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Sergey Basov

PhD in Pedagogy, Head of Methodic Department at Russian National Library, Board Member of Russian Library Association

There have been many trials and tribulations for Russian public libraries after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the key one in the search of identity in an environment when they no longer seem to be wanted by the state. In the USSR, libraries had been intended to serve ideological functions as beachheads of the Communist Party. As in 1993 the ideological monopoly was discarded, the return to universal values has been quite thorny.

There have been many trials and tribulations for Russian public libraries after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the key one in the search of identity in an environment when they no longer seem to be wanted by the state. In the USSR, libraries had been intended to serve ideological functions as beachheads of the Communist Party. As in 1993 the ideological monopoly was discarded, the return to universal values has been quite thorny.

For almost twenty years official Russia has been mostly oblivious of the culture and its institutions as an engine for the country’s economic and spiritual potential. The young reformers seemed to believe that the magic wand of the market would miraculously put things right both in education and culture with no effective state support. Aired by the TV, the consumer society myths were easily penetrating the every home to get hold of brains liberated from the communist diktat. As a result, reading swiftly lost its traditional prestige, with Russia easily surrendering its image of the world’s biggest reader. The state came to believe that public libraries were too burdensome – sort of a suitcase with no handle – and assigned their upkeep to local authorities that were lacking resources even for more compelling needs. The previously mighty library network began to rapidly disintegrate, efficiently assisted by the digital revolution on the turn of the century.

But Russia’s libraries stood up to the assault and seem to be quite active in the modern societal life. While the central libraries of the Russian Federation administrative entities, the library network’s backbone, are practically intact, the public libraries keep fading away at a rate of 500 a year, mostly in the countryside and small cities, where they appear most helpful. Local authorities continue closing them down, depriving of a legal status and attaching to cultural centers, ostensibly to optimize for budgetary considerations. However, Russia still has about 44,000 public libraries in its all parts, from the Nenets Autonomous Region with its 34 libraries to Tatarstan that may boast 1,500 reading institutions [1].

Help Oneself or Improve Oneself?

Imperial Public Library, St. Petersburg, 1863

Library belongs to traditional societal humanitarian institutions performing memorial, cultural, educational, and informational functions. They hardly change with time, only receiving a new content related with the social mission and societal designation. But the mission obviously is obviously hinging on the historic period, pointedly politicized in the Soviet days and somewhat different now, although with neither the society nor the state nor the professionals fully aware of the mission’s essence. However, the two key trends are on the surface, i.e. technocratic (informational) and humanitarian (cultural outreach). Specialists are still unsure where the library inherently belongs – either to civilizational or to cultural manifestations.

With a modicum of simplification, civilization may be likened to science and technology progress that exemplifies the human control over the environment. This seems exactly the point where civilization is opposing the society’s spiritual life and culture. Today, we witness the aggravating conflict between the technology advance interlinked with the economy and the spiritual and moral potential of culture. We do witness the confrontation of the two approaches to molding of the personality, i.e. the liberally humanitarian and authoritatively technocratic. While civilization implies HOW (by what means), culture asks WHY (what is the point). Civilization is innately technological, whereas culture is axiological. Civilization aims to improve the environment, while culture is striving to improve the human. These two vectors of the human and societal development are in the state of a permanent conflict being settled both by individuals and social institutions, among them libraries and librarians.

Only an educated person is able to stand against an environment where material success is proclaimed a universal value to be obtained with no holds barred. It is the idea of an educated rather than an ideologically versed individual that should be fully perceived by a public library. Remember that Immanuel Kant defined enlightenment as the individual’s breakout from his deliberate infancy, whereas infancy means inability to independently use one’s intellect. Sapere aude have the courage to use your own mind [2], says the eternal motto of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Public Library Formula

Library is neither all-culture nor all-civilization, but is of dual nature as it rests on two activities, i.e. informational (civilization-oriented) and social (culture-oriented), with the two poles making the engines of the library work that incessantly intermingle giving rise to a host of social practices. In fact, a modern library may offer the following social instruments:

  • oral communications,
  • book (documentary) communications, and
  • electronic (digital) communications.
Lecture at the Mikhail Svetlov Central Municipal
Library for the Youth

Until recently, all kinds of libraries had been dominated by books, only to be shattered by the digital technologies that have changed our perceptions both of the society and the library appropriate for digital aka information aka networked society, whose arrival immediately sounded the death knell of the traditional library to be ousted by digital and mobile technologies. The Google was eagerly seen as a means to digitize all books and help one find what he needs in the omnipotent Internet.

