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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Russian Libraries in the Context of Social, Economic and Political Reforms

Evgeny Kuzmin
Director, Library Department,
Ministry of Culture, Russia



In the rampant economic and financial crisis of these two or three years, Russian libraries displayed striking viability, and even stability. Our entire budget-financed sphere is in a plight, and each of its steps is a problem. But libraries remain something of a paradise on earth, if we compare them to research or higher educational institutions. It's hard to explain this comparative prosperity Ä but a university professor earns less than a public library clerk.

Every day, another industrial enterprise comes to a standstill Ä yet not a single good library has closed. More than that, new up to-date ones are opening. The Central Research Library of the Rostov Region opened its new premises in a gala ceremony of May 24 this year. It has reading rooms to seat twelve hundred, and a depository for twelve million objects, while the current collections poss ess seven and a half million. A big and comfortable library for children and young people will open by September in Ivanovo (Central Russia), an area whose industry is in a state of collapse.

Libraries are extending the use of computers. In Samara, the city fathers paid for thirty Central Library computers by last year's end Ä and the Russian price of a good computer exceeds the annual wage of a department head in a large library. Optic disks are rather widely used in libraries, and ever more communicate between themselves by electronic mail. Aware that thousands of Russian libra ries are a vast market in which big money can be made, the young Russian business world is turning to them. The military-industrial complex is following suit, with its high technologies and necessity for conversion.

Libraries and librarians are more active than ever. They are displaying miracles of inventiveness in their dire straits by extending free and paid services attracting sponsors, and recurring to other fund-raising means. Hardly a week passes without a representative seminar or conference at a regional, interregional or national level. Libraries arrange meetings with cultural activists, lectures, e xhibitions and public debates Ä activities in which our libraries have always excelled. In some respects, libraries are in the foreground of the current cultural life, and are honourably leading international cultural cooperation in certain parts of the country. Librarians from the back of beyond go abroad Ä something they have never done before. They visit foreign colleagues and recei ve them at home. Ten libraries took part in the Prague international library fair in May 1994, where they displayed three stands. In October 1995, everyone who wishes will be welcome to the large-scale international conference, Library and Information Services for Culturally Isolated People, with the venue in Kamchatka (Russian Far East). This Pacific peninsula offers a breathtaking range of plea sures, among them bathing in geysers, fishing, and helicopter outings. So you see, Russian libraries are opening ever wider to the whole world Ä and the world responds with equal openness.

What matters even more, reading rooms can't hold the patrons, and old librarians say they have never seen such public love for books, while two or three years ago readerships were shrinking. Young people account for an ever greater portion of library users. Same about the business world.


Russia is at a turning-point, and needs information as never before to appraise its eventful present and future, and re appraise the past. I think it's the main reason for libraries' unheard-of popularity. Another reason lies in the sweeping change of curricula in the old and mushrooming new educational establishments. New study books are extremely scarce, especially in humanities, so students have to turn to libraries for original sources.

There's a third reason. Book publishing and trade are in crisis. The choice of new books could be bigger, though four thousand houses have sprung up these last three years. This choice is smaller even than in the stagnation years, to say nothing of 1987 to 1990, the glorious peak of Soviet book publishing. With galloping inflation, publishers can't afford a venture unless it guarantees quick prof its. No wonder the same three years have cut threefold the output of scientific, technical, medical and agricultural literature, reference books and cyclopaedias. Libraries are the surest places to find these books. Besides, the old centralized book trade has collapsed, while free market is still in its cradle. Whatever big profits this trade may offer, the many young private companies are babes in the wood at the market. They haven't yet divided it between themselves. There are partners in other cities to find, deliveries to get going, and the work with small batches to learn. The young firms haven't yet any reliable instruments to probe into public tastes Ä which is all the harder as the demands are changing apace with the Russian social patterns. No wonder, all too often a book c omes out in a city never to get another's shops Ä and traders get no information about its appearance. Libraries, on the contrary, are sure to get it through their channels as they make it a point to get all the books they can. Besides, the paid obligatory sample arrangement is still going, though not so smoothly as before, and demands 300 copies of each book sent by the printers to the Cent ral Research Library Collector, which distributes them to the largest libraries all over the country.

The fourth reason making Russians go to the libraries is the impending unemployment, which makes them raise their proficiency, or change trades and professions. Book prices are growing several times quicker than the average public income. The poorer public, especially seniors and students, can't afford books and have to go to libraries. This is the fifth reason for their popularity. Last but not least, public libraries are now about the only places to offer free access to self-education and a pleasant pastime with cultural and intellectual treasures. Theaters, concerts, cinemas, museums, cultural centres, tourism Ä all this is hardly affordable for too many, though it was open to the majority under socialism. Of no less psychological importance is the fact that a library stays an isle of order, quiet and cleanliness in the chaotic Russia of today.

