I Heart the Reykjavík City Library

Photo of Interior of Reykjavík City Library, showing the stain glass installation “Beautiful World” by artist Leifur Breidfjord. Image from the artist’s website: http://www.breidfjord.com/reykjavik-city-library

Yesterday, I told someone that the main branch of the Reykjavík City Library was my favorite place in the city, and they laughed. (‘Oh, you silly librarian.’) But I’m not being facetious: the Reykjavík City Library is, thus far, my favorite place in this city, and if I manage to learn to speak/understand any small amount of Icelandic this year, copious amounts of credit will necessarily be paid to the collection and the librarians at the Aðalsafn.

Just a few stats about the Reykjavík City Library system, for the library-philes among you (I know I’m not the only one). The system is comprised of about five branches and a bookmobile, which I am delighted to say parks in my neighborhood for an hour on Mondays every week. (I haven’t had a chance to visit it yet, but that’s my goal for next week, because, guys: bookmobile!) Patrons/members/card-holders of/in the Reykjavík library system are also able to borrow and request books from the libraries in the nearby towns of Seltjarnarnes and Mosfellsbær. All of the library collections in Iceland–including the collections in the public libraries, university libraries, the national library, and the art, law, government libraries–are collectively cataloged in one online catalog, Gegnir, which also links to the online catalog of electronic journals and databases, Leitir.

Holdings in the public library system are varied and extensive. At the main branch, you can not only find typical materials like adult novels and nonfiction texts (in Icelandic, English, and a multitude of other languages), CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, periodicals, etc–they also lend vinyl records (if only I had my record player here!), VHS tapes, multimedia language-learning materials, and a huge amount of graphic novels and comics.

Anyway, I’ve been enamored with the public library here since I arrived (my first act as a for-real permanent resident was to get my library card, remember?) but yesterday took my already overflowing goodwill toward the library to 11.

A few weeks ago, I noticed this ad on the library’s upcoming events page:

This seemed like a great outreach program for immigrants/newcomers in Reykjavík, and one which was geared toward people for whom reading in Icelandic would be a difficult thing. For me, it promised an opportunity to expand my vocabulary, practice reading in Icelandic, and also to meet and interact with some Icelanders in a pressure-free setting. (Because they are librarians and therefore awesome, and in this program are also are actually intending to interact with non-Icelanders in Icelandic.) I had missed the program for a few Thursdays running, but was bound and determined to make it this week.

I arrived at 4:15 and spent about half an hour browsing for more movies and books (Nancy Drew in Icelandic! For reals!) before asking a librarian about where the program would be held. I asked in English, but to my delight, she very pleasantly responded in Icelandic–the program would be held in that room over there and would start soon, at about 5:30. This was later than I expected, but I was all excited that I had understood her, so I parked on a lovely sunlit couch near some windows and was looking through the books I had picked up when a man sat down next to me and said, in Icelandic, “[Icelandic Icelandic Icelandic] book group meeting.” I managed to nod in a way that made him think I really understood, so he continued in Icelandic until I said, as nicely as I could, that I was sorry but we had just passed what I was able to understand. He smiled and asked some things about me–where I was from, how long I had been in Iceland–and I asked in response what book his book group was discussing. This interested him: “So you understood a little of what I said?” I said that I understood a very little and that I had just started studying Icelandic at the university. “I like that,” he replied. “You are determined.” Indeed!

To make chit-chat, I said something about Icelandic being a difficult language to learn, but where other Icelanders have heartily affirmed this, this man was not so convinced. He laughed a little and brushed that comment off with a wave of the hand. “You could be learning Hungarian–or Chinese! Think of all the characters there are to learn in Chinese.” Well, when you put it that way, Mister Book Club, you are quite right. Icelandic is probably not as hard to learn as Chinese. (I have really no sense of how difficult it is to learn Hungarian, so I let that one pass).

At this point, other book club members started arriving and each one very nicely introduced themselves to me. I replied in kind. Someone heard my name and said, “Oh, you’re a foreigner!” (in Icelandic) which I also affirmed. My new friend next to me started explaining to everyone, in Icelandic, that I was a student studying Icelandic at the university. He also suggested that I join the group. I pointed out that I hadn’t read the book and moreover, that I was going to another program to read the papers shortly, but that if it was ok, I’d sit and listen to their discussion for awhile. He thought this was a great idea (“you’re really learning all day here”), and no one else objected, so there I sat, getting to do exactly what I had been telling Mark would an the ideal, but probably impossible, language-learning scenario: to sit and listen to Icelanders talk together without being expected to say anything or having to hide the fact that I was eavesdropping. It was fantastic.

The leading librarian gave an introduction to the book–they were reading one by Henning Mankell–which I believe he likened in some way to a work of Paul Coelho’s, although he appeared to prefer Mankell’s writing and characterizations. That’s what I think was going on at least. I honestly didn’t catch the first bit at all. After awhile, the librarian leading the Read the Papers program came around the corner and the book club librarian pointed at me. Thanking the book club profusely, I shuttled off to my new handler, who introduced himself, allowed me to butcher my own introduction, and asked me a few questions (in Icelandic) about how long I had been here, what I was doing and the like. Having settled it that I was learning Icelandic, he told me that he would talk to me in Icelandic and explained, I think, that this was a weekly program and sometimes there were five or six people and sometimes there were none. Then he gave me a handout with all the different kinds of news outlets in Iceland and proceeded to break down the entire country’s media system: the newspapers (there are six)–their political affiliations, how long they’ve been published, which ones are free, which ones are in English, which ones have combined–the online outlets, the radio stations, and the TV stations. Occasionally, he’d ask if I had questions or if I understood, and when it was clear that I didn’t, he’d elaborate a little–write out words, point to things in the paper until I understood, and only very, very rarely use an English word to explain. I wasn’t able to use sentences, but I strung together enough words to question things or affirm that I understood.

And I did! I understood! Not everything–not even half of everything. But enough to get the gist. How awesome is that?!

We did this for about half an hour–looked at obituaries in Morgunblaðið, weather predictions for Northern Lights viewing times, arguments about Iceland joining the European Union, and all the opinion pieces written by members of parliament and published in the papers. It was really intense, but it was amazing. I mean, a patient librarian sat there and basically gave me a free one-on-one Icelandic lesson. Shortly before the program ended, a few more people (including two students from the Multicultural Center) showed up and the librarian gave them all the rundown again, so I got to hear things twice, which was useful.

At the end, after we were all invited back to the program next week, I thanked the librarian and headed downstairs to check out my books and movies. At the self-check out, I encountered yet another friendly librarian who let me rifle through the kids’ movies she was sorting and when I explained that I was looking for kids’ materials because I was learning the language, she also proceeded to pepper her sentences with Icelandic phrases. I think I was glowing when I left.

Thank you, Iceland! Thank you, Reykjavík City Library and Librarians! Thank you benevolent book club members! I am totally going to learn Icelandic!

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2 thoughts on “I Heart the Reykjavík City Library

  1. Oh, this whole post fills my heart with warmth. Also, in middle school we had to pick a business concept to research ( start-up costs, signage, etc); mine was a bookmobile. I still think I could be very happy in a tiny travel library.

    • You’re very cool now, you were very cool then! What a good idea to research. I’ve been very into the idea of motor homes and traveling in old airstreams and campers, myself–maybe the natural progression would be a motor home/book mobile. Oh, to live and travel in your library!

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