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Library Visit Aborted: Not Seeing the Biblioteca Nacional de España

Lope de Vega

Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega, may I please enter?

On our last full day in Madrid this past December, I headed to the Biblioteca Nacional de España (the National Library of Spain). My plan was to sit down with a book of poetry or a random selection from the shelves, to wander and get a sense of the place, to take a couple photos, and maybe visit the library’s special exhibits in the adjoining museum. This would be the first in a series of library posts for this blog, and I was excited to begin exploring the range of reading spaces, titles and resources, and architectural styles in libraries around the world.

As a bonus in Madrid, the library’s museum was featuring a couple interesting exhibits, including one on Spain’s 20th Century architects. I’d just been learning about Rafael Masó in Girona and wanted to see how he was represented here. But it was Monday, and the exhibits were closed. Meh, not a problem. I was assured I could visit the library, which was open, and went around to the imposing main entrance where security stopped me not just to scan my bag, but to tell me I couldn’t go in.

“Is the library closed today? They told me down at the museum entrance that the library was open.”
“It is closed.”
“Why are people going in?” I asked.
“They have credentials. It’s a research library.”
“Can I get credentials?”
A long answer ensued, and I realized I needed a project, a reason for being there, and a formal application to the research desk. Fine! I am on a mission, blogging about libraries around the world.

After some explaining, I was able to convince them I was legitimate, and they agreed I could pass through security to make my application at the proper desk.

“Let’s see your passport.”
“Um, I have a copy of my passport with me, but the original is back at the hotel.”
“We need the original.”

That’s when I lost it and ranted in Spanish as fluidly as I could. I’m not even that good ranting spontaneously in English. Were they amused? I kept talking. I let the guard know I didn’t hold her personally responsible, but that this was typical of Spain where paperwork is God and rules are layered with habits and unquestioning obedience. Couldn’t they see what a simple request this was? It was ridiculous, I said, and everybody knew it.

Lope de Vega and Cervantes

Lope de Vega and Cervantes guarding the entrance to the Biblioteca National de España, Madrid

No rules were bent in the making of my scene. I couldn’t get in without my passport, even to make application for admission.

The library project will continue. I’m left to wonder if the Spanish National Library’s interior space is arranged around a cavernous hall, or if it has the intimacy of the King’s Library at the British Museum. Stuck with these cold exterior shots, I longed for the old King’s Library (now it houses a permanent exhibit) when it displayed volumes within reach, divided by woodwork that could be touched, and lighted by soft individual desk lamps.



  1. […] with the Minneapolis (MN) Central Library, it being so close to home. But I used my experience almost-visiting the National Library of Spain as inspiration for my next library visit. Armed with an appointment this time–and a habit of […]

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