National heritage

National Library might be the next victim of the Hungarian government’s culture war

The national library of Hungary has become one of the several cultural institutions that are under attack by the Orban government. Atlatszo’s sources say that the library not only has to move out of its home in the Buda Castle but many of its archives and institutes will be taken away and given to pro-government institutions whose research credentials are questionable. The Library faces other problems in the meantime: asbestos removal has started without adequate protection for its employees and readers.

It has recently been announced that the oral history archive of the 1956 revolution, the Institute of 1956, will be taken away from the Széchenyi National Library and will be given to the Veritas Veritas Research Institute for History, a government-controlled history research institute. The academic credentials of the leader of Veritas have been questioned since the founding of the institution.

Atlatszo’s sources say that several other institutes that are now part of the Széchenyi National Library will be split from the institution and ‘given’ to pro-government institutes.

They plan to move the Collection of Historical Interviews to the Hungarian National Film Fund, the Documents on Theater History to the National Museum and Institute of Theater, the Music Collection to the House of Hungarian Music – the latter is a yet not existing institute that will be built in the Budapest City Park.

The decision about the Institute of 1956 being transferred to Veritas was published in the Hungarian Official Government Journal last Friday. Its new umbrella organization, the Veritas, is headed by Sándor Szakály, who got infamous for antisemitic statements.

Atlatszo has published several articles on the number one library of the nation and how its integrity is being attacked by the government. The fight is not only cultural but most probably also fueled by real estate manipulation.

National Library pressured to relocate and make room for government offices and festivals in the Buda Castle

Another public institution needs to move out of the Buda Castle because of the government’s restructuring project of the area. The Orban government is shifting more and more government offices and departments to the castle; the prime minister himself moved into his new office up on Castle Hill at the beginning of January.

Sources requesting anonymity, who have insight into the daily life of the Library, say that even the director general’s position is unstable. Atlatszo inquired a week ago about the position of the director general, but the Library’s communication staff did not reply to our inquiries.

There is also the question of asbestos in the current building. Whether asbestos, which causes lung cancer, can be found in the current building of the Library has long been disputed. Until this year officials denied that there was any asbestos in the library.

However, the winner for the public tender for the asbestos removal from the building has been published on May 15, 2019. The asbestos removal costs 74 million Hungarian forints and will last until mid-summer.

Employees are concerned about the asbestos removal works. One concerned employee sent a letter to Atlatszo saying that during the asbestos removal work, employees of the Library do not get any paid leave. They will have to work in the building during the construction and asbestos levels in the dust will not be monitored continuously, except for the 7-8th floors. Also, the material of the slab containing asbestos will be transported on the only elevator that works, and that is the elevator that the Library employees use all the time.

‘It is right next to the rooms where my colleagues work now and they will have to continue working during the construction’ the employee wrote.

There is another message from another concerned employee, this time not sent to Atlatszo but posted to an internal forum of the Library.

‘According to this schedule, the work will be completed by the end of July. Absence is only allowed if we take a paid leave and the library staff is required to work inside the building, even though it would be reasonable to operate with as few people as possible during the asbestos removal. We do not get protective equipment, only the company’s workers do, those who are in direct contact with asbestos’ the letter says.

According to this employee, the asbestos removal company claims that the Library’s airspace – apart from the strictly determined working area – will not be exposed to asbestos. They did not say anything about the air circulation system.

‘The company says that it will work in a strictly enclosed space, but who would put their health at risk (and, it is asbestos: actually their lives at risk) based on a promise that the company will effectively close off their workspace from the rest of the building? (…) We might simply be overanxious, but the company’s communication is poor beyond imagination, and we are scared. We have to work inside the building during the asbestos removal. Is this a standard procedure? Is it common that our collections are open during such an operation? Does the health of readers and researchers matter? There’s no control in our hands, whatsoever, not even a simple gauge’ the concerned employee writes.

Written by Antónia Rádi

English version by Zsuzsanna Liptákné Horváth. You can read the original, Hungarian language story here.

Photo by Szebáld Szakál/ Átlátszó