Worth to know about the ELTE University Library. On the Seating Capacity of the Main Reading Room (1875-1899)

The scene speaks for itself. Long rows of tables densely placed next to each other, four rows on both sides of the room.  This type of table suitable for two persons became common in 1943. There are still a few pieces of these that can be found in the reading rooms. At these tables, in the busy periods (during the directorship of Zoltán Ferenci between 1900-1926, or in the 1950s-60s-70s) 124 visitors could sit down. But what was the real seating capacity of the University Library in former times?

Before we get into that, we shall touch upon our sources. Most of the old archival documentation about the library and the building were destroyed. Fortunately, in a few cases we can refer to our librarian predecessors (like András Tóth, Miklós Vértesy, Edit Izsépy), who knew and investigated the history of the library, and used these sources to their researches. We can turn over the directorial reports written by Sándor Szilágyi, and later by Zoltán Ferenczi, Iván Pasteiner and László Mátrai. We can browse in the daily and weekly journals of the period.

According to the newspaper Magyarország és a Nagyvilág [Hungary and the World] (1875, 4th issue) – that wrote about the library building long before its opening – the reading room on the first floor was originally to have a capacity of 130 seats which was changed by the new plans to 150. The reference library containing approximately 15.000-20.000 books was to be placed in this reading room.

According to this article the remaining 150.000 books of the library were to be located in a thematic arrangement on the ground and first floors of the building. A very practical reform would also take place: the periodicals were to be separated from the books, and a special reading room was to be dedicated to them, probably in the corner room on the ground floor. On the first floor small reading rooms for the professors were to be set up close to the main reading room, and the parlour and study of the director and the librarians’ offices also were to be located here. The second floor would give place to the director’s apartment and – which the article deemed neither yet certain nor desirable – to the high school of the teachers’ training college.

The number 130/150 referred only to the main reading room, the article doesn’t talk about the capacity of the other rooms. It is certain that the library was under a lot of pressure to have as many readers as possible. The professors’ room’s and the newspaper room’s statistics were not written down, these were handled as separate services, unique to the library. The lines of some critics of the library let us know that the students had access to six different rooms of the building. The long tradition that the professors and scholars had special reading rooms dates back to 1850, when Toldy opened the newspaper reading room, a place where the “little scholar circle” could regularly meet. This circle included famous scientists like Reguly, Pauler, Gusztáv Szontagh, Hunfalvy, Gusztáv Venczel and János Szilassy. These special reading rooms caused conflicts half a century later, when in 1906 critics of the reading conditions loudly debated the problem of inclusivity between students and professors, and the question of the seating capacity of the library, among other problems.

The period’s press continuously reports on the improvements of the building. In December 1875 the news talks about four smaller and four bigger tables with armchairs enough for 140 people and 40 bookcases with 12.000 books in total in the main reading room. Daytime this saloon is illuminated by eastern light through the glass roof and three huge windows, in the evenings 60 flames will make it even more luminous. However, from the wording of the article it becomes obvious that the question of furnishing was still undecided at that time.

The question of seating capacity was actually question of furniture. And if we shoot a glance at the picture printed in the Vasárnapi Újság [Sunday News] directly after the opening, we can observe that there are no tables or chairs in the room, only bookcases leant against the walls.

Based on Edit Kazimír article

On the 1st of January 1876 József Szinnyei’s report in the MKSz [Hungarian Book Review] mentions only the iron and oaken bookshelves of the rooms accessible to the users and promises comfortable seats for 120 visitors in the main reading room. The question of furnishing the office chambers was decided in 1877, when 6000 forints were allocated to this purpose.

The cause of the delay was mainly that the high school of the teachers’ training college moved in to the second floor as cotenant causing many difficulties to the library until 1882, when it finally leaved the building to the library’s exclusive disposal. In this year in Berlin Sándor Szilágyi gave a talk on the University Library, in which he stated that the library’s new building was planned and constructed to serve the purpose of a modern library, and as an argument he mentioned that Antal Skalniczky, the designer of the building in the course of planning the ventilation calculated with the needs of 180 readers each to have 55,5 cubic metre air per hour.

10 years after the opening of the building the library was still dealing with furnishing problems. In 1889 a new reference library was opened (supposedly a history reading room) on the ground floor but once again no capacity numbers were shared. A report from 1896 writes about a significant change: a heated study with reference books for professors and researchers was established, which was especially important because the heating of the main reading room and the heating of the chambers around it were connected: if the former stopped, the latter stopped, too.

In 1897 Szilágyi names the following spaces as reading rooms of the library: the newspaper reading room, the small and the main reading room and the private study for the professors. The report gives an account only of the number of seats of the main reading room: this time it is 102.

At the time Szilágyi died (1899) we only know of this capacity of 102 persons, nothing about the other rooms. It is certain that by the turn of the century the library could not reach the desired seating capacity of 150 visitors.


Source/author of illustration:
ELTE EDIT, edit.elte.hu