Aimlessly looking through old documents on my laptop tonight I found some diary records from my time in Rome in 2002. I lived there from January to July while studying at one of Rome’s universities.
I found one note I liked a lot.
This is where our adventure takes place.
5th of February 2002.
Slept late. Then I went to Palazzo Venezia to go to the library. I found it, deposited my passport for the key to the locker where I left my bag. Then I entered my name in a large register. The library is a confusion of oddly shaped and sized rooms with open bookshelves in three storeys. Apparently the books aren’t ordered by any particular system other than an arbitrary number which you will have to find in order to locate the volume you are looking for. No such thing as an order by topic or author. There is a database, but it only contains books that have entered after 1998, but that goes not only for books written after 1998 but could go for any book. 1998 was when the base was established. All other books are on index cards. So you cannot just look for a pre-1998 book in the index. It could just as well be in the ever growing database – remember – no system.
When you have found your title you have to find out which of innumerable numbers on the card is the collocation number. And then you have to find the room containing books with the initial of the collocation number, and then on which storey that initial is located. Then you should look for the staircase, well hidden among the shelves. And then – there is the book!
First victory of the day – I have deciphered the code and found the book I was looking for.
Next book. The code is different. I search on cards and walk through all rooms – no such collocation number. The librarian is busy but a lady in the queue tells me that I should look in the author index. There I find the same collocation number. Back at the librarian I am told that the book is in another department on the other side of the entrance. I am not allowed to bring the victory book over there, so I put it on a special shelf and leave for the other department. Which is closed for lunch until 14.30. My watch tells me it is now 13.45. I give up and ask the librarian where I can check out the book I have found. She points to a dusty corner in the farthest room. Hidden between two bookcases I find a small counter. It will open after two o’clock so I wait. At two a balding employee with three ears turns up. Triumphantly she tells me that to borrow books I must show documentation from the university, two passport photos and some sort of ID. So I produce my student’s card, two passport photos and leave her momentarily to collect my passport at the entrance. The three-eared employee is clearly disappointed but reluctantly makes me a library ticket.
Second victory of the day.
Books are lent for a week and renewals are only made by personal address and for a maximum of a month. I was lucky I didn’ t want to borrow more than two books since that is all you can borrow at a time and I was also lucky to be there today since books are only checked out on two weekdays.
Third victory of the day: I present my receipt to the guard, hand in the key to the locker and exit radiant with joy to Piazza Venezia with the book in my arms. I smile all the way to the Danish Academy.
I guess all libraries have to be deciphered when you first enter them. But this library was the most reluctant I have ever been in. It was situated in the rooms whence Mussolini held his speeches to the Roman people, so maybe that explains the bad karma. I liked it though. So completely disorderly and so overly filled with books that any book lover would have given in immediately. It was also crowded with students, so crowded that my few attempts at studying there were complete failures. I did have a key to the Danish Academy and their library where I was allowed to study. But as soon as summer approached the heat made it impossible to stay there. Rome didn’t have enough places for students to read so my hunt for a desk and some quiet led me to different libraries and academies (the American Academy was quite nice but they only let me in once). I even studied in the cast collection of the university surrounded by other desperate students and hordes of plaster copies of ancient statues.
Today I went to the Danish Royal Library. How nice it is to sit in the Harry Potter-like reading room with the eleven books you have just checked out and plenty of peace, time and space for your perusal.
Surely nothing as exotic as three-eared employees and Fascist atmosphere but quite, quite comfortable.
By the way… you may ask why I had two passport photos ready for the bitter employee. Well… when in Italy you should always carry lots of passport photos and copies of you passport if you have a wish to engage with any sort of authority or offical place (be it libraries, national registers, university canteens). You never know when you are going to need them, you only know that you will need them at some point.