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A Significant Problem: Lack of Public Libraries in Istanbul

In an age with the digitalization of libraries, one still looks for a cozy place to wonder around the shelves of millions of different stories. When was the last time a hand from the fifteenth century grasped onto your shoulder in the dead of silence? Or when was it last that you spaced out within the lines of a 100 year old book? Nowadays, libraries are not just spots of research and study, but an easy way to escape fast city life.

Istanbul, with a population of 14 million people, according to the latest census by TURKSTAT, has fifty-nine public libraries at six different category levels (province, district, quarter, public, kids and manuscript), which are managed either by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism or the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Besides these public libraries, there are also libraries in schools, universities and other private institutions or foundations such as the Borusan Music Library and the Library of Istanbul Modern. In these private institutions, it is possible to find specific sources about particular subjects such as the history of Turkish art and artists, art movements, museums and so on. However, these numbers are considerably higher in other metropolitan cities such as New York, London and Paris. While New York has 255 public libraries, Paris has 303 and London has a whopping 395 public libraries.

Apart from the number of libraries, statistics indicate that the number of visitors or the books that have been borrowed are also quite low when compared to above mentioned cities. But why is this the case? It is not easy to answer this question on one point of view alone, as there are many possible reasons. These reasons can include, but are not limited to: the socio-demographics of the city, the habits of people, the specifications of the library itself, such as the collection it has, the area it is located, the architecture of the building, and so on. Another issue is the distribution of libraries; while some districts have more than one public library, some districts such as Sariyer, Atasehir, do not. While the statistics present a decreasing pattern of visitors to libraries over the years, when asked, people still say that if they could find a library close by, they would visit it.

Beyazit Square, Libraries

Beyazit Square, Libraries

Established in 1884, the Beyazit Public Library is one of the oldest public libraries in the area and as such has a very rich collection. The library is located in Beyazit Square, once known as the Roman Forum Tauri and later as the Forum of Theodosius, at the very heart of Istanbul and has always been one of the focal points in the city. The area is known for its Roman and Byzantine remains and the Beyazit Mosque and Medresseh. Today the square is now home to the main campus of Istanbul University (previously the Ottoman Ministry of War and before that the location of the Old Palace), and is therefore mostly occupied by students and visited by tourists. There are also the main library of Istanbul University and Orhan Kemal Public Library nearby. The area is also located near buses and the tramline station. Due to all of these contributing factors – the rich collection, history and location – make the libraries located here popular.

An old photo of Beyazit Public Library

An old photo of Beyazit Public Library

Orhan Kemal Public Library.jpg

Orhan Kemal Public Library

Istanbul may have some libraries that hold special places in our hearts and memories, however, the numbers are not enough. What is more, as well as the numbers, qualifications such as the architecture and decoration of the buildings should also be considered. Istanbul needs libraries that have their own unique buildings which leave traces in visitors' minds and have long hours and greater accessibility.

What about your city? Do you feel there are enough public libraries for all the subjects you may feel the need to research? If yes, how did your city succeed in providing such services?

Credits: Images by Ozlem Atalay and Mahmut Kilic. Data linked to sources.