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Welcome to the National and University Library (NUK), the central and largest library of Slovenia. The library’s palace was designed by architect Jože Plečnik (1872—1957) and it is one of his most celebrated works. NUK is not only one of the most beautiful buildings in Ljubljana; it is also frequently listed as one of the most unique libraries in the world. Turning away from the bare functionality sought after commonly in contemporary libraries, Plečnik opted instead for a world of symbols and metaphors. He was aware that a library is first and foremost a concept and a value. It is a decision made by society to provide free and equal access to knowledge and one of the most crucial institutions in modern democratic societies, safekeeping the core values of modern civilisation: knowledge, learning and wisdom. With NUK, Plečnik thus built nothing less than a temple―a temple of knowledge and wisdom to inspire visitors with both pride, admiration and humility, and the curiosity and desire to attain them. The façade of the building is reminiscent of a Renaissance palace, carrying multiple messages. Plečnik shaped it as a fabric enveloping and protecting the treasures inside. The grey stones were once part of the former Roman wall, discovered in the excavations for the foundations of the building. The windows on the upper floors were designed to resemble open books; the top of the building is decorated with a symbolic wreath that Plečnik compared to a woman's necklace. On the balcony above the entrance, there perches Plečnik's proposal for the coat of arms, the prototype of today's official symbol of Slovenia with Triglav at its centre.


The roots of the first central public library in Slovenia date back to a decree from Empress Maria Theresa in 1774 which made 637 books that got spared in a fire in the former Jesuit College in Ljubljana available for public use in the Ljubljana Lyceum. Since 1807, the Lyceum library was legally entitled to receive legal deposit copies of all the published books in the province of Carniola. During the French occupation, this edict extended to encompass all publications from the Illyrian provinces. 2|p a g e

TEMPLE OF KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM – A GUIDE FOR VISITORS M the O D RLyceum OSTI In 1830, Matija Čop, an important progressive intellectual of the time, became Head of Library. He arranged the library collection and expanded it with the addition of with Slovenian books.

After the World War I, the library, renamed State Reference Library, became the main library for the whole of Slovenia along with the right to hold all legal deposit copies—firstly from the local regions, and later from the whole of Yugoslavia. When the first Slovene university was established in Ljubljana in 1919, the library assumed the functions of the central university library, too, although its location was the shabby, temporarily renovated Poljane High School with only 18 seats in its reading room. Architect Jože Plečnik created the plans for the new University Library in the years 1930—31. The request for a construction of a Slovenian university library was first met with vehement resistance from the authorities in Belgrade, which was only surmounted after long and massive student demonstrations. The library finally moved into today’s monumental building in the spring of 1941. After the liberation in 1945, the university library formally became the National and University Library in Ljubljana. Today, it is the Slovenian national library, the university library of the University of Ljubljana, Slovenian Library Network Development Centre and the central research library in Slovenia. The library collection consists of 2.8 million units of library material with an annual increment of around 30.000 units. The surface of the library measures 14.359 m2 and there are 326 reading stations. Approximately 270.000 visitors visit the library every year. Due to electronic information resources and digitization, an increasing number of services can be provided remotely. The library employs a staff of 137.

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The heavy main door, adorned with a handle in the form of Pegasus, the mythological winged horse, opens into a dark hall, from which a massive staircase leads directly to the Main Reading Room. Plečnik designed the entrance to the library as a metaphor of initiation into the world of learning: a visitor must first push the heavy door and then follow the dark staircase towards the light coming from the higher floors of the temple of learning. The staircase is therefore not just a functional element: it is one of the fundamental symbols of the building. Plečnik emphasized its importance by imitating a red carpet, visible in a small hollow to the side, and by making the stairs lower and wider than usual. This creates a social space where visitors can comfortably talk and take in the increasing magnificence of the ambient while slowly climbing the stairs.

