A Trip to the Library

On its web site, the Russian State Library -- formerly the Lenin Library -- is described as "Russia's memory."

  In the Soviet era, a visit to the intimidating building could leave a foreigner with an indelible memory of Russia -- the kind of memory sometimes called "trauma." At that time, obtaining a library card could take days, and, once inside, the patron faced the formidable task of navigating the collections without the help of a dictionary, since patrons could not bring printed material into the library. Today, a trip to the RSL could not be more different.

To get a library card, which is required for admission, simply show up at the registration desk with your passport and 100 rubles. Leave the kids at home, though; no one under 18 is admitted. After filling out a short application and having your photo taken, you receive a plastic card good for five years.

On a recent Saturday, the wait was about ten minutes, just enough time to take a look at the portrait of Count Nikolai Rumyantsev, considered the founder of the library, hanging in the vestibule.

Following the end of serfdom, new arrivals from the country began to swell urban populations. Noting the dearth of public cultural institutions in Moscow, Rumyantsev donated his considerable art and book collections to form the basis of a new museum. The book collection of the Rumyantsev Museum opened in 1862 in Pashkov House, an 18th-century mansion located at 3 Mokhovaya Ulitsa, across from the Kremlin.

Over subsequent decades, the museum's holdings grew through donations. Eventually, the museum was dissolved, its art dispersed among other museums, and in 1924, the library was renamed in honor of Vladimir Lenin. In 1992, it became the Russian State Library.

Much more than the library's name has changed over the past 16 years, said librarian Galina Prosvetova, who has worked at the library for 23 years. She cited the advent of electronic cataloging and facilities upgrades such as the modern climate-control system in the library's stacks.

One of the most striking differences is the level of accessibility to the public. During the Soviet era, she explained, restrictions made using the collections more difficult, but today, anyone 18 or older can come and do research at the library.

Visitors are still not permitted to bring any printed matter into the library, but paper, pens and laptop computers are allowed, although electrical outlets are hard to come by in the reading rooms. Women may keep their purses, but these are searched.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Many library patrons continue to rely on the card catalog to locate material.
Since an electronic catalog accessible via the Internet includes a good part of the library's holdings, it is easy -- and advisable -- to do some preparation in advance. The electronic catalog is also available on computers on the library's first floor, or you can rely on the old-fashioned card catalog that occupies much of the second floor. A staff of approachable and knowledgeable librarians is available to give assistance.

Apart from the current periodicals reading room, visitors do not have access to the stacks and must request materials. To do this, go to the desk outside the reading room to which you have been assigned (look for a number in a blue square on your library card), and fill out an order form with the call numbers of the items you want.

Special collections, such as military literature, legal literature, musical scores and recordings, have their own reading rooms that handle requests. Access to more perishable holdings, like rare books and manuscripts, requires a formal application with a description of the user's research topic.

The library's newspaper and dissertation collections are located at a separate branch in Khimki, but a project to digitize the dissertation collection is under way in order to make these documents available online from libraries throughout the country.

Requests made in the morning may be filled by the afternoon, depending on volume, while materials ordered in the afternoon are generally available for pickup the following day. The request forms and other internal library communications travel through the building via a system of pneumatic tubes.

While you are waiting for your research material to arrive, stroll down to the basement, where you can treat yourself to a very small cappuccino in the serviceable and reasonably priced cafeteria. Take a peek across the hall into the smoking room, which is a study in mixed messages: Its walls are decorated with framed reproductions of vintage advertisements for cigarettes and posters from Soviet-era anti-smoking campaigns.

The book museum is also worth a visit. This small but impressive exhibit traces the history of printing and bookmaking. Industry-related artifacts, such as typesetting equipment and binding materials, are on display, along with printed material from throughout Russian history, such as 16th-century books printed by Ivan Fyodorov, the father of Russian book printing, and a World War II-era newspaper printed by Bryansk partisans on birch bark instead of paper.

Particularly interesting is the collection of first editions, which includes works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Pushkin, as well as Voltaire, Stendhal, Dickens, Darwin and, of course, Marx.

Russian State Library
General collections and reading rooms are at entrance 1; the reader registration department is at entrance 2.
Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The Book Museum is at entrance 3, 4th floor, 622-8672
3/5 Ul. Vozdvizhenka, 202-5790, www.rsl.ru, M. Biblioteka Imeni Lenina.