experience to drop the organisers an email and find out a little bit more. Here is the questions and answers session I had with the project founder, Tina Popovič.
Q1: What was your inspiration behind starting Library Under The Treetops? Had you seen something similar elsewhere?
At that time, 10 years ago, I was a part of organization of music festival in park Tivoli (Ljubljana’s main park). And I thought it would be great to offer good books and chairs to all those people, gathering there in park. No, I haven’t seen anything similar before.
Q2: What was your motivation behind starting LUTT? Why did you want to do it?
At the Turizem Ljubljana office they have recognized the idea interesting very soon and they have asked me, If we would set it up at the Ljubljanica river for a longer period. This is how we have started. It was a lot of improvisation at the beginning, but I enjoyed a lot first years under the willows along the Ljubljanica. I had a good feeling, a response was good, people soon began to read and no longer just wondered if I we are selling books. “Oh, what a good idea” is the sentence, we have heard so many times in those years (from 2 yrs old to 90 yrs) and that gave us and is still giving us a lot of motivation. And with the encouragement and support of Tourism Ljubljana, in years followed, we have developed one of the most successful projects in the field of promoting reading culture in Slovenia. At the some time an interesting offer for tourists that also manage to revitalize neglected public spaces.
Q3: How does LUTT benefit the local community in Ljubljana (and other cities?)?
At the beginning people were asking a lot if we are selling books. It was quite unusual, that we were just offering them for free, under trees. At that time in LJ we were not even used to sit on the grass in parks. Then people got used to a new offer and today, if we change some location, people are asking us to bring it back, they just get used to it quickly. I think LUTT became a part of Ljubljana summer public park equipment. And children just love it. For them it is like a playground. They ask their parents to stop and read. And for me this is really a great success. We are spreading the reading culture on a simple, playful way. On the other hand the LUTT with a long-term presence on specific public spaces helps to revive the less known and less popular areas. Or refurbished public spaces with a lack of content. The project is also continuously attractive for volunteers and students that are joining the project and contributing on the regular basis and thus widening projects positive social impact.
Q4: Are you trying to engage tourists as well? If so, how?
When we have opened the library on LJ castle for the first time (in was in 2010- LJ was the World Capital of Book under Unesco- and at that time and occasion we have opened 5 new reading locations in LJ), we paid more attention on books and magazines for turist, in many foreign languages, from many fields. Now we offer at least some books for tourist on every LUTT location. On some (like Lj castle even in majority). Tourists love the simple idea of outdoor reading and some are telling us they will do the same in their countries.
Q5: What are your future plans for LUTT?
Oh, people and local communities are asking us all the time to bring LUTT in their cities, parks, villages. We have to find the way to answer all those wishes, needs. We have to find the way to spread the idea on the national level and abroad.
Q6: I noticed that sometimes you have concerts as well?
Not just concerts, also talks, readings, workshops, through the whole summer. Sometimes we organize 10 events per week. What you have noticed we call Live Reading music. It takes part every Sunday at the castle. We became a real summer reading festival!
So there you have it… this charming project has gone from unassuming beginnings to become an essential part of the cultural fabric of the city, and I do suggest – even if you’ve held a lifelong aversion to libraries – to pick up a book under the treetops, and (if you’ll excuse the pun) leaf through it.
Duncan visited Ljubljana as part of the #TasteLjubljana blogtrip, and you can read all of his stories and recommendations in The Travel Mob’s Ljubljana city guide. The trip was organised under the auspices of Visit Ljubljana – their website is a fantastic resource to the city. He was grateful to stay at the Hotel Meksiko, a modest and extremely comfortable three-star hotel around 10 minutes walk from the city centre.