Finally, just last week, some resolution was brought to the developing crisis in Naples around one of the region’s oldest libraries, the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. This library, built alongside the Church and Convent of the Girolamini of Gerolamini in the late 16th century serviced the Oratory of the convent, but was also open to the public from its very beginnings. It is one of the richest libraries in the south of Italy, and one of the oldest in Naples and a particular example of the public library in pre-Unification Italy. The library expanded in the following centuries to a collection of almost 160,000 books which range in subjects from theology and church history to contemporary literature, archaeology, numismatics, music and local history, all dating from the 15th-19th century. Since the late 19th century the library has been administered by the local Cultural Ministry (Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali) and the Oratory.
Funding crises and libraries are almost synonymous in modern day’s news, it seems that every week an A-list author is speaking out in favour of more funding for public libraries. I am in full support of these movements, and this post is by no means meant to detract from a focus on the public library funding crisis, but I think that just as much attention needs to be paid to our historic libraries and collections. Historic libraries such as privately owned collections, libraries owned and run by churches, or collections once privately-owned but now held publicly were often the main access providers to the public of old and rare books before universities began opening their collections. In many instances across Europe and the United States, privately owned but publicly accessed historic libraries are crystallized time-capsules which provide invaluable data not only in the form of the books they hold but also historic records of who was using their books, where they came from and what they read. Collections such as Innerpeffray Library and some of England’s Cathedral Libraries are wonderful examples of and collections which have survived centuries of borrowing, fluctuation in funding and use and changes in management. These libraries have survived in the face of great change, and have made do with varying levels of institutional support because of the strength of their collections. Other libraries such as The Women’s Library in London and the Girolamini are examples of wonderful libraries that are currently threatened by under-funding and poor management. National libraries in smaller countries being hit by financial crises are also facing similar risks, most recently Bosnia-Hercegovina’s National Library has had to shut its doors and limit its services due to budget restraints.