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June 12, 2012

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Dobrý den from Prague

Posted by Margot Note, Director of Archives and Information Management
St. Vitus Cathedral, front facade from below, 2012
St. Vitus Cathedral, front facade from below, 2012

I recently spent two weeks in the Czech Republic, participating in a library and information science seminar sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Charles University in Prague, central Europe’s oldest university.

I toured libraries, castles, and museums in Prague and the surrounding Czech countryside, and visited two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Kroměříž and Český Krumlov. Along with visiting contemporary public, academic, and technical libraries, I also viewed the manuscripts, prints, and rare books at Zlata Koruna monastery in southern Bohemia, the Premonstratensian Strahov Monastery, the baroque Nostic Palace, and the chateau library of Kroměříž Palace. I was in heaven, enjoying my two favorite things: historic manuscripts and excellent beer, though never at the same time!

One of the most fascinating libraries I visited was the Libri Prohibiti, a library of samizdat and exile literature. Samizdat, from the Russian word for “self-published,” is underground literature written during the Communist era. Typed on carbon paper or mimeographed, these works were distributed through an underground network. The library holdings included Czech and Slovak samizdat books and periodicals from 1960 to 1989, when the Velvet Revolution witnessed the downfall of communism in the Czechoslovakia and the beginning of a new era.

The highlight of the trip was the opportunity to visit sites that WMF conserved, which I had only experienced before through our archives. The historic center of Prague, placed on the Watch list on 1998, was built between the eleventh and eighteenth centuries and displays the architectural and cultural influence enjoyed by the city since the Middle Ages. The gardens at Český Krumlov were a 1996 Watch site, and WMF funded the documentation and reconstruction of the Cascade Fountain, a four-tier Viennese rococo-style fountain at the center of the gardens. Other sites included Pinkas Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, dedicated to victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia, which WMF helped conserve after flooding in August 2002. St. Ann’s Church, at the foot of the Charles Bridge, was placed on the Watch in 2004 and later WMF conserved its Gothic windows. The most beautiful building with WMF’s involvement was the Gothic St. Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle, the largest and most important church in the country, where WMF conserved the tombs of Bretislaus II and Borivoj II. While the cathedrals teemed with tourists over the weekend, I returned in the early evening on a weekday, and watched the façade change with the setting of the sun.

My time in the Czech Republic was a rich, rewarding, and professionally stimulating experience. I learned about the libraries, culture, and history of this beautiful central European country.