Istanbul’s Libraries: A Refuge In Uncertain Times

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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.

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