Italy boasts a book patrimony of extraordinary value that has contributed to legitimate its identity of excellence as concerns cultural heritage: an identity which is renowned in the whole world. Unlike other countries, this patrimony is distributed throughout the national territory in a tight network of public and private libraries which is typical of a country that for many centuries was divided in many States.
The present complex system of Italian libraries originated with the situation that the State administration found itself in during the second half of the 19th century after the political unification of the country: 33 government libraries, 100 municipal and provincial libraries as well as 71 belonging to scientific institutes and religious corporations with a patrimony valued at 4 million books.
The social and cultural development of the last century and that of the related editorial industry which allowed access to information and instruction to a greater part of the population have determined a notable and growing increase in the production of books.
However, this has created a series of organizational and operating difficulties, because the libraries working in the different territories were divided, and still are, between public administration (the State), local bodies (Regions, Provinces, Municipalities), education structures (universities as well as primary and secondary schools), private institutions (academic and cultural) and ecclesiastical bodies.
Today, on the basis of information in the library registry of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities there are about 12,400 libraries open to the public. Half (50.7%) are situated in Northern Italy, 20.7 in the centre and 28.6% in Southern Italy.
Taking into consideration the proportion between the number of libraries and the resident population, the provinces better served are Isernia, Piacenza, Catanzaro and Trieste, with about five libraries for every 10,000 inhabitants, whilst the provinces with the worst proportion are Cosenza and Ragusa with less than one library for every 10,000 inhabitants.
Nearly half of the libraries (45.1%) have less than 5,000 volumes, whilst 336 libraries, equal to 2.7% of the total, possess more than 100,000 volumes.
From the administrative point of view, over half of Italian libraries belong to local bodies (51.2%), 16.5% to universities and 10.1% to ecclesiastical communities. Forty-six public State libraries depend on the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities.
These – with few recent additions – represent the backbone of Italy’s library system after the Unification.
Under the same rules from that date, they constitute a homogeneous complex notwithstanding their historical and functional differences.
Within the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, the Directorate General for Books, Cultural Institutes and Copyright is charged with the preservation and valorization of the national book patrimony and has specific jurisdiction as concerns library services, copyright issues, and the promotion of books and reading in Italy and abroad. It also sustains cultural institutions of various origins and nature, active on the national territory.
The 46 public State libraries can be divided into: 2 Central National libraries, in Rome and in Florence, responsible for documenting the entire Italian cultural production and, in general, foreign culture; 9 National libraries, that is to say the libraries that were in the capitals of the States before Unification, plus those of recent institution of Bari, Potenza and Cosenza; 9 Universities such as the libraries of the Universities existing at the time of Unification (while the libraries of the Universities founded after 1861 are today the responsibility of the Ministry of Instruction, University and Research).
Then there are the libraries which have particular responsibilities and functions: institutes of a historical nature, or specialized in a particular discipline or open to the public for reading; and the libraries attached to the national monuments, viz. historical abbeys, specializing in the fields of theology, patristics and Church studies.
The public State libraries conserve a wealth of documents that includes about 40 million examples between manuscripts, incunabula, printed editions, periodicals, musical editions, map collections, engravings and prints.
This priceless treasure includes the Codex Amiatinus, a manuscript of the Bible dating from the seventh century kept in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence; the Borso d’Este Bible, a masterpiece of the Renaissance in the Biblioteca Estense of Modena which is also the keeper of the first map drawn after the discovery of America, the so-called Carta del Cantino; the drawings of the Codex on the flight of birds and the famous Self-portrait of Leonardo in the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. It also includes papyri, ancient manuscripts from all over the world, palimpsests, scores and musical documents, photographic and artistic material (drawings, prints and posters), and autograph manuscripts of the main protagonists of the cultural history of Italy.
During the last two decades the efforts of the Directorate General have grown in order to create and implement the services provided by the National Library Service, aimed at adding value and making more accessible the patrimony conserved in libraries, archives and other prestigious cultural institutions.
A strong impulse has been given to the programmes and national projects that foresee the use of information technology, with the objective of uniting in one system the entire net of the various institutes: viz, in the first place, the National Library Service, the Italian Digital Library and the portal InternetCulturale.
The project of the National Library Service (SBN) was born at the beginning of the 1980s.
It was the outcome of the activity of a group of librarians belonging to the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, the Universities, the Regions and local bodies created by Angela Vinay, Director of the Central Institute for the Union Catalogue of Italian Libraries and Bibliographic Information (ICCU). The objective of the project was to publish professional and library resources in a network, using IT – regardless of who was administratively in charge of the various libraries – in order to improve access to information and collections on all the national territory. The SBN network grew rapidly thanks to a strong investment by the Ministry, the Regions, (particularly Piedmont, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna) and the local bodies. Actually, the service includes nearly 3,500 Italian libraries. The SBN Index offers access to nearly 10 million documents, for a total of nearly 30 million copies owned by member libraries (among these the Central National libraries in Florence and Rome, which have contributed to the start up of the Index database).
