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Creating proper facilities to house Latvia's national heritage has been plagued with false starts and delays for almost a century. Since the dawn of democratic Latvia in 1918, the Latvian National Library has been without a permanent home of its own.

A letter written to the then-minister of education, Latvian national poet Janis Plieksans, more commonly known simply as Rainis, in 1928 echoes sentiments that are equally applicable today.

"It has already been established in several interdepartmental commissions and discussions," the letter read, "that the current national library accommodation is quite unsuitable and that a national library requires a building completely suitable to the needs of a modern library."

Containing a collection of more than 4.5 million volumes, the national library's various reading rooms are sprinkled throughout Latvia's capital. If historical documents are correct, the Bolsheviks are to be credited with formation of the first national library during the turbulent years of the short-lived Soviet Latvia in April 1919. It was located in a house on the corner of Valnu and Kalku streets and lasted only one month until the Entente-supported democratic government returned to Riga in May 1919.

The official site for the Latvian National Library pegs its birthday as August 29, 1919, after the return of the democratic Latvian government. It relocated the library into the former residence of the vice governor of the Baltic province of the Russian Empire at 26 Jauniela street in Old Riga.

As the collection increased rapidly, it outgrew the new facilities within a year.

Next, the library found homes near and inside Riga Castle, the presidential residence, during Latvia's inter-war period while the country leaders debated the idea of a permanent home for the library. The debates raged on until the Soviet occupation came, interrupted by the three years of German occupation. The Soviet authorities continued to debate the construction of a national library building throughout the 50 years of their rule.

In 1940, the year the Soviet tanks first rolled into Latvia, the Padomju Latvija (Soviet Latvia) newspaper declared, "The State Library in Riga requires a new building. Crammed with books, the walls are falling apart... The situation is no longer tolerable."

After the war, in 1946, the Soviet authorities decided to build the national library on the site of the former City Hall, destroyed during the war. The erected structure, however, ended up housing the Latvian Technical University, which is still there today. On three separate occasions during the Soviet occupation, mock-ups of buildings to house the national library were devised but never constructed.

In 1968, city planners moved the national library into its current central location on the corner of Barona and Elizabetes streets. However, the library's rich collection of the national cultural heritage has been too extensive to fit within the walls of one building, spilling over to various reading rooms in eight different locations throughout the city.

Even before Latvia restored its independence in 1991, the national government once again launched talks about the need for a national library building. The Cabinet of Ministers of the independent Latvia initially decided to construct the national library back in 1991, just one year after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union.

Seventeen years later, the new modern building for the national library still hasn't taken physical shape.

American Latvian architect Gunnar Birkerts received a phone call from Riga city architect Gunars Asars in 1988, on the morning after Christmas Day, asking him to design a new national library. Some of his previous designs include the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, Marquette Plaza in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela.

Birkerts designed a new building for the National Library, known as the Castle of Light, full of symbolism and metaphors.

"The vision for the new national library was always both forwarding-looking in concept and bold and symbolic in design," says Mara Saule, who has been working as a consultant on the project.

"The intention for the building is expressive," says Birkerts, who has designed 14 libraries, including one in the Baltic-sounding Michigan town of Livonia. "Its appearance includes ... references to the most important images of Latvian folk legends and folk songs – the hill of glass, the symbolic Castle of Light which, according to legend, sank into the depths during a bloody period of oppression in Latvia. The legend says that when brave men and women summon it, the castle will rise from the darkness, and the people will once again be free."

The national library is much more than a collection of books, periodicals and cultural heritage, Saule says."It should be a vibrant community center that brings together readers, scholars, technology, and collections--and the library expertise to make it all work together," she told City Paper.

Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis called the national library a symbol for future generations. Every generation has the obligation to leave behind an architectural mark for its children and grandchildren, he said in a recent interview.

But at a time of economic turbulence and mounting economic problems, some have begun questioning whether the Castle of Light is a wise way to spend public money. Opponents of the project suggest that it would be cheaper to refurbish existing facilities such as empty factories to suit the library's needs. Others suggest that the government would be better off concentrating on priorities such as migration, inflation, safety of children and raising of pensions before it embarks on grand projects such as the library.

"Attitudes toward the project have fluctuated across the years and varied a great deal," Saule told City Paper. "Rising inflation and its effects are, we must hope, temporary but the need to preserve and make accessible is of long-term importance to preserving the cultural record and memory of Latvia, and to creating community during a time of uncertainty."

"Some have questioned the need for a new library building in the age of the Internet, with so much information freely available through Google and other portals. [But] not all information is on the Internet at all -- especially unique cultural heritage collections that document the rich history of Latvia," she said.

The designer envisions the new building with room for group activities, for teachers and their students, a concert hall and a conference center, exhibition galleries, room for a small shop, and an Internet cafe.During early stages of development, the library included even a beauty salon, but it didn't last long as a serious consideration.

"Remember that in the early nineties, Latvia and thus the National Library were very much in the uncertain transitional phase moving from the Soviet lifestyle and economy to a Western free economy," Saule said.

The group floor will house a large, state-of-the art conference center with a variety of conference rooms and venues, she says, including numerous small group meeting and consultation rooms, all with the most current presentation and communication technologies and multi-media viewing rooms and areas where live music could be played and films viewed.

"It is a building that is very much 'high tech, and high touch' as we say: engaging technologies and multimedia in intimate settings to be shared with others, and with the human expertise available close at hand to provide instruction and support," she says.

The Castle of Light comes with a hefty price tag. Its Web site, www.gaismaspils.lv, estimates the total cost of 116 million lati ($242 million, 165 million euro), however adjusted for skyrocketing inflation, local media estimate a price tag of up to 555 million lati ($1.1 billion, 790 million euro).

The state has already allocated enough money to build the first floor of the Castle of Light and it is yet known where the rest of the money will come from. Originally planned for Latvia's 79th birthday last November, the cornerstone may be laid this spring.

But as history shows - having a plan is no guarantee that the project will happen. Some men and women may be summoning it, as the legend goes, but it remains to be seen whether a castle of light is ready to rise from the darkness just yet.

By Aleks Tapinsh