We traveled to the village of Statenice near Prague to see graphic designer Zuzana Brychtová Horecká. We talked about the local library, where she and her friend Barbora have been holding events for children and adults to turn this traditional municipal library into a community library – or, as she says, a living room for the entire village.
When did you become interested in the Statenice library?
A long time ago I read an article about a student who made her village library a community place. It struck a chord with me and I said to myself, I’d like to do something like that, too. I had a baby shortly after moving to Statenice and one day when I was out reading the local library’s information board, I noticed a sign advertising a Japanese storytelling hour. When my kids and I got to the reading, we found we were the only people in the library – no one else had showed up for the event. I got into a conversation with the librarian and it turned out that she was ready to retire because she had to take care of her ill mother and also she lacked motivation because the library didn’t attract many visitors anymore. What she said resonated with me somehow. On my walks around the village with the baby stroller I kept thinking about her words. I had the urge to take it on – to take over the library if the librarian retired.
Did you and Barbora already know each other then?
No, we didn’t, even though both of our little girls went to the same preschool in Prague. The first time we talked was after our girls began attending the same class in the same school, at a parent-teacher meeting. And because our girls became friends, the two of us began to see more of each other, too. After some time I shared my idea about the community library with Barbora. She got really excited and promised that she’d help me. She had a degree in library science and her mother and grandmother were also librarians, so it’s close to her heart. And that’s how we started working together on it.
How did you start? What all has to happen to turn a municipal library into a community library?
Barbora works at a non-profit organization called Aperio so unlike me she knew how fundraising works and how to apply for grants. Until then I hadn’t known a single thing about that whole world. I imagined that I would sit down right here (in the library) and it would just start somehow (laughter). But Barbora had a different perspective and thought that we would be able to apply for a Via Foundation grant. Then for about two months we got together in the evenings to prepare the grant application, fitting it into our family responsibilities as best we could. We had a lot of fun doing it and we became closer. It was a really nice period for me. A lot of things were completely new to me. And the structure and priorities of our project gradually became clearer as we filled out the grant application. And when I think back to what we wrote in the application then, it still fits exactly. We’ve achieved all of our goals.
What did you ask for funding for?
We mostly asked for money to fix up this space, like to buy new tables. Before the library looked about the same as most village libraries (laughter). Fortunately, we were able to make it a lot cozier with not too much money. The grant conditions also specified that we needed to engage the community. So we really began to get to know the people who live here and they began helping us. For example, right at the beginning a local designer named Markéta Cermanová helped us a lot. She had designed the interior of a flower shop on the village square that we really liked, so we asked who had designed it and that’s how we got in touch with her. She designed the library interior free of charge and even drove out to Ikea and bought the furniture, which was a huge help. And our circle of smart, capable women also included Barbora Škopková, who runs the cafe on the village square. Asiding from making creat coffee, Barbora is kind of like the heart of the cafe. She helped us a lot too – she bought this armchair for us, for example (the red armchair that Zuzana is sitting in). We also sought funding for our first community projects, which were a series of weekend events, and our friend Pavlína Talacko helped a lot with those. We also put together our first charity book auction with Pavlina’s help. That was the required fundraising activity under the grant.
A book auction, that sounds interesting! What kinds of books did you auction off?
Anyone could bring in books for the auction. My partner Barbora also asked several publishers to donate books so we had a lot of contemporary, high-quality books. Barbora from the cafe made fantastic refreshments, she baked cupcakes with a book motif and cookies that said “Statenice Library”. We raised CZK 21,000 ($970) which Via matched so the final amount was CZK 42,000 ($1940). The auction gave people a chance to get to know each other, and thanks to the library project we’ve met a lot of new and really interesting people. When we needed a photographer to take photos of our events, we put out a call on Facebook and Dáša Plotěná responded, saying she didn’t have a lot of experience but loves to take photos and would love to try it out with us. So she started taking photos for us and she still is. And she’s become our friend. Now she also does family portraits and we like to think that maybe she gained confidence when she got an opportunity to try it out with us.
What did you do with the old library collection?
We got rid of about two-thirds of the existing books – after approval from the Kladno library, which oversees us. We really got rid of a lot, and bought a lot of new materials. When we got the Via grant, we used some of it to refresh the children’s book collection. We had CZK 30,000 ($1390) in cash and drove to the Tabook book festival in Tábor and found just what we were looking for (laughter)!
What criteria did you use to select new books?
The Kladno library system administrators told us that there aren’t any rules about buying new books, that it depends on our library users. But at that time people were just beginning to use the library, so we had to choose based on our own preferences. I think we did well and that our users appreciate our choices. By now, though, we have a pretty good idea of what our readers need and we select books based on their preferences.
Who are your readers? You’re more than just a children’s library, aren’t you?
Children, adults and the elderly use the library and our readership is slowly growing. According to library science, libraries should be able to attract 10% of residents in a town. We have about 200 users right now, about half of whom are children and half adults. Although it may seem like a low number, it is actually 10% because the population of Statenice is about 2,000. We began with about 20 users so you can see that the number has really grown.
Lending books is not your only goal. You also want to organize community events. Can you tell us about that?
