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Winter/Spring 2003

     Who, or what, is Gabriel? It’s an internet web site that links us to the national libraries of Europe. The name is (of course) an acronym--loosely defined: GAteway and BRIdge to Europe’s Libraries. But it also recalls the founder of modern library science, Gabriel Naude (1600-1653), who served as librarian to Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and assembled a library of 40,000 books from all over Europe. Perhaps, too, it implicates Gabriel the archangel, whose trumpet announces a new dispensation for mankind.

     What accounts for the interest, even fascination, of a website offering a collection of facts in English, French and German about old foreign libraries? (That’s the unsympathetic response to my enthusiasm from an acquaintance). My explanation, which I hadn’t the wit or patience to respond with at the time, follows here in due course.

     Why was Gabriel created? Its first impetus came from a new sense of European identity following the founding of the European Union in Western Europe and the re-creation of independent nations in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Conference of European National Libraries, one of many late 20th century organizations dedicated to this evolving cultural cooperation, decided in 1997 that the need for information about each nation’s archival resources could be met most effectively by the new World Wide Web. Gabriel has developed rapidly since then.

     The “Europe” represented by Gabriel is a wide one, extending from Iceland to Turkey, from Russia to Portugal--39 countries and 41 libraries (two sites each in Germany and Italy). Of the newly-created nations, only Bosnia and Belarus are missing from Gabriel, but both have independent web sites for their national libraries. Tiny Andorra and Monaco, questionable as national entities, also do not appear. Other miniscule but genuine states—Liechtenstein and San Marino—make the list. An independent territory smaller than any other—Vatican City—appears by reason of the Vatican Library, something less but also much more than a national library.

     So accustomed are we to autonomous “nations” in the modern world that we may lose sight of the turbulent emergence of most of them from oppressive empires. Powerful nationalist impulses, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe, made the language of a people, their literature, music, art, religion, and traditions, rallying points for political independence often achieved by war or revolution. A “national” library enshrining the written record of a distinctive culture that has achieved statehood seems an inevitable institution. So we see, most recently, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Macedonia as post-Yugoslav nations with their appropriate libraries; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine with theirs as post-Soviet nations; the Czech Republic and Slovakia with theirs as post-Czechoslovakia; and Ireland, Cyprus, and Malta with theirs as post-British Empire nations. All these national libraries are of course repositories of cultural heritages that antedate the phase of imperial rule or foreign domination.

     If a national library embodies and legitimates the aspirations and achievements of a people who have formed a nation, where shall we look for the written history of ongoing or failed or hopeless nationalist movements? After centuries of struggle, the Irish nation and consequently the Irish National Library now exist; Greece and Finland are similar success stories. But we can hardly imagine a Basque National Library--or a Catalonian or Flemish—or, going further afield, a Chechen or Kurdish. Yet there are “National Libraries” in Wales and in Scotland without nationhood because the British government acknowledges their semi-autonomous status and national spirit. The list of national libraries in Europe may have reached its limit.

     During recent centuries the national libraries of Western Europe (usually under their earlier royal or noble titles) fared better than those to the East. In the West, whether they expanded, or moved, or stagnated, their collections remained more or less under control--though the French Royal Library was inundated during the Revolution by 300,000 new documents confiscated from the nobility and clergy, and the Swedish Royal Library was broken up by Queen Christina when she converted to Catholicism and abdicated in 1654, her part eventually going to the Vatican Library. Even Napoleon and the two World Wars did not destroy, though they endangered, national collections in the West.

     But in Germany and Eastern Europe, intentionally destructive policies in the first half of the 20th century wrought havoc in national libraries. Nazi doctrine, more intensively applied here than in conquered Western Europe, expunged ideologically dangerous materials and especially Jewish authors. (Everyone is familiar with “book-burning” in Germany in the 1930s, though the authors of the German National Library entry in Gabriel tell us nothing of it. ) Nazi conquests in the East revealed such hostility to Slavic (and Baltic) peoples that all their cultural institutions were close to obliteration. For example, the Polish National Library, having been exported wholesale to St. Petersburg by Russian occupiers in 1794 and at last repatriated in 1918, was burned by the Germans in 1944 after the Warsaw uprising. Over 20,000 books in the Lithuanian National Library, founded after World War I, were destroyed by the Germans, as was five sixths of the White Russian ( later Belarus) National Library.

     After World War II Soviet Communism proved to be almost as lethal to libraries: Lithuania was victimized again, its remaining National Library Russianized and its books largely pulped, burned, or removed; and the Latvian National Library lost half a million books in a similar fashion. Ideological and nationalist zealots in the 20th century are reminiscent of (the semi-apocryphal) Sultan Omar in the 8th century who reportedly said of the books in the Alexandrian Library, “If they are in accord with the Koran, burn them as superfluous; if they conflict with the Koran, burn them as heretical.”

     Gabriel, with its own links and its stimulus to finding related web sites, is continuously evolving. It would be in the spirit of further improvement to suggest that it strive for greater uniformity and inclusiveness in each entry. A photograph of each national library should accompany the text. The histories of the libraries should be more uniformly treated in their relation to their national histories. Significant national repositories of specialized kinds--for example, governmental, legal, medical, ecclesiastical, technical, military, cartographic--should be mentioned. All this would enhance the value of Gabriel as a unified source for national archival information as well as adding to national prestige.

     Are there web sites for other parts of the world that do what Gabriel does for Europe? A future article in The Patrons Post will tell the story.

Albert R. Vogeler