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The archaic peristyle in front of the Main Reading Room testifies to Plečnik’s admiration of the Classical architecture. He believed that architecture should always rely on history, and that its mission is not mere functionalism. Architects should not just construct buildings, they should promote awareness that people are not only individual, material and biological beings—they are rather part of a community, culture and civilization. Architecture should be storytelling, replacing bare functionality with hidden symbols, barely noticeable details and daring metaphors. The imitation of a carpet, made of stone of various colours, on the floor complements the magnificent Doric columns in the lobby, composed of differently veined stones. The eye is also drawn to the sidelights resembling antique torches, and lingers on the exceptional portal to the Exhibition Room. Plečnik’s design received much criticism because of its luxurious—and expensive—hall. Critics argued that it is a waste of money and space. But richness of ideas and materials were essential to Plečnik's idea of the library as a temple that grows from the Slovenian soil and knowledge. To him, the use of natural stone and working with local masters was crucial. When he learnt that due to war, some shelves were to be ordered from abroad, he immediately drafted his own plan for the shelves and sent it to the authorities along with a letter of protest. In addition to its colourful luxury, natural stone hides another treasure. A closer look will reveal compressed and fossilized traces of life dating back millions of years ago to the Jurassic period. Plečnik assembled the pillars in such a way that their parts are not too similar to each other; his message was that not a single entity—be it a society or a culture, let alone a civilization—is made up of a single piece. The difference is inscribed in the very fabric of society, and complete equality is an illusion. At every step, Plečnik’s NUK upholds the heterogeneity of stories, materials and ideas.


Upon entering the Main Reading Room, the visitors find themselves in the brightest, most magnificent room in the library. The Main Reading Room, placed perpendicularly to the staircase axis, runs along the entire southern tract. Desks with reading stations for users are placed to the left and to the right

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TEMPLE OF KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM – A GUIDE FOR VISITORS M O D R O Sdesk TI of the entrance. They are oriented towards the centre of the hall, where there is an information and the reference library.

The fence of the gallery is interestingly made of gas pipes. While this might seem an odd, underwhelming choice for such a significant room, it is not in fact surprising since the industrial architecture had a major impact on the European architecture ever since the 19th century. Plečnik left a personal mark not only on the architectural design but also on the interior furnishings. He designed the desks, chairs, desk lamps and three large chandeliers in the Main Reading Room. The main chandelier, positioned not in the axis of the main staircase, but rather in the centre of the room, resembles a huge candlestick, while the two side chandeliers have a form of a spinning wheel. That is the symbol of St Catherine of Alexandria, a martyr from the 3rd century CE who eventually became the patron saint of all professions to do with knowledge, including librarians and students. Chairs are designed to stimulate learning—their dimensions enable proper body positioning, while their ascetic discomfort prevents users from becoming too relaxed during studying or falling asleep. Plečnik’s Reading Room is one of the largest and architecturally most sophisticated library spaces. To this day, it tells a story of time needed for studying and research, as well as of peace, silence and reflection that befit the temple of knowledge. To ensure the necessary quietness, the access to the Main Reading Room is restricted to members only.


The entrance to the exhibition room is one of the most beautiful nooks of the library. The red marble portal surrounding the magnificent door with wooden and stone decorative inserts gives off the impression of a curved curtain. This is an example of ‘dressing’ (die Verkleidung), a concept promoted by the famous architect Gottfried Semper. It was an attempt to shape solid elements in such a way that they resemble softer textiles. Like the handles of the main entrance door, the handles of the Exhibition Room door, too, have an animal shape—this time in the form of the Carniola eagle. The chandelier above the entrance is decorated with four linden tree leaves, a symbol of Slovenia. Linden trees used to grow in many Slovenian villages as a beacon of their community social lives. The Exhibition Room thusly combines the ceremonial and the social. We continue to follow Plečnik’s message, organising and hosting exhibitions, providing a glimpse to the treasures from the library’s collections.

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7 | T H E E X H I B I T I O N – » A n d Y e t T h e y R e a d T h e m - B a nMnOeDdR O S T I Books in Slovenian Lands in the Early Modern Age « Individuals and communities sharing their ideas—findings, ideas, principles, visions—have always been faced with forces that wanted to control or limit the flow of such exchange. This is done by applying all sorts of pressure: changes in the text would be demanded, books confiscated and burned, and in some cases authors of books would be convicted, extradited or even executed. But just as the Earth continued to roll around the Sun despite Galileo’s forced denial of the heliocentric theory, readers have always found a way to the disputed books despite various rigorous censorship policies. The proof is a large collection of formerly banned titles stored in NUK. The exhibition is the result of the research project "Banned Books in Slovenian Lands in the Early Modern Age" by the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU) and NUK. The exhibition sheds light on the background, structure, meaning and history of the Pope Index and other censorship lists. There are selected works from the National and University Library collection, in the past marked as religiously, morally or politically controversial for which they were put on censorship lists. In the exhibition, one learns both about authors that left a significant mark on the philosophical and political thought and literary landscape of the Early Modern Age and about lesser-known authors from that period. Various ownership marks and notes from former owners preserved in displayed copies show the visitor the interesting routes through time and space the books have been taken on.

