The National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg was first established as the Imperial Public Library in 1795 by Catherine the Great. Since then, it has undergone systematic and appellative changes coinciding with the changes in the Russian government. The National Library was known as the Imperial Public Library from 1795 to 1917, the Russian Public Library from 1917 to 1925, the State Public Library from 1925 to 1992, and the National Library of
Russia from 1992 through today. Due to it being state-funded and state-run, the library’s history is closely intertwined with the social and political history of the country. As written by one of the library’s nineteenth century librarians, “Reading is an important indicator of public life and the library, being a place for reading, is the most convenient instrument for observing the movement of intellectual activity in society over a given period of time” (1). As such, the library’s history combined with the evolution of its presentation of the collections provide insight into Russian intellectual values and political changes over time.
When first established, the goal of the library was to “create ‘the complete collection of the Russian books’ published both in Russia (from the times when the book printing began) and abroad in Russian language. It was also presumed to collect books on Russia issued in foreign languages” (2). The Imperial Public Library was the first public library in Russia, as well as the first state-run library in Russia (3). As a public library, it truly was accessible for all. The first director of the library, Alexei Olenin, wrote in 1817 that “the real objective of the open repository is to provide for everybody, no matter who it is, with books, even the most rare, so he could use them for free without taking home (4).” This agenda was revelatory in Russia, as although the country had librarians, “they
functioned chiefly as custodians and collectors, generally subsidiary to other scholarly or administrative activities. In contrast, the librarians of the Public Library elaborated an agenda that emphasized autonomy in the practice of the profession, collegial organization, and a strong service orientation” (5). Overall, the library was built in the model of European libraries with the hope of providing free knowledge to the general public.
Catherine the Great was not just a passive commissioner of the library. She had a significant role in its curation and construction from the beginning, ordering the addition of an observatory and purchasing the personal libraries of renowned philosophers and scientists such as Voltaire, Diderot, and the president of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Johann Korff (6). The acquisition of Voltaire’s library is of particular interest. Catherine the Great was a prominent contemporary admirer of Voltaire’s ideas, frequently reading his work and conversing with him via post. After his death in 1778, Catherine expressed great interest in purchasing his papers, dreaming of building a replica at her summer palace of his home in Switzerland so that she could house his library in a fitting environment. However, this memorial plan was never realized, and she ended up sending his effects to the Imperial Public Library, where they remain to this day. Currently, researchers at the library are still going through his papers to learn more about his life and philosophies (7). After Catherine the Great’s death in 1796, the fate of the library was uncertain. However, a Russian statesman, Count Alexander Stroganov, ended up taking the library’s director position and worked to increase the library’s collections in accordance with Catherine the Great’s original vision (8).
The February Revolution of 1917 led to the Imperial Public Library changing name to the Russian Public Library. The library was also temporarily
closed as the government drafted new statutes to govern it. As socialism swept the nation, libraries began to exchange items more easily, making the spread of knowledge across the country easier (9). This was accompanied, however, by an increase in government censorship. The Russian Public Library began building what came to be known as the “forbidden special stock,” an off-limits collection of materials that were deemed unsuitable for public consumption (10). The library ended up changing names once again (this time to the State Public Library), and continued to function as an educational institution for the public, while also being safely under the control of the communist regime.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian libraries were in danger of closing, as they lost state funding and could not afford to stay open. However, the newly renamed National Library of Russia did not face this challenge, since it was built to be state funded from the beginning and thus was still financially secure. However, at the same time that libraries were closing, the public was becoming even more reliant on their services. Under socialism, literacy rates skyrocketed (11), so the post-Soviet society was full of people seeking recreational reading. In addition, “prices for Soviet books were low. By 1992, average prices for printed matter grew a hundredfold as the public’s purchasing power sank threefold” (12). This price increase caused Russian citizens to turn to public libraries in order to obtain free reading material. Furthermore, the Soviet system of book distribution to the public had been discontinued, but Russian laws still mandated that copies of all new published materials be sent to every major library in the country (13). Thus, libraries were often the only efficient way for a person to access a book published at the other end of the nation. The combination of all of these factors kept the National Library of Russia active and relevant for the Russian populace.