However, during the past decade the eschatological screaming subsided, first in the West and then in Russia where the homegrown oracles realized that the library functions (especially functions of public libraries) cannot be reduced to information. Besides, the Internet turned to be a far more tricky place to find exact information than a book stock. The update also seemed to have reached the archaic oral communication incarnated in the word of mouth, i.e. in the librarian, a human specialist fitting the modern challenges. The librarian began upgrading his environment through forming new models of library organizations – from the purely informational institutions (network and electronic libraries) to societal and cultural centers. The public library has asserted itself as a third place in human life, joining his home and workplace. It is growing as a multifunctional space, where the information and social technologies are supporting each other to get an individual engaged in the local community life.

Why not apportion the modern Russian library with a formula to incorporate a memorial informational mirror of the local community life (everything published in the region and about the region), a societal-cultural and civil society institution (intellectual recreation, education, public politics), and an access point to global electronic resources (the Internet as an obligatory service). The thing left to do is to have the pattern materialized in the immense Russian vistas. The idea seems hardly viable in absence of the government’s hand that should provide proper legal and financial instruments. Then comes modernization, only in exchange for investments and healthy legal terms!

What Libraries Give to Society and the State Gives to Libraries

Regional library named after Mikhail Lermontov,

Some may believe that my vision of the library development trends in Russia is all but rosy. In fact, it is a summary of key opinions within the librarian community that may be rarely found in everyday life. Specific for the Soviet times, the vertical chain of command has been split into the federal, regional and local components, each with its own competence and view of the library role. In charge of a healthy legal environment for the entire sector, including the copyright issues, the Ministry of Culture has so far failed to accomplish its mission. What we need is the new governance ideas and even structures. The point is clearly stressed by the draft “Basics of the State Cultural Policy” produced by instruction of the Russian President and discussed nationwide. Thanks to the graces of Mr. Putin after his comeback to presidency, culture has swiftly grown into a national priority. For the first time in decades, the government has been tasked to bring the sectoral wages to the region's average by 2018 [3], raise the prestige of culture workers and upgrade personnel training programs.

A presidential executive order prescribes to place at least 10 percent of the published book titles in the National Electronic Library (NEL) to open electronic access to most significant texts both through various libraries and mobile gadgets. Now the main concern of the Ministry of Culture, development of the NEL has been put out on a 133-million-rubles tender [4]. At the same time, in 2014 municipal libraries were for the first time deprived of annual federal allocations for compiling their book stocks in the law-prescribed amount of 350 million rubles, under 10,000 rubles per library [5]. It appears timely to try and keep the Ministry off the emerging slant in the library policy. Similar to Shadow in a tale by Eugene Schwartz, information must know one's place and remain a vehicle for implementation of the humanitarian library mission. For the NEL to become utterly helpful, libraries must at least obtain an Internet access. The government promised to make it back in 2012 [6], with only 30 percent of municipal libraries covered by the net so far. And there is also quite an important but simple problem still unsolved, as the Internet access is still legally outside the scope of free obligatory services provided by libraries.

Ian Clark:
Future for Public Libraries

One more stumbling block for the library sector is the conflict of interests between publishers, i.e. the rights holders, and users. Librarians and eventually the readers are hopelessly losing the game, as the individual rights are beating the public law. In October 2014, the law will allow the librarians to digitize and offer for temporary and free use only scientific and educational documents that have not been republished in Russia over 10 years… [7] Regrettably, there still no lever to make the government adopt laws that would not contain and complicate but rather encourage and support our efforts to get closer to the society of knowledge. The path is still blocked by the rights holders who guard the entrance with Part 4 of the Civil Code in hands to get the fee.