We participate in regular library events, like A Night with Andersen, hold readings by authors for children and for adults and organize exhibitions, sometimes with a show opening event. One of our more creative events is plein air painting. There are a lot of artists in our village, including Mr. Šmaha, a painter who is about 70 years old and lives in the village Černý Vůl. He’s one of our fans. Last year, we organized a plein air painting session in the park below the castle that he led, and now you can see some of the artwork that was created there, right here on the library walls. Then there’s another friend who comes into the library once a week to teach a painting class for young children. There was also supposed to be a senior citizens’ club, but Covid-19 got in the way of that. Another thing we do that isn’t very common is that we have a children’s editorial office for the local newsletter. How that works is that about five children meet here in the library and write, draw and create articles about topics that we give them after we take part in adult editorial meetings. The children write about the topics from their own point of view. They created a column about a mouse that deals with current issues, like for example the wastewater system (laughter). Our film club is also worth mentioning. We wanted to have a film club from the very outset but we didn’t have the courage to take it on ourselves and really hoped someone would take the initiative. Fortunately, a woman named Lýdia, who has also become a friend, took it on and now she screens a film here every month.
How does that work in reality, how do you deal with copyrights for example?
We’ve learned that if we are running a film club as an educationial event, meaning that there is a discussion after the screening, then we can buy the DVD or download the film from the Internet legally and then show it. Lýdia contacted the film club in the town of Buštěhrad, which is part of the Association of Film Clubs, but they weren’t very accommodating to libraries. We stopped working with them after a year because it just wasn’t working for either party. Then we have a summer outdoor cinema, that’s different – there we hire a company that is specialized in putting on outdoor film screenings. The company secures the license, screens the film, and has all the technical equipment that is needed. The outdoor cinema takes place in the chateau park close to the library. The chateau stairs are like bleachers and the film is projected from the space below them.
People who play an active role in civil society in small communities often go into local politics. Have you and Barbora considered doing that?
Before the most recent local elections, a local association that was critical of the then-leadership and land use plan asked us to hold a community meeting in the library. We did, and then we continued by holding a series of meetings on various issues that residents are concerned about, like the local chateau, which is falling apart, or the lack of a school or preschool here, the land use plan, and other things. Based on these discussions forums, a group of people formed which had the feeling that something has to be done and the only thing that could be done was to run for local office. We are part of that group. And our goal was to elect one person from this informal group, or two people at best, and we succeeded – we have a new mayor and deputy mayor. It’s a nice example of the community power of a library. But otherwise we are strict in making sure that the library environment remains apolitical. We welcome everyone who comes in in the same manner and do not use the library to express our own opinions.
What are your current plans?
We have two new things going on. First, we’re going to be moving into the adjacent building, which the municipality is renovating with a subsidy from the Ministry of Culture. Then we got an Erasmus plus grant to take a trip to Denmark and a trip to Finland to visit the best libraries. And this year is Statenice’s 100th anniversary, which we wanted to celebrate in a big way last spring, but had to postpone due to Covid-19. We’re talking to the town administration about getting more hours of operation. Right now we work one and a half days per week – we’re open all day Wednesday and Monday morning till noon. We’d like to raise that to 3 days per week.
What was the most difficult period in creating the Statenice community library? Was there ever a moment when you wanted to just give up?
I had a kind of crisis moment when Barbora, Pavlína and I were doing the accounting for the grant. There we were, counting the money late into the night. Part of the money was for our own remuneration. When we finished, and took our own pay, I realized how ridiculously small that pay was for all of the work we’d put in. Even though I had known it all along, I suddenly felt like I just couldn’t do it anymore, that it was too much to do (laughter). It all kind of hit me right then. But that was also because my son was a year and a half old then, I was breastfeeding, he was waking up a lot in the night, I was permanently sleep-deprived. So things were a bit tough at home, when I put household and family obligations on the back burner and felt that my husband wasn’t as excited about the library as I was. But that has all long since settled down, my husband is a huge source of support. And if he wasn’t financially supporting the family I wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work.
What helped you get through that difficult moment?
Barbora helped me a lot. She reminded me that we set out to create a community library for people and that we really had succeeded in that. And that maybe the financial remuneration would come later. Back in 2006, I had established a graphic design studio with a friend and it took me 10 years to learn how to value my own work, how to set the right price on it. It wasn’t easy to learn that and I’m still not great at it, but it was an important part of my work. And then, all of a sudden, I found myself in a library, in the non-profit sector, where everything was completely different.
What has brought you the greatest joy since you’ve taken on the community library?
We are still filled with a sense of excitement about it, and also of surprise that it really happened as it did and that it is still happening. We are still hopeful. There is still potential to develop the library further, a lot of potential. I don’t consider the library to be our success alone. I have the feeling that we fell into some sort of clockwork right in the place where a cog was missing, and by falling into that place everything was set into motion. The feedback we get from the people around us also makes us happy. When you work in graphic design, you don’t get that, you might get some appreciation or acknowledgement but it’s not as immediate as it is here in the library, where people tell us that thanks partially to us, Statenice has finally become a vibrant village.