Russian Libraries Up-Close

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By Kate Gordon, University of Alaska Anchorage. Originally published in the April/June 2008 edition of Newspoke, the newsletter of the Alaska Library Association

In November 2007, I was honored to join a delegation of academic librarians on a nine day adventure to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. The trip offered the opportunity to learn first-hand differences and similarities in the world of college and research libraries of our quite different countries. The trip, arranged by the organization People to People International (PTPI), was one of their many professional exchange trips around the world. PTPI, formed in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is today a non-profit headed by his grand-daughter Mary Eisenhower.

Back to the trip. Early November in New York’s busy LaGuardia airport, the trip’s dozen participants began to trickle into the flight waiting area. We recognized each other in that special way librarians do – books and curiosity. It became clear this was no group of shrinking violets. Our delegation’s professional leader was Camila Alire, [current] ALA President-elect and former president of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Also along were Bede Mitchell, current president of the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA), and Pam Snelson, [now former] ACRL president. Probing for additional connections was fruitful. One participant, Betty Gard, hired UAA’s librarian Ralph Courtney during his stint in North Dakota. Another participant, Helen Wykle, an archivist from University of North Carolina Asheville, knew retired Alaskan Martha Shephard who volunteers during her retirement time in Asheville. Connections went on from there.

During the eventual air transit, excitement soon fell way to slumber and exhaustion as we traveled the eight time zones from NY to Moscow via Frankfurt. Arriving in Sheremetyevo 2, the international airport, we were met by our People to People country guide. We schlepped our bags and bodies onto our very own transport bus.

During the hour-long drive from the airport to Moscow city-center we got the beginning taste of gridlock traffic and never-ending housing as we passed a dark landscape with a population of 15 million people. Wow! Cyrillic ruled. Arriving at a high-end hotel in central Moscow, we immediately completed paperwork which involved relinquishing our passports overnight to the hotel staff. Presence in the country must be registered centrally—we were warned we could be asked by officials to show paperwork at any time on the street.

Day and night blurred together. Before heading on our first library visit, we had the chance to see the infamous Red Square and St. Basil’s cathedral, hear Russian Orthodox church bells ringing, and reflect on the complex history emanating from within the Kremlin walls. Alaskan Ann Symons, who is on her third year living in Moscow as the librarian for the Anglo-American School, was able to join us during lunch our second day. Her perspective of life as a diplomat and an ex-patriot was fascinating and too short. Most notable, especially in retrospect of what we later heard from the Russia libraries, was her statement that she is able to buy all the books she wants for the school library.

What to share in a short article? Nine days hardly qualifies one as an expert on libraries in a large country such as Russia. Between Moscow and St. Petersburg, we visited four different institutions, as well as met with the Russian Library Association. I left with more questions than certainties. I will share some of my observations based on the professional interactions.

We were treated with hospitality by our colleagues in an extraordinary fashion. For example, at the Moscow State University of Culture and Arts our delegation was greeted at 9am by costumed singers (students of traditional folk arts) offering token gifts of vodka and bread. Film students followed us for the day to document our visit. Group discussions always included a spread of tea, coffee and cookies.

At the Russian State University for the Humanities, we learned much about the professional training of librarians.

Librarianship undergraduate degrees are available at over 30 institutions in Russia. Training consists of two years general instruction in the humanities, followed by two years specializing in one of following four areas:

  1. Librarians, bibliographers, and educators
  2. Management of information resources
  3. Analysts of information systems
  4. Technologist and systems engineers

There are 300,000 trained librarians in the country. Library Science students must meet professional and technical standards as well as a psychological qualification. It was suggested that Russian libraries are behind U.S. libraries in practical applications, but are perhaps ahead in the theory of librarianship. We did not extract additional details about the psychological qualification, although among us delegates we postulated the implications.

Sometimes our dignitary treatment meant we had less time to engage in professional questions with the library staff. Formalities such as deferring to the highest ranking university official meant we did not always learn what the library staff had to say. However, when we did, it was always fascinating. Tidbits such as:

  • Interlibrary loan is problematic due to uncertainty of which library would be responsible if a book was lost.
  • Salary of librarians ($250/mo) is such that only those young people living with parents would be able to afford to go into the profession.
  • Most school libraries in Russia do not yet have internet access.
  • Open stacks and circulation systems are not prevalent.
  • Library support has been tumultuous since the fall of the Soviet Union, with funding for enterprises like the Sorus Foundation waxing and waning.

Information was, at times, challenging to interpret. Communication was slowed since everything required translation in both directions. What was clear was these libraries were the result of centuries of dedicated staff who professionally obligated themselves to preserve materials. At the Scientific Library of St. Petersburg State University, we learned how their University was founded in 1724 by Peter the Great. Staff were extremely proud that library service continued during the three-year Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Of the many digitization projects we learned about, one had an ironic twist. The project was digitizing the 18th century materials deemed by the Censure Committee unfit to be released to the public. The Censure Committee withheld a single copy of each censured item. Now such material is being digitized and electronically available to the public—albeit somewhat dated.

Most astonishing was experience with the Russian Library Association (RLA). Before our meeting, we considered them a counterpart to the American Library Association. Upon learning they have a staff of four, it was apparent there must be significant differences. Formed in 1994, the RLA is comprised only of member groups (530), not individuals. Within RLA, 36 chapters of various interest groups exist. As they mature, there are many needs such as redesigning the chapters due to overlapping interests. RLA holds an annual conference with approximately 1500 participants. Creatively, the RLA sponsors an annual contest to choose a Russian city/town to be named Library Capital for the coming year. This is done to raise local awareness and funds for that library and is apparently very successful.

In summary, these notes represent a small fraction of my trip experience. The PTPI professional exchange was well-structured and made possible an experience I could not possibly do on my own. It was an incredible opportunity to increase global perspectives of the library profession and expand cultural awareness.