‘The NLG is going through a new era of development’

Director General of the National Library of Greece, Dr Filippos Tsimpoglou talks about the library's historic mission, its treasures, and the agreement with the Greek Community of Melbourne

It was at the beginning of September 2016 when the Greek Community of Melbourne announced a historic agreement with the National Library of Greece (NLG). According to the agreement, the NLG will “open its doors” to the Greek diaspora by providing them the opportunity to connect with Greece and Greek authors. Neos Kosmos, had reported the news of the agreement and the challenges of the NLG’s relocation to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center.

In today’s interview with Director General of the NLG Dr Filippos Tsimpoglou, we touch on different viewpoints of the agreement with the Greek Community of Melbourne, and elaborate on the initiative’s advantages. While he guides us through the library’s treasures and discusses its mission. As the library’s relocation appears to be one of the most interesting endeavours it has experienced so far, the director general describes the traits required if someone desires to lead the way and promote change to achieve a better future.

Can you tell us more about this agreement and its advantages?
The NLG is going through a new era of development as far as its infrastructure, its ability to cope with situations, functions, operations, and its scope are concerned. It has opened its doors to the future, and to the Greek diaspora, since the diaspora is part of this future. Thanks to the largest donation ever awarded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in Greece, the NLG has relocated to its new building, and has undertaken the immense task of responding to the expectations and commitments of decades.

As a result, the NLG has upgraded its more standard services – that have remained stagnant for years – and created new digital services, organised its services to facilitate the increasing readers’ and researchers’ needs, and effectively addressed the requirements of its new beneficiaries.

The agreement is going to provide access to the library’s digital ‘treasures’, as well as its Greek book collection to the Greek diaspora of Australia.
At the same, the agreement is going to determine ways in which we can reinforce the Greek Community of Melbourne’s initiative to create a library within its own premises, and engage via donations and collection exchanges.

We are also discussing the option of designing and developing several education initiatives for the children of the Greek diaspora, according to their digital and learning needs.

The NLG will also work towards organising the objects and artefacts that have been inherited and created throughout the years by the Greek diaspora, starting, of course, with the Greeks of Melbourne.

Director General of the National Library of Greece, Dr Filippos Tsimpoglou. Photo: Giorgos Oikonomopoulos

Many diaspora Greeks are not aware of the library’s treasures and mission, simply because they have never had the opportunity to visit it. How would you describe the NLG, its treasures, and its historical mission?
The NLG is the par excellence depository and trustee for Greece’s cultural heritage. Its mission is to perpetually locate, collect, organise, categorise, preserve, and safeguard scientific and cultural artefacts created in Greece or internationally and related to Hellenism, by offering open and equal access to any interested party.

The National Library has been amassing the cultural heritage of Greece since 1829, spanning a course parallel to the history of the country’s modern state. It has developed a collection of unique value, estimated at close to two million items.

The NLG’s collection of 5,400 manuscripts, dating from the nineth to the 20th centuries, include parchment and paper that preserve different kinds of script and decorative elements spanning the centuries.

These manuscripts contain both theological and secular texts, and pertain to the literature, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and natural sciences of ancient Greece.

In the library’s books stacks and vaults, we safeguard hundreds of thousands of imprinted books, spanning from the 15th century to the current day.
The collection of rare printed material includes books, pamphlets, and leaflets that stand out either because of their age and rarity or because of their particular historical and artistic value.

In addition, the NLG has thousands of newspapers and magazines, special collections such as posters, musical notations, works of art and maps, and valuable collections of archival material, including the Archives of the Revolutionary War of 1821 and the London Philhellenic Committee (a Philhellenic group established to support the Greek War of Independence from Ottoman rule).

An NGL preservation technician at work. Photo: AAP via EPA/Simela Pantzartzi

When journalists ask you about the relocation, you always state that “the library’s relocation does not signify the repositioning and transfer of books, but it manifests the library’s transition to a new era”. What is your vision for this new era and strategy for the National Library’s role in the future?
The relocation is a milestone in the National Library’s history, and marks its transition into a new digital era, characterised by its innovation and its ‘openness’ to the public. A wide range of new functions are being designed and implemented in order to obtain all the central services of a contemporary national library.

Our vision is to make the NLG internationally recognised as the epicentre for Greek studies and Greek scholarship.

By improving our digital services, and by promoting the interconnection of national and international electronic sources, we aim to ensure unsurpassed digital resources and access on Hellenism to scientists and researchers worldwide.

At the same time, our goal is to provide information literacy, and to apply methods and approaches that will be a model for all libraries within Greece, as required by the National Library’s role.

Can you give us an idea of the preparatory work that is taking place at the National Library’s old building at the moment?
We are experiencing a historical change of tremendous importance. The relocation consists of 40 projects that run across five axes: Book Collection Development, Digital Services Improvement, New Borrowing Facilities Design, Client Service Development, and Personnel Training.

For the past several months, more than 65 permanent and external staff members, librarians, conservationists, librarians, and archivists of the NLG have been working to individually process 750,000 items, from the library’s general collection to restore, preserve, and sort them into a Radio Frequency Identification system (RFID).

This intensive process will allow for the safe relocation of the collection, allowing for the entirety of its collections to be managed and identified electronically within the online catalogue.

More than 350 staff members, librarians, archivists, palaeographers, computer engineers, and external collaborators of the library have been working on projects such as the Collective Catalogue for Greek Libraries, and the cataloguing of the National Library’s historical archives and digital collections.

