The Malta Independent 27 September 2023, Wednesday
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‘Librarianship is not seen as the important profession it is’ – librarian

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 7 August 2022, 10:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

Librarianship is unfortunately not seen as the important profession it is, which sometimes takes away from the importance of a library, librarian Christopher Cilia said.

The National Library of Malta in Valletta, often known as the Bibliotheca, is considered as the “bridge” between scholars, students and children alike, to the country’s extensive history and heritage. The Malta Libraries incorporates the National Library, the Central Public Library, the Gozitan Public Library and the Central Library, as well as all regional branch libraries and the National Bibliographic Office.

Providing an outlet for people to connect with the Maltese identity, the library holds numerous rare and valuable treasures available to all.

The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke with Cilia, who is currently doing his practicum at the National Library within the Conservation and Preservation Unit. He is responsible for ensuring that the library’s holdings are in functioning order, playing an important role in preservation literary works.

Asked about his work on an average day at the library, Cilia said that aside from the standard jobs such as cataloguing, classification of books as well as resource ordering, the team also focuses on ordering certain specialised collections and books in Melitensia, which are rare once they come out. Cilia said that these collections go out of stock in print quickly and so they make efforts in bringing them in quickly.

“We are also IT specialists, focusing on open access resources as well. There are a lot of jobs and work being done. Since I work in an academic library, I manage, organise, evaluate and disseminate works of members of the academic staff of the Institute of Tourism Studies, with particular care to the students. I am also responsible for specific academic subjects which develop specialist knowledge,” Cilia said.

Cilia was asked about the conservation and preservation unit, which entails the work being done behind closed doors at the library.

“Most of the time, people who study librarianship at degree, never actually see what happens behind closed doors. Only after 16 years of experience, but never having actually done anything at the National Library, have I seen that in this unit, a lot of vital work is being done, which specialises in the conservation of all types of text, including archives and medieval manuscripts,” Cilia said.

Cilia said that publications date back to the 14th century, which provides challenges in restoration, as the team focuses on conservation before irreparable damage is done to it.

He spoke about a method called “preventive conservation”, where library material is cleaned and preserved in order to prevent the onset or advancement of deterioration.

He said that the method ensures that the library’s holdings stay in optimum order to satisfy scholars’ needs. It also ensures that the physical material keeps playing a vital role in the library’s activities.

Additionally, there is also the special storage and fumigation, among other preventive methods, which help to keep publications as intact as possible due to the frailty of some, he said.

“Manuscripts, books, maps, some of which are very detailed and very old are some of the treasures we have at the library,” he said.

Cilia spoke about the carefully controlled environments which some publications must be kept in, due to the challenging Maltese temperatures of heat and moisture. Small- to medium-sized books must be stored upright and vertically to prevent separation and damage to the spines of books.

Cilia said that microfilming sessions are also available at the library, for people to be able to look at works in more detail. The digitisation process of the library, where materials are converted from a hard copy to an electronic one, enhances access and improves preservation for the next generation, as has already been done from the reign of the Knights of Malta.

“Libraries are solely responsible for safeguarding national books and preserving national treasures and unpublished documents and manuscripts. We have impressive collections dating back to the year 1107, including several first editions and very rare works,” he said.

“An example is the 1566 edition of Nostradamus and the early 16th century edition of Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia,” he said.

Asked how he would describe the importance of the National Library to the public, Cilia said that while the library is certainly important for scholars, there is still something missing.

“The Maltese don’t really connect with our history, especially in the literacy format such as books. Doing my thesis on the library’s identity through heritage interpretation puts out the message that libraries are there for everyone,” he said.

Cilia said that librarianship is unfortunately not seen as a professional status, which takes away from the importance of the library. He said, however, that dedicated people do the work, nevertheless.

Cilia is currently writing his thesis, titled Developing a Historical Library’s Identity through Heritage Interpretation. He said that the primary purpose of the dissertation is to provide a study on how the National Library can function as a cultural centre that safeguards the identity of everything that makes us Maltese and showcase the youthfulness of the local historical libraries in creating a sense of place in belonging while learning about Malta’s history.

“People forget that librarians and libraries are the gateways to knowledge and culture,” Cilia said. He said that libraries play a fundamental role in society and its resources and services create opportunities, support literacy and education and help shape ideas to create an innovative society.

Cilia mentioned a quote by author Neil Gaiman, which says that “Google will bring you back, a hundred thousand answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one”.

“Media literacy is essential and important more than ever, as it addresses fake media and unreliable sources and helps people understand the message being communicated to them,” Cilia said.

In his work, Cilia aids students in planning and doing research work for their dissertations.

“The most important part of my job is to be the bridge to the students, being instrumental in their work. Being a librarian is a profession like being a lawyer or a teacher. We are part of the students’ success,” Cilia said.

The library also holds campaigns to put out the message that libraries are a fun and interesting place to visit. Summer programmes are held which cater to both younger and older children to learn more about the country’s tangible and intangible heritage, Cilia said.

Workshops are also being held and the two sessions already organised entailed work with Maltese lace, bizzilla, as well as the strategic significant importance on maps.

Sessions are structured to be informative and tackle different audiences, which encourages people to come to the library. Cilia said that the response is amazing and this changes the attitude towards libraries, as anyone who attends finds it most enjoyable.

Cilia encouraged those interested to look out for the campaigns on the library’s Facebook page.


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