Istanbul’s Libraries: A Refuge In Uncertain Times
Last month, the Turkish Statistical Institute announced that the number of public library memberships in Turkey increased by 24.1 percent in 2016, compared to the previous year. In a time of terror, political uncertainty, and a coup attempt, Turks took refuge in libraries.
Some Istanbul libraries owe their existence to taxes; others to banks; one to an English monarch. SALT is located in the previous headquarters of the Ottoman Bank, which was founded in 1856 on the orders of Queen Victoria, a friend of the westernizing Sultan Abdulmecid. The building opened at a time when Turkish-British commercial ties were at their peak. Today, its library houses 110,000 books. Last year, it served more than 47,000 readers.
On a recent weekday the library was bustling with bright-eyed readers, and every seat were occupied. A hush fell over after I entered the reading room. On a desk by the entrance, a young man pored over a book; he checked a page number, and he typed a footnote to his thesis; in the little garden outside, two young girls smoked rollies. SALT is paid for by Garanti, a private Turkish bank. This is part of a trend.
In September, Yapı Kredi, another Turkish bank, opened its culture centre. On its roof, a classic sculpture of a naked woman embracing life with open arms, looks toward the bustling Istiklal Avenue. Among those who see the sculpture, some climb the stairs to the top floor, and take a picture for their Instagram; others enter the library. Yapı Kredi Library has opened to the public this month, after years of renovation. Its collection consists of some 80,000 volumes and hundreds of ancient manuscripts.