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I sit down on a couch just as Antonia Burrows, founder and director of the Közkincs Library, hands me a fresh brew of ginger tea. Every inch of wall space in the room has been converted into bookshelves.
Antonia came to Hungary in 1988, “before the changes,” she says, adding playfully, “such as they were”.
“I came here to see if I could find like-minded women who wanted to change things and, of course, I did. The motto of the library is ‘Read, Think, Organize.’”
Antonia was teaching gender studies “and feminist stuff” at ELTE in the 1990s, introducing lectures hitherto unheard of in Hungary. “It was dynamite,” Burrows remembers. “This was the first time there had been lectures at the university on sexuality, questioning gender roles and the way things were. Students were hanging from the chandeliers.”
She smiles. “Those times were fun. We were gradually changing public opinion, altering the discourse a little.”
In 2000, Burrows moved to California, where she collected books for 15 years. “And meanwhile,” she says, “I kept coming back to Hungary and seeing that things weren’t getting much better for women. So then I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll do, I’ll set up a library here and see if I can strengthen the resistance’.” So Antonia packed her books onto a boat, and opened the Közkincs Library in 2015. Now it’s a popular place for young visitors, although “older people come as well,” she’s quick to add. “It’s a spot for anyone who likes to hang out.”
Apart from the gender section, the library has large collections of fiction, as well as books on social sciences, art, music and travel, jigsaw puzzles and games. It also hosts a myriad of events, including film clubs (shown in English and Hungarian), women’s self-defence on Mondays, discussion groups, art workshops and English classes for refugee women. The rooms can be rented for weekend training sessions, as well. A full schedule of events can be found on the library’s Facebook page.
The books here are unique and cannot be borrowed as, quips Antonia, “Our experience is that people’s sense of reciprocity is not very well-developed, and so they forget very easily to bring books back”. However, copies can be made and books in the children’s section are available to borrow for a week at a time. Additionally, the duplicates in the so-called Small Room can be taken home.
The library runs entirely on a voluntary basis, and anyone interested is encouraged to come and help. Proceeds from Saturday’s sale will go towards the upgrading of facilities, and visitors may purchase library membership at a 10% discount. The event starts at noon and runs until 6pm.
Currently, the library is working on finishing cataloguing the collection so that it can be displayed online. “If anybody loves books, this is a place to spend some time among them, discover great new ones, and great old ones, too,” says Antonia.
Just at that moment, the stars of the show appear: Kaffka and Szöcske, the two cats who live in the library and make frequent appearances on its Instagram account.
The library's address is Rákóczi út 11.