In the modern era, the National Library of Russia continues to loan books to the general public, with a collection of almost 38 million items by 2016 (14). The library has digital versions of large parts of its collection on its own website, with item descriptions in English, French, and Russian. The library also contributes to online databases filled with digital versions of items housed in libraries across the world, such as the Wiley Online Library. The library has digital versions of what seems like the majority of its collection on its own website, with item descriptions in English, French, and Russian. The library now has five separate buildings: the original Main Building location, the Krylov House just off of Nevsky Prospekt, the New Building across from Park Pobedy, a building on the Fontanka Embankment, and the Plekhanov House near the metro stop for the Tekhnologicheskiy Institut (15). Each location houses different categories of the library’s collections.
In order to access any of the buildings of the National Library of Russia, both Russian citizens and visitors from other countries must first acquire a library card. I attained my library card at the Main Building, which is the oldest building of the library. The process to acquire a library card requires bringing your passport and filling out a form in Russian with your name, passport number, visa number, occupation, address, etc. You must then speak with a person at the library to make sure you understand the rules of behavior in the library, and your photograph is taken for your library card. For visitors to Russia, your library card expires when your visa expires. Whenever you visit a library building, you must first check all bags and jackets into a cloakroom located in the entrance area of the building. You then proceed to the entrance to the main area of the building, where your library card is swiped by a security official and you receive a form that must be signed by a librarian before you may leave the building. I believe this form is also intended to be a record of the items that you access while you are in the building. Overall, it is a slightly intense process. Although this high level of security does make it more difficult to access the library materials, I do not believe that is the intended purpose. I think that since the library owns many valuable and irreplaceable texts and items, they want to keep a strict control on who and what is able to be in close proximity to their collections.
Along with briefly visiting the Main Building, I explored the New Building of the library. It opened in 2003, and the grand opening featured a
dedication by President Vladimir Putin (16). It is a very large and imposing grey stone building with several fountains in the plaza at its front. Large statues of Greek gods line the walkway to the front door, and golden plaques are placed by the entrance recognizing the architects and various government officials for having made contributions to the construction of the library. Another golden plaque marks President Putin’s role in the opening ceremony. The building has a large marble foyer with a big staircase leading up to each of the floors of the library. Reading rooms line the edges of each level of the building. The library utilizes both a physical card catalog and an online catalog system. All of the files containing the cards referencing works from before 2013 are still present in each reading room, and the call numbers for pre- and post-2013 works are all electronically available. To access any book in a reading room, you must bring a call number to a librarian at a desk in the room and they will fetch it for you. All of the physical books and items are stored behind the scenes. There were quite a few people in the library, and it seemed like most were doing research or studying at the many tables throughout the library.
Several exhibits are located throughout the hallways on each floor of the library. Many of the exhibits were about famous men from a few centuries ago, both Russians and non-Russians, with cases displaying books and texts about each of them. The first exhibit I encountered was about a few famous writers and thinkers from the late 18th – early 19th centuries, including Marquis de Sade and Lord Byron. I also came across a few cases on Russian artists. The next showcase that I discovered was about the parks and gardens of St. Petersburg. Several glass cases were filled with photographs of and texts about some of the more famous gardens in St. Petersburg. A poster on one of the walls advertised a recent exhibit on important physicists and the development of physics throughout time. The most notable exhibit to me, though, was the exhibit on the history of the National Library of Russia. The exhibit covered most of what I discussed in the first set of paragraphs in this paper and included bonus visuals such as a copy of the page that President Putin signed in the library’s guestbook and news articles and books about the library from throughout history.
Based upon my research of the history of the National Library of Russia and my visit to its two most prominent buildings, I have concluded that the National Library of Russia has to work hard since its beginning to maintaining a balance between following the directives of the current Russian government and the objective safekeeping of irreplaceable objects and information from Russian history. In the past, this balance has involved censorship and the careful acquisition and presentation of the collections. Presently, it seems that the library provides access to all of its collections without censorship, but places emphasis on certain topics and perspectives through its many exhibits and lectures. It will be interesting to continue to watch the development of the library as Russian people and politics continue to evolve in the post-Soviet era.