By the standards of the ancient military religious order that once ruled Malta, the National Library of Malta in the heart of Valletta is still in its youth.
The spectacular Baroque building in which it now resides, on Republic Square in Malta’s capital, was built in 1796. Yet, it safeguards the unique archive of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, an organisation of knights dating back to the First Crusade, granted sovereign independence by Pope Pascal II in 1113.
Despite the weight of all the history contained within its walls, the library’s youthful director, Joanne Sciberras, very much keeps her eyes on its future. Sciberras served as Deputy Librarian from 2012 to 2016 before being appointed the top job, and visited the National Library for the first time while studying history at the University of Malta. “Being a history lover, I immediately felt at home, surrounded by all those books and manuscripts full of knowledge on my country,” she recalls.
Her duties read like something out of The Da Vinci Code. Sciberras regularly handles unique documents in the library’s exceptional collection, the origins of which date back to 1555, when the Order of St John of Jerusalem decreed that all books belonging to its deceased knights must pass into its archives. In 1760, the Order inherited the collection of Cardinal Joaquin Portocarrero, and in 1766 Fra Louis Guerin de Tencin, Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order, bequeathed an estimated 9,700 books.
The collection includes sixty 15th century incunabula—the earliest printed books— including a translation of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia, printed in Rome in 1490. A translation of a work dating back to 150AD, it contains one of the earliest printed maps of the Mediterranean to include Malta. The archive also holds a collection of rare book bindings, including some once belonging to Louis XV of France; plus a papal bull issued by Pope Pascal II on February 15th, 1113 granting a Christian hospital in the city of Jerusalem the right to operate as a new religious order, becoming the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
“This bull is the beginning of the hospital’s history as an independent institution,” says Sciberras. The Order later ruled the island of Rhodes and then Malta from 1530 until 1798, when they were expelled by Napoleon, just two years after their new library had been completed. “They didn’t have enough time to take the collection with them when they fled during the French invasion and basically that’s the reason the archives remain here in Malta,” she explains.
“During their rule they established Malta as the epitome of Europe as a cultural hub. They invested a lot in Baroque architecture. If you come to Valletta I would say they not only built the city; they gave the city its identity.”
For Sciberras, preserving this legacy has its challenges. The library building needs almost constant and costly maintenance, and the ornate façade was restored in 2008 and a restoration of the main hall ceiling and construction of an elevator is due soon. It’s also difficult to find space for the ever-expanding collection and to keep the library relevant in changing times.
For most of its existence, the library was only open to researchers and scholars. Ten years ago it finally opened its doors to the general public, offering school visits, seminars and exhibitions. It is possible to rent out the building for events such as weddings and civil unions. “You need to move on and you need to address the audience you have according to the time you’re living in,” says Sciberras. “With the younger generation, everything needs to be available with the click of a button,” says Sciberras. The library is now in the process of digitising its entire collection to make its texts accessible to students and researchers in other countries. Going digital will also help preserve fragile documents and books that will no longer need to be handled on a regular basis.
But in an age when many people read books on phones and tablets and rarely put pen to paper, Sciberras still believes it’s important to connect directly with the printed word. “Books were, are and remain a source of all knowledge. Reading plays an important role in the development of literary and numerical skills and libraries play an important role in promoting reading as part of lifelong learning process,” she says.
Malta, famous for its knights and Baroque architecture, was once part of the famous ‘Grand Tour’ taken by the European elite from the late 1600s to the mid 1800s, offering worldliness and sophistication through immersion in European ‘high culture’. For Sciberras, this is an idea she would like to see enjoy something of a revival. While tourists still make their way to Malta, she wants local authorities to invest more in marketing the National Library as one of Europe’s most important cultural sites.
“I have a big challenge to convince the authorities that the library is not just a library. It’s a cultural and educational hub that can offer a lot more. When we get people from abroad they are amazed. They never imagined that we have such a collection.”
But it’s not all high culture for Sciberras. After she departs the library’s grand reading room, where wooden bookcases tower all the way to its vertiginous ceilings, she often spends her spare time reading historical fiction, and she’s currently reading Dan Brown’s Inferno.
“I think it’s because of my background in history,” she says. “I find it really relaxing reading novels.”
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