#11 - JRL 7173
May 8, 2003
New Chapter for Lenin's Library
By Kevin O'Flynn
Like any national library, the Russian National Library has seen pages of history as well as books, with Leo Tolstoy once roaming its stacks and Lenin ordering books delivered to him from across the road.
The library -- the second largest in the world after the U.S. Library of Congress -- is emerging from one of the hardest periods in its history this year to celebrate its 175th anniversary.
Viktor Fyodorov, the library's chain-smoking director, is realistic but optimistic about the future. Funding is up 200 million rubles from the last year, a new building is to be built and Pashkov House, which has disgracefully lain derelict for 15 years waiting for repairs, will finally be returned to its former glory.
"Starting from 1999 you can see certainty and optimism," Fyodorov said.
With 40 million books in 30,000 square meters of space, the library has been bursting at the seams for years. It receives 400,000 new items per year and needs 1,000 square meters per year just to fit all the new books on the shelves. By law, the library is supposed to receive two copies of every book and document published in Russia, although it gets only about 70 percent.
The government plans to spend $9 million on renovating Pashkov House, which will host 4,000 square meters of books, and build a $60 million extension a few hundred meters from the library with another 10,000 square meters.
To bring it up to par with the Library of Congress, the library would require $500 million in investment, Fyodorov said.
The worst years for the library were the mid-1990s, when it sometimes went six months without receiving new funds. The infrastructure suffered greatly, and repair work is currently going on all over the library.
The library was lucky not to lose hectares of its precious books because of its antiquated temperature control system and poor fire prevention system. Fyodorov showed off a new state-of-the-art $10 million system that instantly shows humidity and temperature levels on each floor of the building.
Despite its huge collection, the library -- which serves mainly as a reference library -- was a mainly just a privileged stop for academics in Soviet times.
"It was enough to say Lenin sent you and get instant respect," Fyodorov said.
In the early 1990s, the library opened its doors to anyone over the age of 18. Now the majority of readers are students. About 7,000 people visit the library daily, requesting some 5,000 books.
"Roughly speaking, every seat in the building sees two or three people each day," Fyodorov said.
Waiting lines are common, as are complaints about them. The lines to the cloakroom act as a filter, Fyodorov said; otherwise, visitors would be waiting in line for a seat.
The influx of visitors is in part a reflection of the library's quality and the paucity of choice elsewhere.
"Colleges don't have money for even the most elementary of books. For us, books are the most important thing, but for the rector of a university, the library is last after wages and repairs," Fyodorov said.
There is a debate within the library about whether it would be better to restrict access. When access was restricted to third year students and higher a few years ago because of repairs, a law student sued. Incidentally, the student's father worked in the Supreme Court.
The Russian National Library was formed in 1828 on the foundation of a collection of books left by Count Nikolai Rumyantsev, who amassed a vast library and unique art collection during his lifetime. This is the date that is being used as the anniversary date, although the library only moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1864. Fyodorov said the move was prompted by an internal decision that St. Petersburg had enough cultural treasures.
In Moscow, the library was located in Pashkov House, a neoclassical building that overlooks the Kremlin from Ulitsa Mokhovaya. In 1924, the Bolsheviks, who had by that time moved the capital to Moscow, recast the library as the Lenin Library.
Russia has two national libraries. In Soviet times, the State Lenin Library was the chief library for the Soviet Union, while the St. Petersburg library, formerly the imperial library, was the top library for the Russian Federation. The breakup of the Soviet Union left two main libraries, although the Russian National Library has 1 1/2 times more books.
The library is slowly entering the 21st century. Grants from TACIS and other international agencies are helping librarians catalog many of the books -- although, as Fyodorov pointed out, a collection of fourth- and fifth-century manuscripts do not need barcoding.
The effect of the cataloging will be seen soon. At the moment, anyone asking for a book has to wait for up to two hours -- and then more likely than not will find out that the book has already been checked out. To obtain a book, a reader has to fill out a form and hand it in. It then is taken up by conveyor belt to library storage in a separate building. There, another librarian goes to the shelf, checks to see whether the book is in and, if it is, sends it slowly back by conveyor belt.