icelanders love their libraries

If you go downtown Reykjavík on Saturday mornings, there will be a lineup in front of only one place. The library.

If you go downtown Reykjavík on Saturday mornings, there will be a lineup in front of only one place.

The library.

In fact, there likely is a lineup in front of just about every library door every morning of the week in Iceland.

See, Icelanders have always been great users of public libraries, and this trend has been increasing in the past two decades, or so.

In 2001, 75 per cent of all Icelanders were regular library users, up from 49 per cent in 1991.

I couldn’t tell you why this is, but perhaps it is because of high book prices, long, dark winters, the Icelandic national psyche or, simply, that the libraries are fun.

You are, for example, allowed to talk in Icelandic libraries. Not loudly, but you can talk.

And many have little coffee rooms, or an area where poems, paintings and photographs are displayed.

Reykjavík city library was established in 1919 and opened to the public on April 19, 1923. Thus, it is one of the city’s oldest cultural institutions.

Iceland’s main economy has long been, and still is, fishing, and the librarians have, from the start, put together cases of books for fishermen, and lent books to ships by the box.

Interestingly, the establishment of the Reykjavík city library was partly due to a sale of fishing vessels to France in 1917.

The Icelandic government made it a condition for the sale that a portion of the profit would be used to set up a public library in Reykjavík, as the city had owned these fishing vessels prior to the sale.

The libraries operate like those in Canada.

To serve Reykjavík’s 113,400 people, the city library operates seven branches and one bookmobile, according to its website.

The bookmobile stops at some 40 places all over the city, and the staff is quite diligent in updating its stock.

Within these libraries, more than 1.3 million items are in circulation, and in 2003, library visits totalled 651,268.

International newspapers are also available at the main library, and its excellent collection of books about Iceland and Reykjavík is available in a number of languages.

Needless to say, this makes it a favourite hangout for visiting foreigners.

It also offers language courses — including Icelandic, Scandinavian languages, English, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and more — on cassette, CD, records or multimedia.

These can be borrowed for two months at a time, as opposed to the customary one-month period for most other items.

Their children’s department is great, with all sorts of fun things — computers, jigsaw puzzles, story times, et cetera.

In 2004, an Artotech was opened.

This is a co-operative project between the city library and the Association of Visual Artists rents out contemporary Icelandic art for a fee.

The library has 30 computers, all with internet access, available to the public for a fee, but if you bring your own laptop, you can also surf the internet and do your e-mailing for free.

In 2000, the main library moved into an old downtown warehouse by the harbour — with the most magnificent view from the desks available to the public on the fifth floor.

The same building houses also Reykjavík Archives and Reykjavík Photo Museum (the library occupies 2,900-square-metre area in the building), and next is Reykjavík Art Museum.

So, all in all, the libraries themselves seem quite similar to those same institutions in Canada.

Unfortunately, I can’t answer why Icelanders lineup, every day, to use the library.

And this is even more amazing when you consider that Icelanders are notorious for never being on time. Anywhere. Ever.

In any case, whatever these librarians do, it sure seems to be working.

The lineups prove it.