Libro Futuro

Where our libraries go. Mario Coffa interviews Antonella Agnoli

Intervista in italiano

It could be said of Antonella Agnoli that she was a member of the Superior Council of Cultural Heritage, Councilor for Culture and Creativity of the Municipality of Lecce and president of the Federiciana Foundation of Fano but she prefers to define herself only as a “militant of libraries” since 1976. She has made by dozens in various Italian cities and written too many things to be remembered here, with the exception of Le piazze del sapere, a book that continues to be read, here as in Japan.

Antonella, if you had to explain to a first grade student what a library is and what it is for, what could you tell him?

A first-grade student will surely be sassy and curious, so I would tell him right away that the library is a place of adventure where beautiful stories, colors and others like you meet. A place of discovery where you can find your favorite armchair and your ideal corner. At this point I want to quote you a true story which in turn comes from a fairy tale. I had some French friends who called themselves “the Three Bears”, in French “Les Trois Ours”, some librarian friends who founded the publishing house of the same name. They had started from a fairy tale, “The Three Bears and Goldilocks”, a nineteenth-century English fairy tale that is also well known in Italy. In this fairy tale, it tells of three bears: the big bear who is the father bear, the mother bear and the child who is the little bear. One day they go for a walk, leaving the table in their house laden with the things they had just eaten with and therefore a large cup, a medium cup and a small cup. At a certain point Goldilocks arrives and looks for the right cup, the right chair and the right bed for herself. When she finally finds everything that’s right for her, she lays down on the bed and falls asleep. When the bears arrive, Goldilocks wakes up feeling a great sense of well-being. I like to think that the same applies to libraries and that every child who enters the library always finds the right chair where he can sink and feel ready for any kind of game, adventure, experience.

When I was working in Pesaro we organized a workshop complete with maps, ruler and pencil, each child had his own little architect kit with which he had to redesign the space and modify the furnishings. We asked them what they wanted to change: in reality they didn’t change anything, they just added poufs because they wanted to sit on the armchairs spreading their feet in the air. At that point another idea came to mind, a new laboratory: we asked a design object store to lend us some armchairs by famous designers such as Mackintosh’s Sthul, Jacobsen’s Egg, Pesce’s Up and we also reasoned with them about design, allowing everyone to choose a different chair. Here, from this story we librarians can be inspired to design spaces by directly involving the people who will then have to live them.

And if Mario, now an adult, decides that when he grows up he wants to be a librarian, what would you advise him?

Dear Mario, if you wanted to be a librarian when you grew up, I think I would answer you thinking about how I became a librarian myself. I never thought I could do this job: I was not a good student and when my teachers later found out that I had become a librarian, they were amazed. I ask myself: what am I? What have I been? And above all, why was I able to do this job? I would start by advising you to be curious, always, from when you are a kid to the last day of your life. Never stop being curious! Then you have to go around a lot, you have to travel and not only on the internet but also physically; if I hadn’t seen all the libraries I’ve seen around the world, I probably would never have been able to be a good librarian and make the libraries I’ve done. In the world I have seen wonderful libraries and when I show them to people during my courses many say to me: “Ah, but we in Italy could never do those things !?”. Well, if I had thought this I would have stopped traveling and would have deprived myself of many suggestions, instead every time I returned home from visiting both beautiful libraries and less beautiful and sometimes “shabby” libraries so to speak, I always reported with me something useful and positive, which enriched my toolbox.

In conclusion I would advise you not only to travel and to read but above all to talk to people and you must like these people because the next libraries will be places of conversation and, as David Lankes says, places where people meet, talk, exchange. ideas and reflections. To learn how to do this, we need to like people and not frighten us: this attitude is the most important for those who want to be a librarian in the library of the future.

For years I have always espoused one of the many definitions of library, namely that of “social aggregator”, a function with which, moreover, a very great responsibility is given to the library institution. But what does “social aggregator” really mean?

