PRAGUE — In the age of Amazon and the internet, the idea of going to a public library to borrow a book may seem ever more quaint and old-fashioned in many parts of the world, but one country, at least, is clinging to it tenaciously: the Czech Republic.
There are libraries everywhere you look in the country — it has the densest library network in the world, according to a survey conducted for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There are more libraries than grammar schools. In fact, there is one library for every 1,971 Czech citizens, the survey found — four times as many, relative to population, as the average European country, and 10 times as many as the United States, which has one for every 19,583 people.
Why so many Czech libraries? Well, for decades they were mandatory — every community, from a big city down to a tiny village, was required by law to have one.
The law was enacted in 1919, soon after Czechoslovakia emerged as an independent country. The idea was to promote universal literacy and education after the country was free of the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire. And it worked.
The library law survived the German occupation, the communist era and even the breakup with Slovakia in the early 1990s. What it couldn’t survive, in the end, was budgetary pressure. To save money, the requirement was dropped in 2001, when there were about 6,019 libraries in the country; since then, about 11 percent have merged or closed.
Rather than just linger on as an eccentricity from a bygone age, though, the surviving Czech libraries are doing what they can to stay vibrant and relevant. They serve as polling places for elections and as local meeting venues. They organize reading clubs and art exhibits and offer computer literacy courses, and they welcome droves of schoolchildren and retirees during the day.
But mostly, they do what 92 percent of Czechs still want them to go on doing, according to the Gates Foundation survey: They lend books