The Electronic Future of Russia’s Library Network

The Electronic Future of Russia’s Library Network

Published: April 13, 2011 (Issue # 1651)

Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

Alexander Vershinin, director of the Yeltsin Presidential Library, which aims to be an electronic hub for Russia’s libraries.

With the history of the Russian state comprising the core theme of its collection, the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library in St. Petersburg may sound like a project meant for a very narrow audience. Yet this vast archive located in the majestic Synod building on Senatskaya Ploshchad has become Russia’s premier project showcasing innovative archiving technologies — and it is eagerly going global.

With its collections consisting entirely of electronic resources, the library represents a new breed of archives moving away from piles of paper documents, while making ancient manuscripts from the early 11th century onwards accessible to wider audiences through their scanned versions. Readers across the globe can now get access to almost the same files — although with some restrictions — as those who visit the headquarters in St. Petersburg.

The library opened its doors to visitors on Sept. 1, 2009. Predictably, the first membership card was issued to President Dmitry Medvedev, who attended the inauguration of the prestigious center.

Medvedev, who once noted to reporters that he finds it impossible to get his son to read printed books — the teenager reportedly prefers e-books — did not shelve his Presidential Library membership card. He regularly visits the portal, most recently in February, when Medvedev explored an online exhibition of historical documents devoted to the 150th anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s act of abolishing serfdom in Russia.

True to its name, the Presidential Library team maintains a close connection to the head of the country. Its Moscow-based crew maintains Medvedev’s blog on the web site, filtering the many thousands of posts that are sent to the president every day.

“Dmitry Medvedev has more than 200,000 subscribers on Twitter, so you can get some idea about the amount of work we do,” said Alexander Vershinin, director of the Presidential Library. “In some ways, it resembles the work with written letters that were sent to the government back in the Soviet era.”

The library hopes to revive library services in Russia and to become a hub for all other libraries in the country. Its main goal is to link up with all the libraries and specialized archives in the regions. For example, it is expected that in the future, the dissertations of scientists from the country’s universities or historical documents from provincial archives will all be available in electronic versions at the hub.

So far, the library has signed agreements with the Tyumen, Omsk, Kirov, Volgograd, Ryazan, Kamchatka, Chukotka and Magadan regions, as well as with the republics of Tatarstan, Karelia, Buryatia and Chuvashia. Deals are set to be made in the near future with the Moscow, Novosibirsk, Sakhalin, Amur, Khabarovsk, Tver, Primorye and Nenets regions.

One of three national libraries in the Russian Federation, the center provides access to more than 9 million scans, including the contents of the Russian State Historical Archive.

Every academic year, the library announces a key theme that it will explore during the following 12 months through exhibitions, conferences, competitions, lectures and other events.

“We began on September 1, 2009 with the history of Russia as our main theme,” said Vershinin. “The system of governing should be based on the history of the country. For the first time in Russia, we compiled and put on a digital display of a very full collection of history textbooks that have been published in the country. Such a collection provided an extremely valuable insight into the development of the Russian state.”

This year’s topic is the Russian territory, while the theme of the 2011/2012 academic year will be the Russian government, and then, in 2012/2013, the Russian people.

Foreigners currently comprise a tiny fraction of the library’s total readership: Only 2.6 percent of readers come from outside of Russia, mainly from Ukraine, Belarus, Japan, Germany, Italy and China.

The Presidential Library is up for a global expansion, with representative offices — effectively reading rooms — already operating in Beijing, Minsk and Baku.

The next one is due to open in Helsinki in the next few months.

When it was being created, Russia’s Presidential Library was modeled on the library of the U.S. Congress, which has a similar function.

“The U.S. Congress library was originally created as an information and analysis resource meant exclusively for members of Congress; similarly, our library, as part of the presidential administration, caters a large extent to the Kremlin and various state bodies,” said Vershinin. “What makes us different is that the U.S. Congress Library contains large volumes of printed material, whereas our collection is limited to electronic documents.”

In the Middle Ages, the most expansive libraries belonged to monasteries, and were as carefully protected from outsiders as sacred relics. Reading was the privilege of the elite, and each country guarded its libraries as closely as its most precious treasures.

Today, the idea of an international electronic hub that would encompass the resources of national archives of many countries is already in the air. The library of the future is an electronic library.

“Newspapers are going online, e-books are becoming increasingly popular; an electronic document is much easier to deal with,” Vershinin said.

The possibility of an international alliance between the world’s leading libraries that would make their electronic archives accessible through a unified umbrella hub for users from any country is already under discussion, although such plans remain vague.

Many international players are cautious about creating a universal archive, and would prefer to try out various forms of cooperation on a much smaller scale. The idea, however, is in the air.

“The U.S. Congress has already started working on the so-called world library — an electronic archive that aims to unite materials that they have received from all continents. This is one example that we find very interesting to look at and be inspired by,” said Vershinin.

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