Allow me a very brief reflection on the difficulty we have always had in finding the right term to define a library that is different from the one we are traditionally used to. As Luigi Crocetti said, all libraries are “public”: it is a National library, it is a conservation library, it is an academic library. Our uncertainty, on the other hand, has always been that of better defining the civic library, the municipal library; while abroad the concept of “public library” has always been well centered and clear, as in the case of US libraries, English libraries or libraries in Northern Europe, in Italy this uncertainty has produced different terminologies. At one point there was talk of the “Le Piazze del sapere” using the title of the book[1] I had written precisely to indicate that specific type of service characteristic of civic libraries. It is as if we needed to find a different word to define the transformation that libraries have undergone in recent years. So what is meant by the term “social library” or library as “social aggregator”? A library that is no longer just a study, consultation and research library with all the traditional characteristics that scholars, researchers or readers who borrow books know well; in truth, we must not close the door to this type of user but also open it to all those citizens who think that this library is not useful for them because they have other needs. Today libraries are and must be social libraries where the centrality is no longer the book but the people with their needs. For me they are places of opportunity for all citizens, regardless of their stories or where they come from: even if they have never read a book, they must feel welcomed by that library. Today we cannot link the library exclusively to its collections, study tables, book presentations: these are a part of the activities of a library, which we do not want and must not eliminate but are a part, which can no longer be prevalent. Therefore, the social function of libraries could also be defined by the term “welfare” which translated from English means “well-being”; we want our libraries to be places of well-being: physical and mental. More than ever today, after the dramatic period that has just ended, the library must address the weakest citizens, who need a good internet connection, advice to make a curriculum or to access their health records. So a library as a sort of intermediary structure between users and documents, between the abundance of information available online and the necessary technical and critical tools to do so. Being exposed to partial information with consequent distortion of reality creates weak, manipulable and vulnerable citizens. In a way, our democracy is at stake. In conclusion, a library must be an empathic place, which envelops you, which excites you; it must be welcoming, open, transformable, hybrid and multiple because we need places capable of transformation. I want to mention an excerpt from one of my reports made for the Conference of the Stars in 2020 when at a certain point I said to the audience: “Imagine if one day Salaborsa[2] would close?!”. Salaborsa was a place where thousands of people entered every day, a great little community that entered with everything a community has, stories, lives, people. It was unthinkable that it could close. But Salaborsa, like many libraries, closed and we understood that from that moment on everything is different. Now we have to think of libraries that are inside cities that are profoundly transforming. Our task will be to understand how libraries can positively contribute to this transformation process. These places cannot only be virtual and with the lockdown we have learned what it means to deprive oneself; this is why the library must be welcoming and receptive.

In various forms, we have all heard of the library and also of librarians. Different speech, on the other hand, to explain and make understand what the librarian profession is to those who administer and govern. In your opinion, what could be decisive to achieve professional recognition one day and to actually credit this value of the librarian for the moment only “ethical” and “moral”?

If we wish to have a library like the one I described earlier, we don’t have to tell what the librarian’s job is. During my courses I always explain that we must provide our administrators with a different imagery than the library, since the good librarian is the main actor for the proper functioning of that place. Otherwise, a librarian who does not share, accept and commit to these transformations will not be a suitable librarian for this type of structure. For example, we note that libraries abroad sometimes have different names from the term “library” but have names that usually reflect what happens inside their walls, since books are only a part of their service and not “the whole”. For this reason, even the librarian can no longer just call himself that, indeed he can no longer be the same person. I don’t know how many will agree with me but I believe that today more than ever we need people even more “militant”, more committed and able to create bridges and networks; so before telling the administrators how the library should be defined we must become cultural mediators between the library and the community, between what is in the books and what is in the world (including the web). We need to understand the needs of a community, to know the ideas, the creativity that circulates within it; for this we need to have figures able to listen and involve people. We need facilitators. Traditional tasks will always remain valid but these too are undergoing transformations: let’s think, for example, of how to place books, how to choose them, how to offer them, how to integrate paper books and ebooks. In my last trips abroad before the pandemic, I noticed that a lot is invested in back-office resources that aim precisely at innovating the work processes of organizing collections. In Italy we have the great problem of recruitment and non-recognition of the profession which means that the administrator does not recognize the importance of the professional figure, nor of the library itself. When the “old” librarian retires, the administrator will never replace him with a similar figure. We need to reflect on this and whether to date the real problem is that of professional recognition or accreditation or the right and consequent economic enhancement; in my opinion this debate must start from the need to bring out the “social benefit” that the library offers to society.

