Americans and Brits usually find visiting libraries in Italy both frustrating and dissatisfying. The stacks are not open, so no browsing. You usually have to deal with a surly civil servant who will tell you that you do not have the right paperwork, but even if you did have lending privileges, it will take at least two weeks to obtain the books you are requesting and then you won’t be able to remove them from the premises and there is no place to sit down.
In May 2007, the Oblate Library (Biblioteca delle Oblate) opened. It is the most user-friendly library in Florence for tourists and foreign students. (Another option is the Bristish Institute Library – better for expats, graduate students and seniors.)
The Oblate Library is a long block from the Duomo and occupies the newly restored space of a huge 13th century convent of nuns – the “oblate”. Oblate derives from the Latin for “colei che si è offerta” or “she who offered herself”. The semi-cloistered nuns served as nurses, cleaners and cooks at the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital from the time of Dante (the hospital was built by Beatrice’s father) through the 1400s when Leonardo da Vinci was examining corpses in the tunnels that ran below the convent and for over 400 years more – until 1936 – when a new convent was created near the much larger and more modern Careggi Hospital.
The convent building was sold to the City of Florence. It first became the new home of the Museum of Prehistory as well as the central city government library that was moved from the Palazzo Vecchio. Then it was closed for years for a full restoration, which preserved the late-Medieval, early-Renaissance bones of the building while opening the warren-like space up for two libraries – one for studying and the other for lending books, DVDs and CDs. There is also a reading room where daily newspapers and monthly magazines are available in Italian, English, French and German.
Computers and free WiFi are also available. Children run wild in the spacious colorful biblioteca per bambini. Parents can escape to the adjoining café with a view of the cathedral’s dome. On the second floor the museum of prehistoric artifacts has reopened and can be visited for a fee.
La Biblioteca delle Oblate is worth a visit just for the panorama from the top floor or the sense of quiet offered in the walled cloister, but the friendly openness will bring you back to use the reading room, to listen to music in the outside loggia (where the nuns used to hang the hospital’s linen to dry), and maybe, even to peruse the book shelves holding a small selection of English fiction available for checkout for a month at a time.
The website of the Oblate Library is not available in English.
Address: Via dell’Oriuolo 26 Florence
Hours: Mon. (2pm to 7pm), Tues. (9am to 10pm), Wed. to Sat. (9am to 7pm), closed Sunday.