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When A Library Is Born On A Tiny Italian Island

Inside an old watchtower dangling over the crashing waves of the port of Capraia, dwell 6,000 books and their keeper: 33-year-old Viola, a librarian who took the time during the COVID-19 pandemic to ask herself, "What makes you truly happy?"

A photograph of a book about the importance of reading, held up against the tower of Capraia's library

In front of the library of Capraia, a woman hold up a book about the importance of reading

Biblioteca Isola Di Capraia/Facebook
Federico Taddia

CAPRAIA — "The waves crashing loudly against the cliffs, the bad weather that prevents the ferry from arriving for days, the strong northeast wind making its presence felt... And then a handful of men and women, each with a kettle and their own cup of tea brought from home, protected inside the tower, reading a novel together: this, for me, is the library; this, for me, is building a community - building an identity - starting from books."

It almost seems as if, off in the distance, one can glimpse the Corsairs sailing on their galleys. Meanwhile, with the passionate gaze of someone who loves their land and the enthusiasm of someone who adores their job — actually, of someone who has realized their dream — Viola Viteritti, the librarian of Capraia, explains how the tower, built by the Genoese in 1540 to defend against pirates, is now home of what the Center for the Book and Reading has dubbed the most extraordinary library in Italy.

"I've spent four months a year on this island since I was born," she explains. "It's my home; it's the place where I feel good, where I am myself. As a child, I devoured books, but on the island, there was no place for books. When I chose to move here permanently, the library project started simultaneously. There couldn't have been a better cosmic alignment."

Where are you most happy?

Viteritti is 33 years old, with a degree in Art and Performance History and Criticism obtained in Florence, and a second degree — just a couple of exams away — in Teaching Italian Language and Culture to Foreigners at the University of Siena.

On this volcanic island, eight kilometers long and four kilometers wide, located 60 km from Livorno — shaped by lava and molded by the sea and wind — in 1982, her father, a police officer from Turin, began his service at the penal colony, which closed in 1986. There, he met his future wife, a native of Capraia, whom he married in 1989. The couple moved to Florence and a year later, Viola was born.

"I came into the world in February, but by May I was already on the island," she explains, with a certain pride. "I grew up and studied in Florence, but it was a constant back-and-forth to Capraia. I never felt like a city-dweller; I felt good here, in the wild nature, in the hard-to-reach sea, on the paths to climb. And then, in the stories of the grandparents, of the inhabitants, in the sound of the now-lost dialect, in the rhythm of the islanders, which is a rhythm of life different from everyone else's. So, after the pandemic, I asked myself: 'Where are you truly happy?' I already knew the answer: and I moved here 12 months a year."

Capraia has around 400 residents on the registry, which becomes just over 100 during the winter. The newly elected mayor, Lorenzo Renzi, won the elections last May with 147 votes, against the opponent's 146. A single vote granted him the right to lead this municipality and, effectively, manage the €1.6 million in funding obtained thanks to the victory of the Pnrr Borghi project, which includes 16 projects, among them the restoration of the 16th-century Porto Tower.

A photograph taken inside the tower of the library of Capraia.

Inside the library of Capraia

Biblioteca Isola Di Capraia/Facebook

From skepticism to community

"We can't wait: the expansion works should start in September, and we will have more space and new arrangements," explains Viola. "It's truly incredible to have reached this result. When, in Sept. 2020, the decision was made to open the tower to books, many were skeptical."

It's our cultural resistance.

Some people had even opposed it: "But how? We don't even have an emergency room, and we're thinking about a library?" However, today it's a value for all the inhabitants: "These 6,000 books — initially donated and then purchased — arranged on shelves made from fruit crates, are a part of us, they are part of the habitat. It's our cultural resistance."

Four hundred loans since the beginning of the year; tourists entering incredulously to seek information or something to read among the rocks, girls and boys flipping through a comic book. In the summer, the tower is a reference point for everyone, but especially for vacationers. In winter, it becomes an exclusive privilege for the residents. "We're open on weekends; we have reading groups, we discuss new arrivals or some donated books while having something warm to drink."

The human library

And then, there's the lending: "Here, mystery novels are quite popular. Carofiglio, De Giovanni, Patricia Cornwell: they are all highly requested authors. If an elderly person can't make it to the tower, a message or a phone call is enough, and I personally deliver the novels to their homes. Or, while walking down the street, it happens many times that someone from a window — maybe while hanging laundry or chatting with a neighbor — hands me back a book on the fly, without schedules or appointments. And then there are the teenagers, for whom I always try to keep an updated selection, to surprise them and capture their interest."

Because Viola, the librarian, knows her "clients" one by one: she knows their names, their tastes, their preferences. They trust her, and for each one, she thinks of the right book to suggest at the right moment, with kindness and enthusiasm, tact and involvement.

And she is also one of the collaborators, along with the manager Elisa Casagrandi Montesi, of the "Human Library" project — also included in the Pnrr Borghi package — a kind of living library: over the next four years, all the island's inhabitants who agree to participate will be interviewed to talk about themselves, their traditions, customs and practices. These meetings will be open to the public and recorded, from which a book and a possible podcast will be created.

To create a current, present, contemporary memory.

"It's an attempt to trace the human history of the island through small, simple, normal stories — in short, through the voices of people in their everyday lives. To create a current, present, contemporary memory. To build connections and relationships. Not to defend, but to care for and protect their cultural identity. To feel like islanders. To feel isolated, but not to feel alone."

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photo of a young man holding a sign: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

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Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press
Ignacio Pereyra

Updated Dec. 3, 2023 at 10:40 p.m.


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