“St. Joseph” library – an oasis of peace in the center of Bihać

Author: Nermina Zulić

Since the end of the 19th century, more precisely in 1893, the narrowest center of the city of Bihać has been adorned by a building popularly known as the “Kloster”.

It was built by the nuns of the Order of Adorers of the Blood of Christ, the founders of the community, and the girls’ school in the monastery of St. Joseph.

In 1945, the school was closed, and the convent building was taken from the nuns. However, their work in the field of education was not interrupted by this, as evidenced by the “St. Joseph” library, which, 65 years after the school closed, was opened on the ground floor of the Kloster.

Sister Simplicija, then head of the community in Bihać, who oversaw the construction and furnishing of the Library, fondly recalled the period when the idea of opening the Library was conceived.

According to her, Sisters Cecilija and Ljiljana collected books in the premises of the convent, and were happy to lend them, mostly to children who attended piano, guitar and other instrument lessons in the sister’s home.

“Given that there were more and more books, that there was no more storage space in the house, and that there was a growing interest in borrowing, the head of the community in Bihać at the time, Sister Cecilija Glibo, asked the municipal authorities to give them a part of the Kloster for the book storage. However, the authorities at that time were not interested. Nine years passed from the creation of the idea to its realization,” said Sister Simplicija.

Only with the arrival of the new municipal leadership headed by Mayor Hamdija Lipovac, did the sisters receive a promise that the local community would help them in starting the Library.

“This decision was made by the mayor after he visited our house together with the president of OO HDZ, Franjo Jurić, and saw that we have a rich collection of books. Soon his promise was put into action, and the sisters received 84 square meters for this purpose. Due to state laws, the nationalized area of the monastery could not be returned to the sisters, but the municipality at the time leased it,” Sister Simplicija recalls.

Thanks to the understanding of the authorities, all the necessary documentation was quickly obtained, adds Sister Simplicija, pointing out that the work, which preceded the arrangement and furnishing of the space, was extremely extensive.

During the construction phase of the Library, the sisters were helped by numerous donors, and the Government of the Republic of Croatia provided them with the greatest support through four donations.

The opening of the Library was held on April 13, 2009, in the presence of numerous book devotees, donors, representatives of the Catholic Church, headed by Bishop Franjo Komarica of Banja Luka, and representatives of the City Administration.

On this day, the sisters of the Order of Adorers of the Blood of Christ once again confirmed that they want to participate in the cultural, educational and general social life of the city of Bihać, where they first came in 1894.

With Sister Simplicija, four female volunteers applied for work, so the doors of the Library were open to citizens every day. The number of members/users was increasing day by day, because, in addition to the diverse book collection of 5,000 books, they were attracted by the beautiful environment. From the beginning, the Library offered free internet and a photocopier, and volunteers, with the help of external collaborators, organized free workshops for users.

“Even today, 13 years after the opening, the interest of users is great,” says Sister Blanka, who has been managing the “St. Joseph” Library for ten years. She adds that, due to the development and use of new technologies, a slight decline in readers is noticeable.

“Currently, 2,557 citizens of different ages are members. The majority, 1,166 of them, are between the ages of 19 and 30, followed by students, totaling 378. Among the members are 131 senior citizens, over 65, who are regular visitors.“

Members have at their disposal a diverse collection of 11,117 library items, i.e. 9,198 titles. In addition to works of domestic and international literature, including school readings, the Library also has professional literature in the fields of history, social sciences, music, theology, etc.

The initial fund of 5,000 library units has been increased over the years based on donations and gifts from citizens. A large number of titles were purchased with the Library’s own funds.

“In the past period, we visited the Book Fair in Zagreb, where we bought new titles. We also purchase books in bookstores, whenever we manage to set aside part of the funds from membership fees, sales of duplicates, and late fees. We received part of the books as a gift from certain libraries, and very often books from their home libraries are also given to us by our citizens, so the collection is extremely diverse,” says Sister Blanka.

All books are digitally processed and cataloged in the “MetelWin” program, which enables quick finding and borrowing of books. In this way, it is also possible to search books online.