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Upon descending the stairs, a visitor finds themselves returning to the gloom of the everyday life. The mysterious inscription in the middle of the staircase is dedicated to four former Library employees who lost their lives during the World War II. The verse by poet Janko Glazer: “And you who live, you are indebted to the dead,” reminds us that every society, every culture and every civilization stands on the shoulders of giants: those courageous, visionary individuals who are willing to do the right thing in the most crucial of moments. August Žigon, former director of the library, was in the wrong place at the wrong time while Ludvik Thuma, Jože Rus and Avgust Pirjevec were imprisoned, tortured and shot without court hearings for their activities in the resistance movement. In the library, they organised readings of illegal and censored literature, gun shooting courses and hideouts for members of the resistance. They wrote graffiti in the night time, distributed propaganda leaflets, and even established a kind of an “illegal deposit”. At least one copy of all the illegal prints from partisan printing presses was brought to and hidden in the library. The material was never found during numerous raids. Thanks to the courage and awareness of the librarians, an important and unique part of the Slovenian heritage has remained fully preserved.

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TEMPLE OF KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM – A GUIDE FOR VISITORS M O D RReading OSTI In January 1944, before the end of the war, a German postal plane crashed into the Main Room. The Room was completely demolished during the fire and about 60.000 books burned. Fortunately, there were no users in the Reading Room because the library had run out of money for the heating just one week prior. While all members of the airplane crew lost their lives in the crash, only one person from the Library got killed in the accident.

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Plečnik is not the only architect who has left his mark on the library. The Information Centre under the main staircase, the Newspaper Reading Room, the cloakroom and the basement floor were renovated in the 1990s according to the plans of architect Marko Mušič. The NUK Café in the hidden inner courtyard is the perfect place to refresh, relax and enjoy a cup of herbal tea—the very one that Plečnik used to drink.


Before bidding goodbye to the National and University Library, let us invite you for a short walk around the building. Plečnik was always trying to integrate the social and historical context of the site into his designs. On the west side of the library, the small, elevated park with statues of Slovenian linguists is meant to bring to mind the medieval defensive wall which once stood along Vegova Street (alongside the University building a little further to the north, one of the two preserved defensive towers can be seen). In the south, the park expands into the French Revolution Square. Plečnik placed a monument to Napoleon there, and a small pavilion dedicated to the poet Simon Gregorčič (1844–1906). On the other side of the square, there is Križanke, a former monastery of the medieval German Order of the Knights of Cross, the renovation of which was also conducted by Plečnik. Above the side entrance on the east side of the Library, Plečnik put a sculpture of Moses. The mighty biblical patriarch bears the face of Rihard Jakopič (1869–1943), the most famous Slovenian impressionist. 7|p a g e



Literature THE ARCHITECT Jože Plečnik : guide to monuments (2008). Ljubljana: Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia. CHARNEY, Noah (2017). Eternal architect : the life and art of Jože Plečnik, modernist mystic. Ljubljana: Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, Totaliteta. GOODING, Mel (1997). National and University Library Ljubljana : [Jože Plečnik] : architecture in detail. London: Phaidon. HRAUSKY, Andrej (2017). Symbolism of Jože Plečnik's architecture : Ljubljana 1921-1957. Ljubljana: Lili in Roza. PRELOVŠEK, Damjan (1997). Jože Plečnik : 1872-1957 : architectura perennis. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press. TREASURES of the National and University Library Ljubljana (2003). Ljubljana: National and University Library.

Text by Ž. Cerkvenik Photos: Ž. Cerkvenik, M. Štupar, B. Cvetkovič, Archive NUK Ljubljana, 2018 © Narodna in univerzitetna knjižnica Turjaška 1, 1000 Ljubljana E-mail: Web site:

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A Temple of Knowledge and Wisdom  

A short guide to the visitors of The National and University Library

A Temple of Knowledge and Wisdom  

A short guide to the visitors of The National and University Library