In 1922, diplomat and bibliophile Joannes Gennadius offered his 26,000-volume library to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, on the conditions that the holdings be housed as a separate collection, be available to the public and scholars of all nations, and, in the event that the American School of Classical Studies left Greece, be handed over to the University of Athens. The collection’s home, designed by American architects Van Pelt and Thompson, was built on a site provided by the Greek government and inaugurated in 1926. The collection traces Hellenism from antiquity through the period of the Ottoman Empire and the 1821 Greek Revolution and accounts for major aspects of Greece’s political, social, and cultural life of the twentieth century. It contains first editions of Greek publications, rare manuscripts and maps, and a unique group of nineteenth-century travel journals as well as donations by Nobel laureates Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, the writer and urban historian Elias Petropoulos, and the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.
During documenta 14, the library hosts Learning from Timbuktu, a project by curator Igo Diarra involving artists from the network he has built up as the founder and director of the art space La Medina in Bamako, Mali. A film by Ross Birrell, dedicated to the recent destruction by fire of the library of the Glasgow School of Art, originally designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, provides a counter-narration. In the peaceful gardens of the Gennadius Library, another library is created: 145 slabs of lithographic limestone carry all the words of a diary that was once published as a book and now has been condemned to vanish. As Mikhail Bulgakov famously said, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” What was written will remain.