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Serbia — Day 4 — Tuesday

Hi Folks: 

Another beautiful sunny day in Belgrade, although not quite as busy as yesterday.

We began the day with a visit to the National Library of Serbia - the main deposit library for Serbia (for non-librarians a deposit library is entitled to claim a copy of every book published in its own country.) It's a very nice building originally built in 1974 but renovated in 2011 and incorporates some very interesting design elements, including the "path of knowledge"  - a black carpet runs through the front door, up the stairs and to the catalog area before continuing into the main reading room and this represents the black print of traditional books, while above this, in silver, a strip of 0s and 1s follows the same path but in the ceiling, and represents the digital materials in the collection. A nice touch and also a strong visual guide to help new users find their way.

This building replaced the old National Library in the center of the city that was destroyed in the Nazi bombing of Belgrade in 1941, when the entire collection was destroyed when the library was hit by incendiary bombs. Some of the burnt remains of old Serbian cyrillic manuscripts are preserved in display cases as you mount the stairs to the main reading room - a reminder of how much knowledge and culture was lost during the conflicts.

The main reading room was packed - June is a period of exams for the university students, so every quiet study space is in high demand - but it's great to see a full library. (Many students have to live at home during their studies for economic reasons, and many people live in smaller apartments, so quiet study space is at a premium.)

We visited the gallery space (an exhibition of fairly avant-garde theatre posters was on display) and the exhibition space next to the very busy cafe (and here was an informative exhibition about the Serbian institute that is responsible for freedom of information and also personal information privacy) on our way down to the basement preservation lab. Unfortunately, due to illness and a conference in Croatia, there was only a skeleton staff available to show us round, but we did learn of the various specialist training required to work in the department. (There are paper scientists, art restorers, book binders, and several other highly trained professionals who study in applied science programs at the university - highly skilled and amazingly specialized.)

The National Library is right next door to the temple of St. Sava, the largest Serbian Orthodox church in the world which is still under construction. (The building was proposed in 1894 , but by the time the plans were finalized and money raised Serbia was involved in the two Balkan Wars, followed by WW1, during which conflicts Serbia lost about one third of its population. Building of the church actually commenced in 1936, but was interrupted by WW2, was obviously not allowed during the years of the Socialist Republic, and only recommenced in the 1990s - again delayed by conflict in the Balkans - so that the shell was finished only a few years ago. The interior decoration - planned to be all in mosaics - is not yet complete, although the central dome mosaic was just completed in December and is spectacular. 

Most of the students took time to visit St Sava's after leaving the library.

This afternoon we headed off to the American Embassy, which is a most interesting, if slightly unnerving experience. Part of the experience is understanding just how vulnerable diplomats and diplomatic buildings can be, as the new embassy - completed three or four years ago - is now set well out of the downtown area and is extremely secure - think airport security x 10. (It took about 30 minutes to process 11 of us through the gatehouse and into the Embassy building proper.)

However, we were welcomed by our long-standing colleague Jasna Kunic, who is in charge of all the American Corners in Serbia. She had arranged for us to meet and hear from the librarian who is based at the embassy in Belgrade, but who is in charge of all the American Corners in the Balkan region. We had a most informative session and the students learned a great deal not just about American Corners, but about libraries in different parts of the world and the problems  we all share.

This evening students split up - there were a couple of different dinner groups, one with shopping included, and at least one person headed out to the Tesla Museum.

We have a slower start tomorrow, with a free morning for the students before we participate in a conference at the Faculty of Philology in the afternoon and attend various cultural events in the evening.

Everyone is doing well, a few blisters notwithstanding.

More news tomorrow.

Andrew Smith