The Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, known as the Biblioteca Academia Nauk (BAN), was founded by Peter the Great in 1714 to house materials collected during his foreign travels. A center for international scholarship, it became the first institution of the Academy of Sciences in 1725. Today, it is the largest academic library in the world, with holdings of over 20 million and partnerships with 3500 institutions in more than 100 countries. The central facility, located in St. Petersburg, has a staff of 930.

On February 14, 1988, BAN suffered the largest library fire of this century. Some 400,000 books were destroyed and an estimated 3.6 million were damaged, including the famous Baer collection, named for the German scientist who catalogued Peter the Great's foreign materials. Dr. Valery Leonov and his staff moved swiftly to minimize losses. This four-year recovery campaign, mounted by Russian and foreign experts, is resulting in the region's first program of preventive conservation and collections management. On the fourth anniversary of the fire, Dr. Valery Leonov discusses BAN's present and future.

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Jane Slate Siena: BAN has had a rich history, beginning as Peter the Great's library and becoming the world's largest academic library as part of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences.

Valery Leonov: Yes, rich and dramatic. The Library was damaged by three serious fires—in 1747, 1901, and 1988—and by artillery attack in 1942. Our central facility opened on the eve of WWI in 1914 and was used as a hospital in 1918. During WWII, BAN, the Philharmonic, the theatres, and the State Public Library were open to the public as places of refuge. We were a home to our staff during the 900 days and nights of the Seige of Leningrad. Half died of starvation and disease, but many were able to continue their work. We have a history of endurance during difficulties.

You have experienced critical political difficulties during this century.

BAN was originally created as an international place where intellectual life flourished. Many foreign scholars worked at BAN during the 18th and 19th centuries. BAN became known as an important archive of material from many cultures. In the 1920s, the Communist Party leaders became suspicious and, in December 1929, arrested our first elected Director and 422 Academy members as "enemies of the people." From then until 1991, it has been difficult to keep up with international developments in our fields of study.

What has been the impact of the profound political changes of 1991 on cultural organizations in the Commonwealth nations?

It is still evolving. In our case, we do not yet have funding from the new Academy of Sciences of the new Russia. We have, however, gained democratic privileges regarding the collections. Since the victory in August 1991, St. Petersburg has become a more democratic city and, in my opinion, a city that is more open than, say, Moscow. Because of our particular history, we have many cultural resources of world interest. We have, for example, two of the world's largest libraries—BAN, and the Saltykov Shchedrin Public Library—which together contain over 50 million holdings.

The fact that we have renamed our city St. Petersburg is a profound move. Remember that St. Petersburg was not named for Peter the Great, but for St. Peter. By reclaiming this heritage, we are recognizing a time when the arts, sciences, and intellectual life were important and not overruled by political concerns. To reverse the experience of the past 70 years, we need to feel our roots and celebrate our background.

What is the reality of cultural institutions during the present economic climate?

Things are bad and are likely to become worse. I have tried to estimate the situation, but it is difficult to know. Because of the present difficulties, people actually think that we can stop working in our libraries—stop cataloguing, conserving, exchanging publications, etc. Closing our cultural institutions, which leaves them vulnerable to theft and deterioration, is not the solution. We must protect our heritage by finding the necessary expertise and collaborating with colleagues in other parts of the world. We can no longer survive as soldiers of ideology. We need more sophisticated and secure ideas. People today speak a lot about culture. It is the cultural life that will give us the strength to transcend the difficulties of the moment. The situation could become tragic; history is at stake if libraries do not survive.

You've been very generous in sharing your experiences after the fire in 1988 and now in 1992. Why?

Library science is an international science. There is no Soviet, Russian, or American librarianship—only a single science. In all cultures, internal problems can influence our perspectives. Our Library is a good example. We saved our Library after the 1988 fire with international assistance from many libraries and foundations. We are now again in a unique moment. During 1991, we gained democratic privileges, but our professional and technical expertise has not kept pace with international developments. By continuing our collaboration with others, we will have a chance to develop.

What do the libraries in Russia need most at the moment?