Some believe that there are three main factors basically shaping the activities of Russian public libraries – the government, the society (readers and users), and self-consciousness of librarians. Not quite so. It is the federal, regional and local authorities. This triad seems to properly reflect the balance of forces engaged in handling matters of public library modernization. As soon as the government properly invests in development of public libraries, the librarians are getting a chance to make their institutions human-friendly. Just have a look at the new building of science library in Penza or the up-to-date municipal library full of St. Petersburg traditions. A library like this would definitely suit even the exacting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Although hardly believable, the Perm Region has public libraries that possess mediation functions, serving as agents for settling disputes between the government and the citizens. Just a little bit harder, and administration chiefs, mayors and governors will report their achievements in the libraries renovated by their own hands. Just a little bit harder…

The Library's Civic Mission

In a TV appearance, famous Russian author Daniil Granin once asked whether Academician Dmitry Likhachev was right building up the civic portion of his life while being a typical armchair scholar. But we do remember Academician Likhachev raising his gentle voice in order to save either a park or a church or the entire Nevsky Avenue in St. Petersburg. He was daringly converting his personal opinion into the civic stand through a voluntary increase of the civic component in his life. In his Troubled Consciousness he painfully wrote about the deficit of civic consciousness [8] in our life.

The problem of civic consciousness and the civic component of life belongs to every individual but hardly to every profession or institution. And library is obviously the type of a culture institution that is most adapted to effective participation in the local community life. During their lengthy history, Russian libraries have turned into cultural, recreational and information centers, while today they should strengthen their civic role and become civic centers.

Dmitry Likhachev

Russia does need a priority national project to be ostensibly titled The Nation's Civic Growth, since Russia requires free and responsible citizens. Hence, a nationwide civic policy should come into being. In plain journalistic words, it should be a clear-cut policy able to join the forces of government and society to help the Russians transform from subjects, the status they are used to, into citizens – free and responsible individuals who are worthy of their land.

In my mind, public libraries have every right to claim the role of the key social institution operating in the spare time zone and focusing on the civic socialization of the populace, whereas providing the social functions with a civic content seems a priority for Russian libraries.

In October 1917, the Russian Library Society appealed to its members: “We are not aware of what is coming and what kind of events are in stall for Russia, and we may diverge on social missions and responsibilities of a citizen in these days of hardship, but we are still sure that both today and tomorrow Russia will need enlightened people and a nation brought up in a cultural environment. Each librarian must double his efforts in preparing the nation for democracy…” [9]

Admittedly, we are able to muster up our strength, still dormant in thousands of libraries all over the country, and take the path of Nikolay Nekrasov in order to turn into upright citizens, the path of Anton Chekhov to daily squeeze the slave’s blood out of ourselves, the path of Immanuel Kant to courageously live by our wits, and the path of Dmitry Likhachev to willingly build up the civic component of our private and professional lives.

1. The article contains data on the status of the Russian library network obtained through the monitoring program of the Russian National Library within project “Central Libraries of the Russian Federation Subjects” headed by the author: http://clrf.nlr.ru/.

2. Immanuel Kant. Collection in 6 Volumes. 1966. Volume 6. Pp. 24-27.

3. On April 1, 2014, Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky reported President Putin on the pay for culture workers: “The situation seems quite positive. At the lowest municipal level in the countryside, within one year the wages increased by 40 percent, from 10,000 to 14,000 rubles. At other levels, regional and all the more federal that hold our best insitutions, the rise was over 50 percent, with the nationwide average exceeding 21,000 rubles. The top institutions are paid much more. All in all, we have a good starting point to advance for execution of your executive order of May 7 that instructs raising the culture worlkers’ wages to the region’s average.” URL: http://news.kremlin.ru/news/20672.

4. The Ministry of Culture will allocate 133 million rubles for establishment of the National Electronic Library. RIA Novosti News Agency. June 26, 2014. URL: http://ria.ru/culture/20140626/1013647552.html

5. Inter-budgetary Transfers for Acquisition Purposes. URL: http://www.rba.ru/content/activities/discus/transfer.php.

6. The List of Assignments Following the Session of the Council on Development of the Information Society in Russia. URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/news/8738.

7. Federal Law 35-FZ of March 12, 2014 “On Amendments in Parts 1, 2 and 4 of the Russian Federation Civil Code and Certain Legal Acts of the Russian Federation.” http://www.rg.ru/2014/03/14/izm-gk-dok.html.

8. Likhachev D.S. Selected Works: Thoughts about Life, History and Culture. Moscow, 2006. P. 289.

9. Khavkina L.B. The Book and the Library. St. Petersburg. 2011. P. 144.

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