After the advent of Internet during the mid 1990s, SBN is present on the net and final users’access via Web to the SBN Index is in constant rise. Collaboration between libraries is now an established fact that has produced important results as, for example, the diffusion of cataloguing standards for the greater part of the publications: books, scores, maps and even metadata for digital libraries. In 2001 in the context of SBN the Biblioteca digitale italiana (BDI, Italian Digital Library) was instituted, viz. a programme developed with the coordination of ICCU, destined to define guidelines for digitization and add value to the various digitisation projects ongoing in Italian libraries as well as to create a new digital database accessible in the net through open systems (Open Archival Information System) and conforming to shared international standards.
Thanks to the cooperation between different types of libraries and cultural institutions, BDI offers on the internet new access tools to Italian cultural heritage. The objective is to create an Italian archive of digital resources that, working in synergy with archives of other nations, can guarantee an ample understanding of information and documents coming from all institutions such as libraries, archives,museums, etc.
The BDI projects can be accessed also from the multilingual portal InternetCulturale. The portal has an Italian, English, French and Spanish interface and provides complete access to the resources, both digital and traditional, of libraries, archives and other cultural institutions: it allows access to information relative to activities, projects, collections and digital contents; it is furnished with an experimental e-commerce system that can be used for buying online high definition digital objects made available by Italian cultural institutions.
To complete the picture of services offered on the Web, last April the programme CulturaItalia was presented. It was promoted by the Directorate General for Organization, Innovation, Training,
Professional Qualification and Trade Union Relations of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, together with the Regions and the Department for Innovation and Technologies of the President of the Counsel of Ministers.
The project allows online access to the Italian cultural heritage, providing an integrated access point in various languages for all those who wish to know the resources, digital or not, of libraries, archives and institutes of research and formation in our country.
A particular feature of the project lies in the selection, based on qualitative criteria, of the websites and the database information used. CulturaItalia, in line with other European projects for the knowledge and fruition of cultural assets on the Web, aims at becoming a national aggregator and the principal Italian provider of Europeana, the European digital library that unites contributions already digitized from institutions of all sectors of the cultural patrimony of the twenty-seven member countries of the European Union.
CulturaItalia is integrated with, and complementary to, the Biblioteca Digitale Italiana and InternetCulturale.
In the current operative framework five special institutes refer to the Directorate General for Books. These institutes function on a national and central level as national archives, deal with methodological issues, provide technical and scientific guidelines in the field of bibliography, cataloguing and supply reference and support for library services on the whole territory.
They are: Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Firenze (Central National Library of Florence), Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Roma (Central National Library of Rome), Centro per il libro e la lettura (Centre for Books and Reading), Istituto centrale per i beni sonori e audiovisivi (Central Institute for Sound and Audiovisual Heritage), Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico delle biblioteche italiane e per le informazioni bibliografiche (Central Institute for the Union Catalogue of Italian Libraries and Bibliographic Information).
The two Central National Libraries in Rome and Florence collect, preserve, document and promote the nation’s cultural memory, keep documents of cultural interest destined for public use in any form (including networks) and acquired by gift, purchase or by legal deposit as stated by the law (Law 106, 15 April 2004).
The Central National Library of Florence was born in 1861, with the unification of the country, from the union of the Biblioteca Magliabechiana and the Libreria Palatina; it obtained from then the right to receive from editors and printers an exemplar of everything that was printed on paper; today, as we have said, it receives also what is produced on disks, cd-rom and in digital form in general. As a consequence, the library prepares the Bibliografia nazionale italiana (Italian National Bibliography, BNI) which follows international standards for national bibliographies for any type of bibliographic material, of any type of supports.
The Bibliography whilst ensuring access control to bibliographic information (authors, titles, subjects, numbers and classification headings) aims at being exhaustive, at giving full coverage of Italian publications, up-to-date and of the highest level of authority. The BNI consists of six separate series (Monographs, Music and Newspapers, Periodicals, School Books, Children’s Books, PhD theses) and is available on paper, DVD or on the net.
Taking advantage of experience both in European and international projects, it trials the collection, selection and long term preservation of digital documents, also present on the Web. The Library with its more than six million volumes, constitutes the national archive of the Italian book; it conserves a patrimony of 25,000 manuscripts, 4,000 incunabula, 29.000 editions of the sixteenth century, 1 million autographs and 120,000 periodicals of which 15,000 current. It holds nearly 12 terabytes of born digital or digitised resources.
The Central National Library of Rome founded in 1876 in order to build in Italy’s capital the national archive of the Italian book, has the specific role of acquiring and keeping record of documents published in Italian abroad, documents published abroad that speak of Italy and the translation in other languages of Italian national production. The library documents as well the culture of the ethnic and linguistic minorities present in Italy and publishes the Bollettino delle opere modern straniere (Bulletin of modern foreign works) acquired by State libraries. The patrimony of the library totals nearly 1 million and 700,000 volumes, including 8,400 manuscripts, 2,000 incunabula, 25,000 16th century books, 120,000 autographs and loose pages, and nearly 56,000 periodicals of which 11,000 current. The Centre for Books and Reading, that has taken the place of the Institute for the book, is called upon to activate a promotion policy for the book and its reading, carrying out functions of coordination of the activities of the public institutions that deal with the subject and of collaboration with the relevant territorial institutions and local offices.