Our large cultural institutions are experiencing dramatic problems—theft, deterioration, understaffing, and institutional survival. We have a tradition of professional exchange, but it needs to be strengthened. We need more trained specialists in conservation, materials, equipment, and policies that help us manage our information systems within local and global contexts. Thanks to the Academy of Sciences, we recently installed our first fire suppression system at BAN. There is no such thing at the Public Library, the Hermitage, the State Museum, or at other major institutions here. We need to carefully select our priorities and develop long-term preservation plans.

Tell us about your recovery effort and its effect on the Library programs and staff.

The recovery effort has forced us to think about the state of the facility and its collections. In 1988, we were not prepared to cope with the mass destruction of millions of objects. We undertook the necessary emergency measures to freeze some materials and to begin slowly drying others. We have completed our systematic inventory and have installed the fire suppression system. In the process, we have developed a program of phased conservation, which efficiently addresses the conservation problems of collections as opposed to individual objects. For this, we are greatly indebted to Peter Waters from the Library of Congress and Frank Preusser from the Getty Conservation Institute, who are helping us understand the environment and the technology.

The central facility was planned for 6 million items, but now we have more than 12 million. The special holdings department is 3 to 4 times smaller than necessary. Since undertaking our intense four-year recovery effort, it would be self-deception, an imitation of work, to continue working in this same situation. We have made adjustments. For example, the second reading room is closed and used for the inventory project. We have plans for new facilities and are appealing to the local authorities for support.

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Finally, we have learned that these problems have solutions that must get into the administrative functions of our libraries and into the educational system.

Has the visibility of the fire helped you to find support for BAN?

Yes, the experience gave us strength. In spite of some negative public opinion, we continued to work because we knew that we needed at least 3 to 4 months to show what we could do in professional terms. People came to understand that we organized the best professional approach that was possible under the circumstances, with assistance from Russian and foreign experts. In so doing, we gained confidence in our abilities.

What do you see for the 21st century?

More conservation resources, not less, will be necessary. Major libraries are being built or expanded, which further presses our capability to preserve material and manage information. In 1987, China's National Library, the largest in Asia, opened with 50 million volumes. The new Bibliotheque de France (20 million volumes), the new building of the Deutsche Bibliothek (18 million volumes), and the Alexandria Library in Egypt are all scheduled to open in 1995. The new building of the British Library opens in 1996. The Arab Library in Algeria is in development. Problems of conservation, safety, and security are the library issues for the next century.

What is your vision for the future of BAN

Cultural organizations in the Commonwealth nations must look for opportunities to cooperate with government and private organizations around the world. Our extraordinary cooperation with the Getty Conservation Institute, the Library of Congress, and the Readers Digest Foundation is an important precedent. Culture united us. I do not believe that we have had this before in our history. Cooperation such as this can change traditions in both of our countries.

I feel very fortunate to be BAN's Director at this time. We need a Center for Preservation Technology to provide conservation support to others and to reinforce the changes that need to occur in Russian institutions. We must be optimistic. Because of these opportunities, I am the happiest man you can imagine.

Our readers who are not librarians may be interested to know more about the freezing procedures.

This is very interesting. The fire destroyed 400,000 books, but water damaged another 3.6 million. We immediately located refrigerators to freeze large quantities of material. Food storage facilities and packing houses around the city became temporary homes for books. BAN itself became a massive drying chamber for material not taken to refrigerators. We all pitched in, with careful scientific monitoring to control the direction, speed, and temperature of the air flow as we dryed the books. Today, everything is dry except a collection of newspapers that are still in a dairy refrigerator.

Dr. Valery Leonov was appointed Director of BAN in 1988, after serving as Deputy Director for Library Sciences and Research. He holds a Ph.D. in Library Science from the State Culture Institute, where he served on the staff for almost two decades. He is the author of more than 50 publications.

Jane Slate Siena is Head of Institutional Relations at the GCI and coorganizer of "Conservation and Disaster Recovery: International Cooperation at the Library of the Soviet Academy of Sciences," an international seminar held in St. Petersburg in September 1990 sponsored by BAN, the Library of Congress, and the GCI.