The idea of a public Library in Malta originated in 1555 with the issue of a decree by Fra’ Claude de la Sengle, Grand Master of the Order of St. John, whereby all books in the legacy of deceased knights were to pass to the Common Treasury of the Order. It was not until 1776, however, that the formal foundation of a Bibliotheca Publica was decreed at the Chapter General of the Order convened by Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan. The main collections were those belonging to Fra’ Louis Guérin de Tencin, Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order who had died in 1766, and of Cardinal Joaquin Portocarrero, which de Tencin himself had purchased on the Cardinal’s death in 1760. The Library was for a time named Bibliotheca Tanseana in de Tencin’s honour. De Tencin is still today considered the founder of the Library. The books accruing to the Library, some very rare or with fine bindings, continued to be kept in cramped quarters in an edifice known as the Forfantone. De Rohan decreed the building of new premises to the designs of Stefano Ittar, a Polish-born architect residing in Italy. The building, situated in the heart of Malta’s capital city, Valletta, was completed in 1796 but two years later the Order of St. John was expelled from Malta by Napoleon and during the French 2-year period, the books remained at their former premises. It was only in 1812 – during the British administration – that the new premises were officially inaugurated by the British Civil Commissioner, Sir Hildebrand Oakes. From then on, the Malta Public Library, as it was then called, continued to flourish with a number of new acquisitions. In 1925, the Library acquired its “legal deposit” status by an Act of Parliament and 11 years later was granted the prefix “Royal” by King George V. The following year the Royal Malta Library took over the custody of the Archives of the Order of St. John which were transferred from the Public Registry premises. With the setting up of the new Public Library in Floriana in 1976, the Library in Valletta was officially designated as the “National Library of Malta” and became solely a research and reference Library.
In its capacity as National Library, the mission of the Bibliotheca, as it is more commonly known, is to acquire, catalogue and preserve manuscripts and all printed books, as well as periodicals and journals issued in Malta. Act no. II of 1925, and subsequently the Malta Libraries Act 2011, instituting the Legal Deposit imposed on all Maltese authors and editors publishing in Malta or abroad, the obligation to deposit two free copies of each of their publications, one at the National Library of Malta and the other at the Gozo Public Library. For this reason, the National Library has become the main source of Melitensia with the function of placing the written heritage of Malta at the disposal of researchers and general public.
© Tony Blood – The National Library of Malta. Valletta Malta, 19 July 2014