The action of the Centre develops mostly in the following ways: through informative campaigns to make the public aware of editorial products and of reading; through an effective policy for the diffusion of the book, of culture and of Italian authors abroad; through participation in international book fairs and assistance in translation; through displays and events in Italy and abroad promoting Italian editorial production and the culture of reading in general; through the coordination of initiatives promoted by libraries, schools, public and private institutions with particular regard to those for young people.
The Centre also promotes publishers through appropriate economic measures, viz. organizing annual prizes for book and reading promotion projects, for translations, for exporters of Italian books and for contributions to journals of a high cultural value.
The Istituto centrale per i beni sonori e audiovisivi (Central Institute for Sound and Audiovisual Heritage, ICBSA) carries out activities of documentation, evaluation, restoration, conservation, research and legal advice on audio or audiovisual documents. In particular, the Institute promotes and coordinates initiatives in the cataloguing and documentation of audiovisual material, in collaboration with research organizations both national and international; it promotes and coordinates projects and activities for census purposes, inventories, cataloguing, valorization and fruition of the audiovisual patrimony; it collects, preserves and supplies access to the history of popular traditions, also through the purchase of audiovisual recordings; it participates in activities for the production of standards and promotes their dissemination (cataloguing, preservation, digitisation, etc.).
The Institute’s collections grow also through legal deposit. The Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico delle biblioteche italiane e per le informazioni bibliografiche (Central Institute for the Union Catalogue of Italian Libraries and Bibliographic Information, ICCU) promotes and coordinates cataloguing and documentation of books kept in public libraries, with particular reference to the realization of the Servizio bibliotecario nazionale (National Library Service, SBN).
To support this activity, the Institute provides guidelines as well as producing and disseminating rules and standards for cataloguing different types of material, from manuscripts to multimedia documents. It also coordinates projects concerning cataloguing, digitisation and long term preservation of digital memories using new forms of information technology.
In order to improve knowledge of bibliographic collections and to simplify access, ICCU promotes and coordinates a national census of both manuscripts and Italian 16th century editions kept in Italian libraries. The changes occurred in the Italian Constitution, the new law regarding legal deposit, the new developments of the national bibliographic service determined by the evolution of the editorial process, by the circulation of information, by the digital technology and the Web, impose organizational reforms in the structure of the two national central libraries and of other Institutes. It is particularly necessary to coordinate activities relating to legal deposit, conservation of collections in analogical and digital form as well as programmes on the national services (also with international projects in mind).
Parallel to the strengthening of national libraries it is necessary to consolidate and build on the valuable experience of the National Library Service, founded on the cooperation of public State libraries, public libraries of local bodies and University libraries. This can be done by integrating it with the services offered by numerous cultural institutions and establishing a functional, long lasting relation with the educational structure. It is also necessary to develop SBN’s role both in the accessibility and the preservation of digital records bearing in mind that this is a role that only the SBN network can carry out successfully. To this end it is indispensable to create a system that is shared among all the institutional partners, to divide the work between the centre and the local institutions, rationalising the organization and use of actual resources with the final objective of creating an additional value for all citizens. To ensure access to the nation’s book heritage through the adoption of uniform languages and rules and valorize local territories as places of formation and elaboration of culture: these have been the goals which have inspired the institutional pledge of the last thirty years.
Today, thanks also to the potential of information technology, the organizational and informational capabilities of the Italian library system will be able to harmonize these two aims.
Libraries, therefore, will interact more and more in a network – becoming sources of information and sharing resources and services – but at the same time they will get more and more involved in the context they work in, increasing all activities useful for responding to the local community.
It seems that this, at the moment, is the best approach in order to provide plausible replies to the growing and always different needs of the public, viz. through an offer of ample, articulate services. In this respect, particular relevance is given to the reference service that represents the natural evolution of the traditional services of bibliographic information.
In this case the librarian’s work is not only that of assisting and orientating the user so that he/she finds the information required, but also that of getting the library known in the community and, therefore, increase everyone’s habit of reading. The library system could be a formidable instrument of cultural politics to activate civil growth and sustain the democratic development of the country. In an even more exciting prospect, the public library will become a place of meeting and of exchange of different cultures, as a place at the service of a composite community. As for cultural growth, the statistics on reading reveal that more than half of the Italian population has not read even one book in a year.
And it must be said that library users are still today mostly people of a medium-high culture, university students and scholars.
The subject of the relation between Italians and reading is complex, it has deep roots and should be analyzed with regard to all the components that interact in the process of the transmission of knowledge: family and school first. In this context the public library is called upon to renew itself and to carry out with greater efficiency that role of cultural importance so necessary in our times, utilizing all the resources available to encourage the public to read, beginning with the young and the most vulnerable, especially pensioners.
It is not an easy task but today, far more than in the past, it is possible and necessary to make the public library a vital organ of our community.