Don't think, however, that libraries are idyllic oases in the poor and turbulent Russia of today. Quite the contrary Ä they are obsessed by troubles and problems. Too many librarians are working for token salaries. Their professional prestige remains rather low, though it is growing apace. Small libraries in small towns, to say nothing of village libraries Ä are under threat of closing. This specially concerns former trade-union libraries, though local and federal authorities are doing much to take them under the budget wing. Today, local budgets are financing thirty five hundred more libraries than in 1989 Ä but these budgets also have their limitations. But I'd like to stress again that libraries are islets of miraculous viability and stability in the stormy sea of the R ussian economy.


Now, is our community Ä mainly its best-educated and socially most active groups Ä satisfied with the level and quality of library services? No, say 60 to 80 per cent of respondents in the various sociometric probes. One doesn't get the necessary books and obtain the needed information on some occasions. This is equally due to publishers' narrowed choice of books to put out, the book tr ade crisis, money shortages, irregular library subsidies impeding collection development, and inadequate equipment. However, as I see it, my country's current transitory state is less to blame than its recent past. We can't understand the present developments and see our top priorities unless we take stock of this past.

The giant geopolitical changes that the world has undergone as Soviet totalitarianism fell and Russia determined to get back to the world community give our libraries and their collections quite a new look. As we know, understanding between nations, based on thorough knowledge of each other, is one of the basic guarantees of global stability. In word, communist Soviet rulers declared the vital ne cessity for such understanding. Indeed, however, they were building all the barriers they could to foreign cultural penetration. Soviet cultural establishments' foreign contacts were almost fully monopolized and controlled by the centre. Russian provinces, which account for almost the entire country, were walled off from such contacts. Foreign books and periodicals Ä the principal conductors of ideas Ä were painstakingly sieved by the censorship to gather dust in special depositories of Moscow and Leningrad libraries where only the chosen few could read them. The Soviet Union ranked among the world's first book publishers, and put out a wealth of excellent books, many of them translated Ä but vast fields of foreign culture Ä politology, sociology, law, philosophy, soc ial psychology and others Ä were kept out of Soviet publications. In Russia, censorship worked as a "fence around the empire," to quote the American researcher Marianna Tax Choldin. Russia has been living without the slightest censorship limitations for several years now Ä but a deep moat surrounds it instead of the old fence. The principal libraries of Moscow and St. Petersburg are lucky exceptions. The rest, especially provincial, have scanty literature, or none at all, which would adequately represent foreign culture and, with its mere presence, symbolize Russia's de ep-going contacts with the world around. Five years of book-publishing freedom weren't enough to fill in all the gaps, and regional authorities haven't grown to realize that libraries are to get foreign publications, and they must be paid for. A foreign book still costs ten to fifteen times more than a Russian in my country Ä and libraries afford even Russian publications with difficulty. Th e number of new acquisitions has halved or even fallen three times, on the average, within these last three years.


The world has long grown to view libraries as information centres, not only cultural, research and educational. Even more often, sociologists, political scientists and philosophers define the present-day Western society, with its sophisticated democratic institutions and market-oriented economy, as information society. Totalitarianism, on the contrary, has never regarded information on the whole and its free circulation among the vital factors of national progress Ä particularly of the progress of social institutions. It doesn't see sufficiency of information and its balance in a community as one of the guarantees of social stability.

The new democratic Russia has an amazing legacy from its totalitarian regime Ä 115 thousand libraries with huge numbers of books. Universally recognized as one of the world's largest, the Soviet library network played a crucial part in cultural, research and educational progress in the USSR. Communists opened a great many libraries during the seventy years of their rule. A country with a hug e number of illiterates could not build a new society Ä the founding fathers of Russian communism saw this. It would take a stupid or prejudiced mind not to admit how much their followers did to open knowledge to the greatest possible number of people, and libraries were to bring this knowledge to the population. Each man and woman ought to have a library a fifteen minutes' walk away from ho me. Vladimir Lenin made it a point. Communists saw education as a mighty power moving the world towards their goals. But, as we know, a power out of control may become dangerous when it reaches a certain point. They knew it, too. So their strategies followed a paradoxical formula: "The greatest possible sum of knowledge Ä but with certain limits."

In its own specific way, the totalitarian regime took great care of libraries also thanks to the ample ideological duties it was giving them. The basic rules of Soviet librarianship opened with the point on educating the Soviet public in the Marxist-Leninist spirit as libraries' main goal. The bosses strictly limited and selected information, especially social, political, economic and humanitaria n. Ideologists divided it into good and bad, of vital and inferior importance. Priority was given to scientific and technological information Ä just as heavy industry, which dominated the Soviet economy. As the result, secret services, the army and attached industries were about the only spheres with powerful and reliable information infrastructures when the regime collapsed in Russia. With negligible exceptions, libraries had never been clearly told to provide free, quick and easy access to domestic, let alone world information resources.

In the 1970s and 80s, the government amply subsidized establishments known as scientific and technological information centres instead of library automation, computer catalogues and databases. These centres mainly catered for research institutes and industrial enterprises. Now that research and industry are in a bad crisis which goes hand-in-hand with restructuring and organizational changes, few need information stored in the centres, and they live from hand to mouth. The government money lavishly invested in them stays frozen.

