Libraries at "the End of Russia"
California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) is a leader in establishing cooperative education programs
in the former Soviet Union. CSUS librarians are active participants in several of these projects. This
article describes my three-week visit to Vladivostok in 1997 as part of a collaborative project initiated
in 1996 and funded by a USIA grant through 1999.
Russia's first academic degree program in public administration was initiated by CSUS in collaboration
with the Far Eastern State Technical University (FESTU) Department of World Politics and Law. FESTU,
located in the port city of Vladivostok, has long been renowned for its scientific and technical programs,
particularly in the maritime fields. The social sciences, however, were neglected in Russia throughout
the Soviet era. There is no established tradition of respect for public service; consequently, few teaching
models exist in Russia for such fields as law and public policy. Our innovative partner-ship with FESTU
has as its centerpiece an exchange agreement that brings FESTU scholars to Sacramento where they observe
the State legislative process in action and learn new teaching techniques . CSUS faculty visit FESTU
as lecturers and consultants. The purpose of my trip was to assess the library and research support
for faculty and students in the new public administration program.
Vladivostok lies at the outermost edge of Russia's Far Eastern Frontier, sometimes referred to as "the
end of Russia." This city of 650,000 clings to the hills that rim the Pacific coastline overlooking
the Sea of Japan. Shipping, fishing, and manufacturing are Vladivostok‘s primary industries. With its
museums, galleries, theaters, and libraries the city is also the cultural center of the Primorsky Region.
It was not always so. During the Soviet period Vladivostok's strategic importance as headquarters of
the Russian Navy kept it a closed city – so completely closed that it was even off limits to other Russians
who lived outside the area. Surely libraries in such a regulated environment would be organized to restrict
rather than to facilitate access. Nothing in my pre-departure research indicated otherwise, albeit most
of the available information on Russian libraries has focused on the Moscow/St. Petersburg area, separated
from Vladivostok by more than 6,000 miles and nine time zones.
Advocating for open-access proved unnecessary, however. Materials were freely available in open stacks;
and from bibliographic instruction to user services, the three libraries I visited in Vladivostok were
surprisingly similar to their American counterparts. Although the MLS degree is not offered in Russia,
all the librarians with whom I spoke were highly qualified with at least one advanced degree. They articulated
universal concerns: budget difficulties, space problems, equipment needs, technology deficits. Amid
all these shortages the only surplus was in personnel. There was no backlog even in a labor-intensive
environment of card catalog maintenance and manual indexing of journals – not a commercial enterprise
in Russia. This abundance of human resources was not limited to libraries but was apparent everywhere.
In museums, in restaurants, in train stations and in department stores the disproportionate number of
employees to patrons was evident. Work continued despite the prolonged wage delays.
Main University Library
FESTU's 8,000 students and 800+ faculty are served by the University Library's comprehensive research-level
collection that includes the most complete holdings of technical books in the Far East. Materials are
organized by one of the two nationally standardized cataloging systems and shelved in open stacks. Each
year the University Library lends more than one million books and journals. Before Perestroika the University
Library was adding 50,000 new books each year. But Russia's economic turmoil has created such fiscal
constraints that it was impossible to keep the library collections current. Acquisitions dropped to
only 11,000 volumes annually, including donations and textbooks. It is an established practice for Russian
academic libraries to provide all required textbooks for students. This paralyzing lack of funds affected
the University Library on many levels. Almost as acute as the need for current materials was the need
for space. Shelves were completely full and overflowed onto the floor. A new multi-story library
building remained empty more than a year after completion because there were no funds for shelves and
moving. But the dire immediate need, according to the Associate Director, was for photocopiers.
My formal meeting with the University Library's eighty staff and administrators concluded with questions
for me. In addition to queries about my library, they wanted to know my salary and benefits and whether
I belong to a union. They were eager to tell me about their benefits. As union members they are entitled
to 31 vacation days annually, four months paid sick leave, and three years paid maternity leave, the
first seven months on full salary. A stipend is paid until the child is 18. There was no mention of
wage delays or other deprivations that continue to be pervasive. Throughout my visit, if such difficulties
were acknowledged at all, it was with equanimity or wry humor. Courtesy and pride preclude the gracious
Russians from complaining, but I constantly heard the phrase "before Perestroika".
Departmental Library, World Politics and Law
Half of the 500 volumes in the tiny departmental library were English language books purchased in
Sacramento with grant funds to support the new public administration program. To supplement the departmental
holdings, I have since set up procedures for shipping carefully chosen, de-selected gift books from
CSUS to FESTU. Books on resume writing and interview skills have been well received, as the job
search is not yet a familiar process in Russia. The Soviet system educated or trained students for specific
jobs according to the needs of the prevailing Five Year Plan.
The faculty of World Politics and Law were eager to learn Internet searching and requested that I
present a workshop. Complicated preparations were necessary, including an appointment with the University
president to obtain permission to use the Internet computer. Just as all arrangements were completed,
an extended power outage occurred that lasted throughout the remainder of my visit. My impromptu workshop
became a lecture; demonstration and hands-on were postponed until the FESTU faculty visited CSUS the
following spring. Lesson: Be prepared with a variety of alternative teaching methods and materials.
