The new library of Magdalene College has been named by RIBA as the UK’s best new building for 2022

After All: Only libraries may know the answers

Image credit: Magdalene College Cambridge

Vitali admires the hope-inspiring design of a new Cambridge library and mourns the terrible plight of similar buildings in his native Ukraine.

“The aggressor confiscates all books printed in the Ukrainian language from the catalogues of libraries and schools. The destruction of about 100 libraries has already been confirmed, 221 were damaged”, said the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine, 12 August 2022. 

A recurrent flashback to my Ukrainian childhood: I am sitting on a sledge, dragged by my tireless granddad Misha. He walks with a slight limp, the result of a leg wound during the 1918-21 Civil War and because of this – to my sheer delight – the sledge makes little zigzags in the snow. I am seven years old. In my hands, clad in varezhki (woollen mittens), I am holding a couple of dog-eared books by James Fenimore Cooper. We are going to the library in Inzhenerna (Engineers) Street. At seven, I am already a voracious reader and a hardened armchair buccaneer, with that small local library being my only window to the world, an imaginary launch pad for my no-less imaginary spaceship, similar to the one just flown by Yuri Gagarin and capable of taking me to the farthest corners of the universe.

As a grown-up many years later, I discovered to my deep chagrin that in the USSR even libraries were politically segregated and strictly controlled by the state. All major book depositories, like Lenin Library in Moscow, or Korolenko Library in my native Kharkiv (which was hit by a Russian missile in May 2022) had so-called ‘spetskhrans’ – special ‘secret’ departments, only accessible for the chosen few, where one could browse through a tattered two-​year-old copy of Time magazine and the officially banned works of Trotsky or Friedrich Nietzche. 

It was only in the West that I was able to experience the full intellectual potential of libraries great and small. I will never forget the 10 days spent over 20 years ago in the famous domed reading room of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, to finalise my research for a book. I was assigned my own ‘professorial shelf’, where all the pre-ordered books appeared promptly, as if by magic.

Now, in autumn 2022, I am staring in disbelief at a photo of the devastated interior of a bombed Ukrainian library: collapsing bookshelves, the floor covered with fallen stucco and strewn with mutilated books, randomly opened by the blast, as if screaming with pain. And again, for the umpteenth time in recent months, the cruel unreality of the ongoing war hits me like a hammer. What kind of world is it where libraries – humankind’s biggest treasure troves – are being consciously and meticulously destroyed? How did we allow that to happen? 

It is only the books and the libraries themselves that may contain an answer. “Manuscripts do not burn,” wrote Mikhail Bulgakov, a wonderful Russian writer, who, incidentally, was born and spent his childhood and youth in Kyiv, Ukraine. Nor do libraries burn, I hasten to add. Just like all those immortal folios of wisdom they store, libraries are virtually indestructible: whenever a library is destroyed, a new one appears in its place.

To be honest, I had thought for a while of using that photo of a bombed Ukrainian library with this column. Luckily, life itself offered a different, much more optimistic, solution. Last month, it was announced that the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize for 2022 had been awarded to Niall McLaughlin Architects for the New Library of Cambridge University’s Magdalene College (where I happen to be a Fellow). 

The new library of Magdalene College has been named by RIBA as the UK’s best new building for 2022

Image credit: Magdalene College Cambridge

To me that came as no surprise, for from the moment of the building’s completion earlier this year, I couldn’t help admiring its architecturally brazen red-brick exterior and its beautifully engineered tiered timber interior – spacious and full of air, yet simultaneously warm and cosy, with numerous nooks and crannies tucked away “for independent study”. 

A triumph of modern engineering and technology, the New Library is very down-to-earth, or ‘environmentally friendly’, to use a tongue-breaking modern cliché. A regular grid of brick chimneys, with vaulted lantern skylights between them, supports the timber floors and the well-​stacked bookshelves and carries up air to ventilate the premises using simple but highly effective ‘passive’ air conditioning, with natural lighting coming via the skylights and windows.

As RIBA says itself in its news release, the building “contrasts openness with intimacy and deftly achieves the architects’ vision for a structure that gradually rises up towards the light”. 

Indeed, spending several hours in the New Library the other day felt like being exposed to something both new and familiar; like visiting the house of old friends, from which all excessive furniture had been removed. 

Browsing through the shelves holding Russian and Ukrainian books, I was subconsciously looking for that sacramental answer: why?

And I found it! Having randomly opened a book by Russia’s 18th-century ‘investigative journalist’ Prince MM Shcherbatov (1733 -90), ‘On the Corruption of Morals in Russia’, I came across this passage: “Looking at the present condition of my country, with the eye of a man brought up on strict ancestral rules, I cannot but wonder at the short time in which morals in Russia have everywhere become corrupt.”

Although the Prince wrote about the times of Peter the Great (with whom, incidentally, Putin likes to compare himself) and Catherine II, his comments could not be more relevant to the present. It is only the ultimate corruption and complete drop of ‘morals’ in Russia that could lead to mass murders of innocent people and the destruction of their books and libraries.

Witnessing Russia’s huge popular support for Putin’s heinous war crimes, I cannot help remembering Hitler’s cannibalistic, “I am liberating man from the degrading chimera known as ‘conscience’” pronouncement. It is largely books and libraries that help us stick to that very ‘chimera’ – perhaps the main feature of being human. 

When and how will this nightmare end? That is a different question, to which some other library somewhere else in the world may contain an answer.  

Let libraries ‘rise up towards the light’ to stop the world from descending into darkness.

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