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Friday, November 30, 2012

Russian State Libraries

After another breakfast buffet (salmon caviar!), I met Peter and one of his other staff people in the lobby. We walked over through the second day of snow to the Russian State Library, just a couple of blocks away. There I met Yelena, my new interpreter. The Russian library is a huge couple of buildings behind the Dostoyevsky statue, and contains some 10 million or more items. I was introduced to several key directors of the library, then they took me up stairs to a very fancy board room, where about 30 librarians from the largest Moscow libraries wandered in to listen. A tech guy set me up with my slides (bless the little wearable jump drive).

My talk to this group was mainly the 5 trends talk. Then I took questions, and segued a bit into the censorship talk. I begin to see why there's such an interest in this topic here. There is in fact a list of titles that are forbidden -- mostly related to terrorism. One of the librarians asked if we'd ever experienced this interesting challenge: Muslim patrons demanding a private place for prayer. I asked if she meant staff, and she said no, patrons. There have also been recent national attempts to block access to certain internet sites. I'm pleased to say that I got them to laugh, mostly when I told them that no one complains about subversive materials because they too busy complaining about fairy tales and reading books about vampire sex.

There was a lot of discussion, again, about the difference between preservation - very important for the Russians - and promotion, which is the marketing approach I was talking about. As I'd learned in Nizhniy, librarians have standards - even mandates - to maintain collections, and getting rid of books, even books that no one uses, is difficult. But I found that by talking about digitization, perhaps we could both preserve (in archival computer collection) AND promote newer materials.

My friend Nicky showed up for a bit, but then had to hurry off to catch his flight in the bad weather (20 centimeters of snow in two days, and many flight delays).

At the end, they gave me a couple more beautiful books. Everyone in Russia has been extraordinarily welcoming and kind.

Then we went out to lunch at a nearby place, all you can eat for 380 rubles. It included mashed potatoes with pumpkin, which was pretty darn good. I also got some fish, some cabbage, and some diced chicken with hot sauce.

Next was an embassy car ride to the Russian State Library for Young Adults. The director (I don't seem to have her name) was remarkable. This library was a delight: modern, wired (and wireless), it is dedicated to youth ages 13 to 30. It was set up as a series of maybe 400 sf rooms. One was dedicated to a cafe experience. One a viewing station with benches and pillows. Another a listening station to older vinyl. One was a science collection. Another, art. One room was dedicated to the history of printing, and included several books (in cases) printed before the founding of the USA. They do have history. One room for comic books and manga. One space (with books and chairs) for small children, either of staff, or visiting siblings of the youth). I have to say that this really worked - a collection and staff really focused on one age group might be very effective not just in Russia.

In the basement were a couple of theater style meeting rooms, and a workout room for the staff (most of whom, the director told me, don't make enough money to afford this themselves).

My presentation - about ebooks - went to about 40 staff members. I had trouble at first getting them to laugh. Maybe that's because I began to sweat profusely, some weird accident of walking around and jet lag, I suppose. One of the tech guys cranked up the air-conditioning, which helped. They loosened up in the questions. I finally got them to laugh when describing how we have a library board appointed by county commissioners even though our library is independent. Why is it so? They asked. "It's politics," I said, "it doesn't HAVE to make sense." They asked if all American libraries are doing what we do with ebooks. No, I said, we were ahead of the curve. But we had to do something; our vendors were making real problems for us. I underscored that librarians have much to learn from each other, and all of us have challenges.

In a discussion afterward with one of the tech guys, he said that pirated ebooks are available on free download sites within hours after they are released. But there doesn't appear to be any attempt on the part of publishers to do copy-protection. Books are released on various commercial sites as pdfs, doc files, and epubs, then pirated. No one will buy what is available for free, even if stolen, and violating copyright. But again, I don't think they have the ability to integrate ebooks into their catalogs in the sense of controlling their loan.

Finally, I was approached by a reporter and photographer from "" The questions were again focused primarily on censorship. The interviewer questioned the background differences of law between our countries, and I talked about the First Amendment, and why people challenge books. I did not mention internet filtering, which is required in many states, and I should have. He asked me often about the difference between American and Russian libraries and asked what I'd recommend. But again I underscored that I hadn't come to tell them how to change, just to compare notes and learn from each other. Then the photographer took about two hundred photographs, to the point of silliness (just to get one!).

Then I rode back through nasty traffic jams to the hotel. Moscow is a series of big rings, highly inefficient. The average annual income is something like $10,000; cars cost $8,000. I'm not sure how everyone has a car. It reminded me that coming back from Nizhniy, Steve said that it would be an hour by car, or under 5 minutes by subway, so we took the subway, which was fun, fast, and fascinating.

I'm tired today. I woke up around 1:30 a.m., and stayed up till almost 4. I'll probably get adjusted from jet lag just in time to fly back and start all over again.

Today I have just two engagements, tomorrow just one. It will take me, I suspect, many weeks to process everything I'm learning.

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