Maxim Gorky Municipal Public Library
FESTU is fortunate in its location near the city center, a short bus ride to the magnificent, historic
Gorky Municipal Public Library. On the day of my visit, students quietly absorbed in homework filled
its spacious reading room. This research library's collection is a rich resource for the city and for
FESTU. The Gorky serves 30,000 users per year and circulates 780,000 books annually. These numbers do
not include children's books. Special libraries for children are funded by a separate state agency;
the Gorky is funded mainly through the national Russian Ministry of Culture. Service has a high priority.
Librarians provide free research support for agencies and businesses; meeting rooms are provided free
to community groups. Librarians publish and mail a monthly newsletter as well as bibliographies and
A public online catalog contains MARC-format records with access via 486-level PCs, in addition to
the traditional card catalog. Two parallel catalog systems are maintained because, as the library director
told me, "Librarians distrust computers." Nevertheless, the Gorky has made significant
progress toward full automation and is clearly more technologically advanced than the FESTU library.
Before Perestroika, Russian libraries had limited contacts with foreign libraries. In recent years
international cooperation has greatly increased. Today, the Gorky's Automation Department interacts
with libraries worldwide via FAX and electronic mail, and participates in the International Book Exchange
and interlibrary loan. Exchange agreements with several American libraries include a program that provides
for the Gorky's librarians to receive training at the University of Hawaii library. Vladivostok is a
closed city no longer. FESTU has also established several collaborations with universities in Pacific
Rim countries, including San Diego State University and Washington State University, as well as institutions
in Australia, Japan, Great Britain, and China.
Throughout my visit I was treated as an honored guest, invited by the convivial Russians to frequent
parties and banquets, and escorted about the city. Having no Russian language skills, I was provided
with a interpreter, Denis, a first year FESTU student in the public administration program who had recently
spent an exchange year in Chicago. He was proud of his American wardrobe and his command of American
colloquialisms. After I gently corrected his pronunciation of "Peace Corpse," he often asked me to check
his usage or to define unfamiliar words: schmoozing, upscale, jet-setter. I still get these queries
from Denis by e-mail, along with requests for articles on his research topic. The few English speakers
I met were eager to chat with me, for most had never encountered a "native" English speaker. I received
several compliments on my "beautiful American accent." Their English locution was formal and grammatically
perfect, uncontaminated by the jargon and verbal tics that often clutter American conversation. My lack
of Russian language made every meeting, interview, and conversation time-consuming. Each exchange required
at least twice the time of direct communication.
Although faculty and students at FESTU have a variety of traditional library research options
in the departmental library, the university library, and the Gorky Municipal Public Library, currency
of these collections is a serious problem. This lack of current resources could be mitigated by improved access to the Internet. At the time of my visit,
the lack of basic technology supported by a reliable infrastructure was the most significant barrier
to research. FESTU had only sporadic access to the Internet through two computers located in a building
that had the most frequent and prolonged power outages on campus.
I stay in touch with FESTU through e-mail, letters, FESTU exchange scholars, and the Vladivostok
News online. Daily life continues to be filled with economic difficulties and other deprivations.
Infrastructure problems have been more acute in Vladivostok than in other parts of Russia, due
at least in part to a political feud between President Yeltsin and the "rebellious" Primorsky Regional
governor (New York Times, Sacramento Bee, (6/11/97)). Nevertheless, FESTU has made important
and encouraging advances during the past two years. Recently, the Department of World Politics
and Law was officially designated "The Pacific Institute of World Politics and Law" in a televised
ceremony in Vladivostok attended by local and foreign dignitaries. A new major has been added, and
enrollment at the Institute has increased by almost 30% to 300. Not only is the new library building
now occupied, it has Internet workstations and the campus communication systems have been upgraded. FESTU's scientists and researchers, previously impeded by deteriorating
infrastructure and geographic isolation from the technological progress accruing in Russia's western
cities, can now begin to participate more fully in the international scholarly dialogue. Students in the public administration program that CSUS helped to
create are preparing to build careers that will engender pride in public service and encourage civic
Technological progress continues at FESTU. In spring 2001 the first Web-based, synchronous video conference
occurred between CSU Sacramento and FESTU faculty and students. Distance education has become a priority
at both universities and the successful video conference points toward future collaborations. My interpreter,
Denis, received his degree from FESTU in 2001 and has applied for admission to the MBA program at the
University of Utah.
Dr. Cristy Jensen, CSUS Professor of Public Policy and Administration, wrote the USIA grant that funded
this program. Her understanding and affinity for our colleagues in Vladivostok enriched my trip and
indirectly contributed to this article.
About the Author
Betty Ronayne is Education Reference Librarian at California State University at Sacremento.
Email: bronayne [at] csus [dot] edu
© 2000 Betty Ronayne
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