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Bruges Library Nominee wins Dublin International Literary Award

By Helena Nolan, Ambassador of Ireland

Dear Readers,

One night, a few weeks ago, I was scrolling through twitter waiting for news of the Dublin International Literary Award. The prize of €100,000 is one of the most significant literary awards in the world today and I was keen to see who would win, especially as there were two Irish authors on the shortlist of ten, both of whom had featured on the Irish Embassy Book Club reading list – Sally Rooney, though for a different book, and Bernard McLaverty. Last year, the award was won by Mike McCormack for Solar Bones, which had been our December 2018 Book Club read – we are good pickers! 

Eventually, twitter told me that this year a young American woman writer had won, Emily Ruskovich with her first novel, Idaho. She made a beautiful acceptance speech, humble and generous and spoke warmly of the role of libraries as among the last places of kindness, winning hearts and minds of all who heard her in Dublin. (Read more here)

I was about to go to sleep, but then I got a private message from a friend and colleague in Dublin saying did I know that the book had been nominated by a librarian in Bruges? I did not, but a quick check on the website revealed that 3 Belgian libraries had participated, one in Brussels, one in Ghent (both had included Irish writers among their nominees, some of which were also Embassy Book Club choices) and one in Bruges, which had nominated 3 books, one of which was the ultimate winner, Idaho.

The award is very democratic. Nominations are invited from over 400 libraries each year. Usually the eventual winner has been nominated multiple times by multiple libraries. But this year the only library to nominate the winner was the one in Bruges, where one librarian had made the choice, which made it to the shortlist of 10, was read by the judging panel and ultimately became the winner. No one seemed to know anything about the librarian but everyone was curious in Dublin and so was I, so the next day, my colleague “detective” Anna in the embassy tracked the person and the location down and that weekend I set off for Bruges.

I have been on many wonderful visits here in Belgium and always receive a very warm welcome but this one was truly lovely. The library itself is a modern brick structure and does not look very remarkable from the outside, especially compared to the other stunning buildings in Bruges but once inside the atmosphere is very special – it is immediately clear that this is a place which is well-cared for, well-used by the public, of all generations, and well-loved by those who work there and who are customers. The librarians at the counter were dressed in green (was this deliberate?) and seemed to be expecting me but before I could say hello, the official welcome committee arrived and this comprised the local alderman, the director of the library, the chief of operations and the librarian herself, the Deputy Director Els Depuydt, for yes, the mystery librarian is a “she”. 

Reader, I had googled the library in advance and had found a group photograph of the whole team, as they have a great initiative called “The Book Brigade” where the librarians recommend their own favourite reads, and I had identified the correct person as our mystery librarian, mainly because she reminded me, a little, of one of the writers who had judged the award - our own Eilis Ni Dhuibhe (also a former librarian), indeed when we met it felt as if Els and Eilis could be distant cousins!

Myself and my husband were welcomed warmly and had a fascinating meeting in the office of the Director Koen Calis. He and Els have been working at the library since 1996 but they are as committed, energised and innovative as they must have been on day one. And they appear just as youthful too! It was a pleasure to learn more about the library and about the role of Bruges as a “metropolis of books”. They also took me on a tour of the library, where I could see all the different generations, from toddlers to teens to pensioners and everyone in between, making great use of the lovely, creative facilities. I also spotted plenty of books by Irish writers in the fiction section, both old and new, which is Els’ domain. There she has something called the “Sprinters” section, where she showcases books that have to be returned within a week as they are so popular. It was great to see “Milkman” by Anna Burns is in demand.

Els explained to me that she has been nominating books for the Dublin Award for the past 5 years and that on 3 of those occasions one of her choices has made the shortlist, so she clearly has great taste. This year, she had been delighted and astonished that her recommendation had won. The library had a special display at the entrance of the 10 shortlisted books and a big announcement about the winner and they are rightly proud of their role. 

Els told me that she had read Idaho back in 2017, drawn first to the green cover and then captivated by the original writing and the way the story is told. She explained that in her recommendations she always strives to include some writers who are “not the most famous” and need a chance – certainly the winning author in this case has already said that the award will change her life because it will allow her to devote more time to her writing. Els said that she usually tries to nominate one book in Dutch, one in translation and one in English. In the past she had nominated books by Irish writers and mentioned that she is a particular fan of Colm Toibin, Anna Burns, John Banville and his alter ego Benjamin Black! But she had already sent in her nominations for 2020, so no pressure from me! I did present her with a number of signed copies of books by Irish writers including Nessa O’Mahony, Mary O’Donnell, Lia Mills and Martina Devlin.

In addition to the Fiction Department, Els is also responsible for the rare and old books and she and the Director had taken some from the special collection to show to us. Els is an expert on a famous poet Guido Gazelle known as the Yeats of Flanders, and, in another astonishing twist, it turned out that he had been keenly interested in Ireland, in Irish history and in the Irish language. The library in Bruges hosts his Archive, so, in addition to the incredible books dating from the 1200s, Els and the Director showed me some books and pamphlets on the promotion and teaching of Irish and even some letters from Ireland dating from the 1860s. It was a surprising and dramatic end to what had been a delightful visit. I would highly recommend popping in to the Bruges Public Library when you get a chance. I now hope to bring Eilis and the famous Els together for a literary librarian chat… 

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