Between the Lines: Building Latvia's Library

Jun 18, 2015

A view inside Latvia's new National Library
Credit Maira Bundža

Small kids and the elderly bent with age, and every age between, lined up in a human chain in the Latvia's capital city Riga. It began in Old Riga and stretched across a bridge to the opposite shore of the Daugava River. It was a cold January day in 2014 but 14,000 book lovers created what became known as the “Path of Light.” One by one by one, they passed books from one pair of hands to the next, down the chain until they reached the new National Library of Latvia. The “chain” was five miles long and the passing of the books began at midnight.

“Yet they didn’t get that many books across because everybody stopped to look at them,” says Maira Bundža, a librarian of Latvian heritage at Western Michigan University’s Waldo Library. “Even though it was freezing cold that day, people were so fascinated with the books.” Bundža has often traveled to Latvia and most recently toured the National Library there.

Bundža was born to Latvian parents; refugees who immigrated to the United States during World War II when the Soviet army invaded Latvia. She moved to Kalamazoo in 1982 to work at the Latvian Studies Center at WMU, and in 15 years she created the largest Latvian library in the United States at that time. When Latvia regained its independence in 1991, Bundža joined the movement in expatriate Latvian communities to send Latvian-language books to Latvia, filling in the gaps left during the years of Soviet censorship. She eventually dissolved the library she had built as its books traveled overseas.

The exterior of Latvia's new National Library
Credit Maira Bundža

While Bundža was not in that human chain crossing the Daugava, she is a link in the chain of those involved in the building of the National Library of Latvia. Bundža has traveled to all three Baltic countries, visiting all their national libraries, and compiling a directory of Baltic resources.

“My current research interest is in...providing researchers information about libraries, archives and other collections, as well as print and online catalogs, indexes, and other reference sources to materials in and about the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”

Maira Bundža
Credit Maira Bundža

During her earlier visits, Bundža found that Latvia's old National Library was split up among eleven buildings scattered in and around Riga. The new building consolidating all of those collections was designed by Michigan-based Latvian architect Gunārs Birkerts.

Bundža had perviously worked with Birkerts on a proposed expansion of the Latvian library in Kalamazoo. “He’s so conceptual…he had this concept (for the National Library of Latvia) from a Latvian folk tale about a glass mountain that rises from the dark waters. It’s now commonly called the 'Castle of Light.' So he had this plan that he provided for free to the country.”

But there were still many hurdles to overcome. It took two decades to open the new library in Riga as as expenses mounted. When people questioned the need for the project, Bundža told them it was crucial to have a space to hold the national treasures that might otherwise be lost. Now that the building is open to the public, she says it has been widely and enthusiastically embraced by Latvians living in and outside of the country.

The library's twelve floors, plus a pinnacle, all surrounded by windows, hold the collections at the core. There are public spaces on the perimeter. See more photos of the National Library of Latvia here.

Listen to Between the Lines on WMUK Tuesdays at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.