Ukranian Libraries: Past and Present

by Amy Campbell

From June 11 through June 20 this year, I had the pleasure of visiting Ukraine to tour libraries and meet with librarians. A generous grant and scholarship through Emporia State University paid for me and 12 of my classmates to participate in this opportunity to build international connections.

Because of its location and agricultural resources, Ukraine has been battered from all sides throughout history. We stayed primarily in the city of Kiev and unfortunately much of this ancient city has been destroyed as Ukraine was dominated by one force or another, including the Nazis and most recently the Soviets. Beautiful churches that look centuries old often turned out to actually be only a few decades as Ukraine tries to rebuild what was lost under the Soviet system. The beautifully bright and glowing (and mostly rebuilt) church of St. Michael stands in shining contrast to the heavy, grey, somber Soviet building next to it.

photo by SerenityRose

Under the Soviets, libraries did not flourish as areas of free intellectual activity. Instead, censorship, purging of records, and the retroactive changing of history were normal occurrences in Soviet libraries in the 20th century. Some material, like Ukrainian national poetry and songs, were simply destroyed while other precious works of art and literature were siphoned off by both Nazis and Soviets. Twenty years after gaining its independence, the country is still attempting to retrieve these treasures. They face impossible odds in attempting to recover these artifacts, but they are still trying.

After so many decades of secrets and restricted information, Ukrainian librarians take a tremendous amount of pride in their freedom of information policy. Most libraries are open to all Ukrainian citizens; they simply must apply for a reader card and occasionally pay a small fee to belong to the library. At that point, the reader may access any information housed in the library. For example, the parliamentary library keeps careful records of all governmental and legal decisions made by Ukrainian politicians, and these records are available for any of their readers to peruse. For a region of the world that spent so many recent years under oppressive and violent regimes, this freedom of information is miraculous.

Interestingly, with one notable exception, not a single library we visited had material that patrons could check out and take home. The exception to this was the wonderful children’s library in Kiev, which had a single room that housed books that the children could take home. A few libraries had a small collection of books that patrons could browse, but most libraries kept their books in vast depositories that were not open to the public. If a patron (or reader, as they are called in Ukraine) is interested in a particular book, he must fill out a request form with a librarian. The librarian will then fetch the book for the reader. This process, beginning when the reader fills out the request and ending when the book is in his hands, can take three to four hours. At the end of this slow process, the reader may take the book to a reading room for a period of time but he must return the book at the close of library hours. Few books (if any) ever leave the library.

Ukraine celebrated its twentieth anniversary of independence this August. Like the beautiful churches destroyed by outside forces that Ukraine is carefully and lovingly rebuilding, the care and pride Ukraine takes in its libraries show a strong, resilient spirit. The librarians and library students we visited during our time in Ukraine envision a bright future for their country’s libraries but most of all they embody an inspiring example of what free and open information exchange means to the freedom of all people.

Amy Campbell is a Reference Librarian at Marshall Public Library. A version of this article appeared previously in the Idaho State Journal.

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