Russian library fire wreaks havoc on 14 million rare book collection

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It’s nearly midnight in Moscow, and Zoya Metlitskaya, 54, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, has been dragging it through the slush for hours, pulling 18th-century books out of a pile of construction rubble and packing them up. in boxes.

For weeks now, she has worked every evening, alongside about fifty volunteers, all dedicated to safeguarding the vast collection of books and journals left in the ruins of one of Russia’s great libraries after a devastating fire at the end of the day. January.

Working around the clock, they saved around a million pounds, hauling them out of the water. For Metlitskaya and the others, saving the books is something bigger.

“I am very depressed by the political course of my country,” she wrote recently in an e-mail from Moscow. “But our group of volunteers gives me hope for civil society in Russia. It stays with me in the burnt down building.”

INION, the Soviet-era acronym for the Institute for Scientific Information of Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was founded in 1918 as one of the best libraries and research centers in Russia.

Historian Zoya Metlitskaya was one of the volunteers helping to recover some of the rare manuscripts and historical books from the library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which was nearly destroyed by fire. (INION Facebook page / Courtesy of Zoya Metlitskaya)

It is known for its extensive collections of rare Russian books and magazines from the 18th and 19th centuries, and for its large collection of books in foreign languages, many of which are not in any other Russian library, as well as documents from the Society of Nations, UN and UNESCO papers and books dating from the 16th century seized as spoils of war in Germany during World War II.

The fire that ravaged the third floor of the building January 30 destroyed about two million books, or about 15% of the collection. The roof also collapsed, putting the rest in danger.

Chernobyl of a book lover

Almost immediately after the fire, INION librarians took action and created a Facebook page to collect the books.

In a country where tragedies are rife, the news of virtual destruction struck a chord.

The director of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Fortov, compared the fire to a kind of Chernobyl for book lovers.

“INION is a very important Russian library,” said Harold Leich, Russian scholar at the US Library of Congress, in an email.

“In the field of humanities, it is the main Moscow library of the Russian Academy of Sciences – whose institutes, laboratories and libraries are the most important place of original research in Russia.”

Generations of foreign academics have also worked there.

“It represents a repository of all the intellectual enterprise of the Russian Federation,” explains Piotr Dutkiewicz, professor of political science at Carleton University, who worked at INION as a graduate student in the 1980s.

At the time, it was known as a distinguished and resource-rich haven, far from the rest of the mostly impoverished Moscow.

“Not only was there one of the best reading rooms in the country, but there was also the best cafeteria, where you could get the best cigarettes and the best sausages,” said Dutkiewicz.

Intensify

The devastation of INION and the ad hoc rescue process that followed the fire raise questions about the current Russian government’s commitment to funding its archives and libraries, which nearly collapsed during the financial crisis in the United States. 1990s and were never really well resourced. because.

As so often happens in Russia, ordinary people stepped in to fill the void. Librarians recruit anyone who is willing to lend a hand in carrying books.

A small army of volunteers packed and moved the water and smoke damaged books to a suburban center in Lybertsy until the Russian Academy library could be relocated. (INION Facebook page / Courtesy of Zoya Metlitskaya)

“There has been almost no help from the central government,” Metlitskaya said, adding that “we also collect computers, scanners from Russian citizens.”

The library hired about 20 workers to move the soggy and smoke-damaged books from the 14 million-volume collection, Metlitskaya said. But much of the packaging is done by untrained volunteers – book enthusiasts from all walks of life.

Over the course of three weeks in March, volunteers packed and moved around a million pounds to a suburban facility in Lybertsy until the INION building was rebuilt.

The daily effort, which is chronicled in the INION volunteers’ Facebook blog, is not in the Ural Mountains to escape an expected Nazi invasion.

More state control

The passion of the INION volunteer group is not surprising, says Dutkiewicz.

“There are groups of Russian intellectuals who love what they do. To them, these libraries are their whole world.”

Volunteers stepped in and “solve the problems with their own hands, because there is a vacuum left by the government,” says Elena Eremeeva, a Toronto opera singer who has been following the progress of INION librarians.

“The government says it will provide a lot of help, but there is a lack of action.”

Gleb Albert, an academic specializing in Soviet-era history and who often works at INION, observed the progress from Germany.

“Besides the books themselves, one of the most serious concerns was the card catalogs,” he says. “No matter how little damage is done to an archive or to a library itself, if the catalog is destroyed, the institution is crippled for years.”

Gleb Albert, an academic specializing in Soviet era history, has been a frequent user of the INION library. It was a miracle, he said, that the old map catalog survived the fire. (Gleb Albert / CBC)

In this case, he says, “when the news arrived that the INION card catalog survived the fire virtually intact, it looked like a miracle.”

Yet, according to Albert, the main problem with libraries is usually the lack of funding, which allows everything to go downhill.

He says that “the wages are so low that hardly any young professional wants to work there, and those who keep working there do it out of love for their profession and are real heroes.

“It’s not uncommon to see people well beyond retirement age behind the counter.”

There has also been increased state control in recent years and “reclassifications of archival material as” secret “over the past 10 years, which can only be called absurd,” he says. .


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