Library computerization left its standstill a mere four or five years ago. Now the idea is obsessing the entire library world. The effort is making rapid progress despite the trying Russian economic situation. The issue of three CD ROMs belongs to our greatest achievements. These are: Russian Books in Print; Index Medicus (national medical bibliography) and Russian Patents. These three disks prov ide comprehensive information about all editions since 1989. We can only regret that on-line information exchange remains problematic for most libraries, with our inadequate telephone network, and will stay so for the years to come. So the Ministry of Culture is working at a target-oriented project to enable libraries to broadcast information not only through the phone but through the super-reliable television channels, which are ten times cheaper. An opti c fiber cable is being laid, too.


The Ministry of Culture sees informatisation as the first of its current priorities. The law on librarianship drafted by the Ministry qualifies free access to information as the main function of libraries. This draft is on the list of bills to be urgently debated by Parliament, and has been approved in the first reading. Probably, it would have been passed by now if the old Parliament hadn't been dissolved last September.

The best of experts on library automation, and libraries the most advanced in this respect voluntarily gathered round the Ministry more than eighteen months ago. Among these are libraries which the Ministry does not finance and doesn't have in its jurisdiction Ä I mean head libraries of the Academy of Sciences and the Ministries of Health, Science and Technological Policies, and Higher Educa tion. Each of these central offices has a ramified library network of its own. However, the Ministry of Culture has the largest and most important of such networks, which accounts for fifty out of the 115 thousand Russian libraries. This network bases on central regional research libraries, the backbone of Russian librarianship. My country started an active decentralization policy two and a half years ago. The Law on Culture, passed at that time, brought this sphere under the jurisdiction of Federation member entities. The Ministry of Culture accordingly passed all regional libraries to regional ownership. Now they are finan ced from local budgets. Money, and spending competencies and responsibilities were being re distributed throughout these last two years throughout the country. The Ministry now finances a mere nine federal libraries, among them the Russian State (former Lenin) and the Russian National (former Saltykov-Shchedrin) in St. Petersburg, and the Library for Foreign Literature. The federal programme for the protection and promotion of culture and the arts allows us, as before, to give money support to regional projects which we consider important enough Ä but increasing regionalization limits such support to an auxiliary scope. To make the matters worse, the Ministry can't determine regional cultural priorities and policies of other federal ministries.

So it takes concerted action of all ruling structures to raise library automation to a new quality and speed it up. This can't be done, however, before all power branches realize the strategical importance of this goal. With this end in view, the Ministry of Culture convened a large conference in Tula last November on "The Establishment of Information Library Networks as Ways to an Information Society". Other ministries were represented at the conference. Among the participants were managers of these ministries' central libraries and of central regional research libraries. For the first time, heads of 52 out of the 77 regional cultural departments came together Ä a fact of crucial importance as the financing of library projects depend on these officials more than on anyone else. The conference was opened by Evgeny Sidorov, federal Minister of Culture. Tatyana Nikitina, his deputy, had the chair. After the conference, the Minister sent his personal message to regional governors to point out the sign ificance of library informatisation for the current Russian reforms. He asked them to promote this venture.

The conference achieved spectacular results, which overcame the most daring expectations. Many regional administrations discussed the topic immediately after it, and adopted appropriate regional programmes. Before the conference, only one regional library had CD drives and CD ROMs, and hardly a dozen had electronic mail. This was a mighty impact for the Russian private business and military-indus trial complex to help the progress of library-oriented CD industry at home.

As the Ministry of Culture works out a government programme for library informatisation, it doesn't forget practical efforts to implement it. A bilateral agreement between the Ministry and the presidential Informatisation Committee helped to make the first steps to establish a national library information network on Project LIBNET. This project will be elaborated and implemented stage-by-stage. The first stage is already underway to set up a Moscow library computer network, which will unite the six largest Russian libraries:

Libraries of different levels, regions and ministries will join the network at the later stages.


All these efforts are meant no merely to preserve and develop the national library information potential but to change public attitudes to the role of information in everyday life. The nation is to see information as an essential part of Russia's social and economic progress. With the inadequate national information infrastructure, our libraries have a favourable opportunity to take key positions on the information market, which will open before them the road to further progress.

The informatisation of Russian librarianship is acquiring a pronounced political aspect. My vast country is quickly decentralizing, and its life is increasingly divided into many regional lives in a process that involves politics, the economy, book publishing, the mass media and much else. So central regional libraries are to shoulder the main burden and responsibility for the global information unity of Russian regions, their unbroken connection with the centre, and direct information exchange with other countries. The Russian public is reappraising the role of libraries, and reciprocally, libraries are to reappraise their tasks. They are making ambitious plans up to the challenge facing them. Whether these plans will see implementation depends on future social stability Ä and the Russian community will be lucky if this stability reaches even a half of what its libraries are enjoying now.