Libraries change and transform themselves due to the advancement of digital technologies or simply because “times” change. What path are these transformations leading our libraries towards? If it were the title of a conference it would be: “Which direction are our libraries going in”?

Honestly I would like to give a different title: “Will Libraries Still Exist? Will we still need them?”. This is because some might think that since all or most of things exist online now, we may not need libraries anymore. But as we have already said and as the pandemic has above all made us understand, we librarians are important as a garrison of physical places, as places that counteract social isolation, as places that help people feel better. Indeed, today we can say that after what has happened we are even more important, we are essential because our libraries can offer answers to real needs: for example an equipped space where you can do smart working because maybe you can’t do it at home; a place that offers you a good internet connection that may have an excessive cost for the family economy and after many people have become impoverished due to the consequent economic crisis that resulted from this pandemic period, it can be a primary need; the library must provide the connection and the powerful computer capable of being able to work or be able to lend the computer to the child who has to do the DAD (Distance Learning) for the school. For example, if the same child has to make a video for school, the library should have an equipped room where it can be recorded, because it is useful for his school career. Therefore it will be necessary to accentuate the concept of “physicality” and to do things together, as well as at the same time bringing with us the baggage of new skills we have acquired. We have learned that things can be done remotely or remotely. Lately I recommend to libraries to also have digital and technological equipment in order to be able to do remote and online activities. If, for example, in a reading group one evening a person cannot come because he is not well but does not want to miss the meeting, he must have the opportunity to be able to attend anyway and today we have learned that it can be done. We must take advantage of what we have learned in this period but not to finalize it for remote activities but to integrate it within an environment, the library, in which to feel less alone.

[1] Agnoli, Antonella. Le piazze del sapere: biblioteche e libertà. Roma Laterza, 2010

[2] Salaborsa Library is a multimedia library of general information that intends to document contemporary culture through all available documents: books, newspapers, magazines, maps, videos, audio CDs, DVDs (the complete mission can be consulted here). Inaugurated in December 2001, it opens a rich and fascinating cultural and multimedia space inside Palazzo d’Accursio, the “almost castle”, the ancient historical seat of the Municipality that overlooks Piazza Maggiore, which has always been the center and heart of Bologna.


Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa
Mario Coffa archivista e bibliotecario, laureato in Conservazione dei Beni Culturali presso l’Università degli Studi di Perugia (2005) e diplomato in Archivistica e Paleografia presso la Scuola di Archivistica dell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (2010). Dal 2010 Lavora per CAeB (Cooperativa Archivistica e Bibliotecaria) presso le biblioteche dell’Università di Perugia come bibliotecario e come archivista presso l'Archivio Storico del Comune di Gubbio. Si occupa di Biblioteche Digitali e formazione in ambito di biblioteconomia digitale. Nel 2014 membro del Comitato Esecutivo Regionale dell’Associazione Italiana Biblioteche (AIB) sezione Umbria, membro del gruppo AIB sul portfolio professionale e nel triennio 2017-2020 Presidente eletto di AIB Umbria. Dal 2020 membro dell'Osservatorio Formazione dell'Associazione Italiana Biblioteche. Autore di diversi articoli e interviste per Insula Europea sul tema degli archivi, delle biblioteche e del digital lending.


One thought on “Where our libraries go. Mario Coffa interviews Antonella Agnoli

Comments are closed.