“What I would like to point out is the diverse book collection. Here we can also borrow titles that have been recently published. In the Library, the book offer follows the interests of our members. We monitor the titles that are often requested and try to buy those titles. Also, if the book is not currently available, the librarians write down the user’s name and call him_her when it is available. And I also like the space of the library”, long-term member Tahirza Puškar told us.

Within the Library there is also a reading room, intended for all those who want to spend their free time with a book and enrich their knowledge by reading.

Although 84 square meters does not seem like a large space, various workshops and get-togethers are regularly organized in the Library. In addition to those aimed at developing a love for books and encouraging reading, children also participate in numerous other workshops.

“There is great interest in creative workshops during which children express their imagination and use their abilities through painting, making jewelry, making decorations, etc. We also had film workshops for children, then workshops on the basics of a foreign language, and recently we also held ecological workshops “Eco world” and “Environment and climate change”, which were organized in terms of bringing children closer to the problem of the increasing pollution of our planet, and the role of the individual in preserving ecology and raising awareness of the importance of clean nature”, says volunteer Martina Franjić.

Considering the numerous challenges that today’s children face, and the negativity that these challenges bring, a psychological workshop “Stress and Youth” was recently held in the Library for children aged 12 to 16, led by MA in Psychology Una Halilagić. The goal of the workshop was for children and young people to learn to recognize stress and learn how to deal with it. During the workshop, participants discussed their problems with a psychologist, mastered relaxation exercises, and practical coping skills such as reducing negative thoughts, changing attitudes, thinking in a healthy and realistic way.

In addition, the “St. Joseph” Library is happy to organize cultural events and gatherings of elementary school students.

“This year, in addition to students from primary schools in Bihać, we hosted children from the migrant population, users of the Borići Temporary Reception Center, who attend classes in Bihać. They wanted to get to know the work of the Library and what it offers. We showed them where the necessary reading materials, books, atlases are located. They were particularly impressed by the collections of picture books, encyclopedias, board games and didactic toys. They discovered that not only books are borrowed in the library, but also CDs and DVDs, and that they can use computers and the Internet in our library.”

In the past 13 years, the Library has confirmed that it is important for Bihać through its work with books, but also through various other activities.

“Throughout all this time, we have not stopped working, except at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the numerous problems we are facing, which are mainly related to the lack of funds. The Library does not have a permanent source of income, rent and utilities are paid from its own funds and with occasional support from donors. Part of the means for holding the workshops was financed from the Fund of the Society of Adorers of the Blood of Christ, with whose help the Library acquired school equipment for a group of socially disadvantaged children at the beginning of the current school year,” says Sister Blanka. She adds that the work in the Library all these years has been exclusively on a volunteer basis.

Ines, Nermina, Ajla, Amra, Kristina, Dragana, Mirnesa are just some of the volunteers who dedicated their free time to the Library. And there were over 30 of them. Sister Blanka points out that each of those volunteers contributed to the survival of this institution. Many of them were students, so they stayed for a short period of time, and several volunteers spent several years in the Library.

Among them is Martina Franjić, a professor of English language and literature who worked at the Library during the first two years of its existence, and then returned to it again in 2020.

“Libraries first attracted me to books, because I like to read. And this was an opportunity to be in constant contact with a multitude of books. In addition, I also like to socialize with people, so constant contact with members makes me happy. I feel really good here”.

Martina especially looks forward to the days when new books arrive at the Library, which she deftly introduces into the system and recommends to users. Katarina Kurtović is currently volunteering with her. She says that she often came to the Library to get books and that since she does not work anywhere, she accepted the invitation from Blanka to join them.

For the next period, the volunteers and Sister Blanka have many plans. In addition to regular activities and workshops for children, they plan to organize social events for older members of the Library, then a quiz on the topic of children’s literature, movie days, marking special dates, as well as a return visit to the Library in Velika Gorica.

Understandably, there is also a fear of uncertainty due to the new economic situation. Due to the price of heating, Sister Blakna told us that they are afraid of a possible change of working hours or even a temporary closure of the Library during the winter period. That is why they invite businesspersons, who appreciate their work and the importance of the Library, to support them financially in order to provide the necessary funds for heating.

Believing that there are donors even in this difficult time, Sister Blanka also expresses the hope that they will collect donations and that the Library will continue its regular work during the winter, for all book lovers who gladly visit this oasis of peace in the very center of Bihać.