An employee attaches RFID labels to the books. Photo: AAP via EPA/ Simela Pantzartzi

In 2003/2004, the state of Victoria – via the Library Board of Victoria and the Victorian Public Library Network – launched its Libraries Building Communities initiative. The initiative stated that libraries’ missions for the future should not only contribute towards literacy and overcoming the digital divide, but also implement community programs that connect people with their community and reinforce social cohesion. As a result, libraries in Victoria provide literacy programs for socially excluded children, lifelong learning initiatives for the unemployed, and a network of libraries and even mobile libraries for those who live in remote areas. Do you have any similar initiatives in mind for the near future?
The NLG is due to play a new role in society, transforming into a dynamic, supportive, and interactive organisation that transmits values and promotes the significance of knowledge and the sciences. Consequently, we are planning to establish a new Public Library Section of the NLG, an initiative which is highly groundbreaking for any national Library at an international level.

The section will serve the general public, who will soon be able to borrow books and make use of the rich printed and audiovisual resources in a pleasant and friendly environment.

It should be noted that the Public Library Section of the NLG will provide services to preschool, primary, and adolescent children, in a wide range of educational and interactive programs.

In addition, it will include fully equipped recording and recording studios, a radio station, showrooms, meetings, workshops as well as small spaces designated to play and learn activities.

At present, the library is providing use of its premises to various community groups, such as refugee and migrant groups, to publish their own local newspapers, read the news, and create their own narrative within Greek society.

You have stated that “when you read many books, you live many lives since you live your life and the lives of the books’ characters”. However, many young people – who do not have time for leisure, or are under pressure to respond to their exams successfully – distort your perspective and argue that when ‘you read, you forget to live or you only live via the books’ characters’. What more can we advise them about the world of books?
One-dimensionality… may cause health damage. If my statement is read carefully, then its clear that “live your life” is a precondition, and that is in exact opposition to the ideology of living only through the life of others. The experiences gained from contact with the ‘other’, whether by reading or by essential personal communications, enrich our thoughts and feelings, they do not subtract from them.

Literacy connects us with the thoughts, ideas, knowledge, practices, stories and lives of people we may never meet, simply because our lives do not converge geographically, historically, culturally or socially.

Reading allows us to overcome these constraints, allowing us to transcend time and space, to ‘meet’ different people, to lean about them, coexist, converse and empathise with them. At the same time, by reading, we share our own personal experiences, shape our own questions and objections, and discover our own feelings and issues while considering the events portrayed in books.

Dr Tsimpoglou (C), oversees project design and implementation in a reading room of the NLG. Photo: AAP via EPA/Simela Pantzartzi

In one of your interviews you mentioned that you learnt to read from your father, a working class miner, who always prompted and motivated you to learn. Since our intention is to reach and connect with children and parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds, can you give us some advice on the personality traits that someone must possess to make positive change and lead the way?
My mother taught me the alphabet’s first letters. She wanted to become a teacher. However, she experienced a difficult childhood that kept her from following her dream. She went to school only for one year.

Poor and orphaned, she could not even afford a notebook. The teacher, in an effort to help, tasked her with helping other schoolchildren who needed help with “their letters”, and they, in turn, would allow her to use a single row in each page of their notebooks at the end of each lesson.
Years later, she became my teacher, providing me with the little, but so much, she had learned.

Thanks to her I was able to read and write before I even started school. My father came to Greece as a baby, a refugee from Asia Minor, ending up orphaned and alone quite young. He completed the Year 4 of his primary school education, so it fell to him to oversee the higher levels of my education, all the way up to decimals – telling me I’d have to figure out, “fractions and beyond by yourself.”

My father was distinguished for his innate curiosity and his intrinsic need to clarify things.

So, I think someone who wants to change things for the better and lead the way must comprehend what people like my parents craved and were simultaneously deprived of. The story of my parents and the countless others like them aren’t just pained family histories.

Stories like these reflect the personal experiences of people, and express the need for universal human rights, such as peace, democracy, access to knowledge, education, medical care, the freedom of self-expression, and respect for all.

At the same time, I think that being concerned about all the factors that hinder progress, and attempting to truly understand these factors is also an essential trait for anyone wanting to change things for the better.

Ultimately, the basis for improvement is in having the sense of responsibility encased in being afforded the opportunity to utilise experiences that others have been deprived of.

Last summer, the NLG promoted a series of educational programs and activities. What kind of information should we provide to the Greeks of the diaspora, who live in Melbourne and visit Athens during the summer, if they wish to spend some quality time with their children?
The NLG welcomes the Greeks of the diaspora to its new facilities at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Come share the NLG’s panoramic view of Athens, which extends from the Acropolis to Faliro, meet the staff, admire the collections, the archival treasures, the services, and get to know the library itself – taking pride in all our National Library is.

The National Library is here to support and contribute to the growth of the Greeks of the diaspora, hoping to help them maintain a lively and strong relationship with Greece.

Hellenism and Greek culture are not limited to Greece, and references to Greece are not limited to the city of Athens. In the past four years, since 2014, the NLG has organised the Summer Reading and Creativity Campaign, in joined participation with over 150 libraries from all regions of the country.
Every year, we focus on a theme and set our imagination free, finding thousands of ways to impart the joys of books, literacy, discovery and learning to new generations of audiences.

We hope to also create a relationship between the Greeks of the diaspora and the local library of their native home – whether that’s an island, village, town, or city centre of Greece – so they may becomes even more tied to the land of their ancestors.