By Lyudmila Minakova
Foreigners would surely be surprised to learn that most residents of the Republic of Belarus have access to the Presidential Library of Belarus: a rare privilege worldwide. Ordinary citizens can enjoy reading editions normally reserved for the eyes of state bodies, scientists, historians and employees of ministries. Users can draw on a rich fund of specialised literature — on economics and law, as well as valuable early printed and rare editions.
Bibliotheque Russa Tourgueneff
When people go by Government House on Nezavisimosti Square, few guess that the cultural treasury of the country — the Presidential Library of Belarus — is located there, in the right wing. You simply pass a security point, turn a corner and enter the library. You may meet a minister or two but the library is spacious. It’s modern and stylish so it’s hard to believe that it’s actually almost 80 years old, celebrating its anniversary in less than a month.
At first, the Presidential Library was a branch of the State Library and the Bibliographic Institute; later, it was an independent Governmental Library. In the 1930s, it was open daily, without any days off, until almost midnight. There were many editions to work with: the pre-war fund numbered nearly 250,000 volumes — most on the subject of economics, politics and social studies. Unfortunately, during, World War II, the Fascists destroyed all the works in the Library. From 1944, it began to restore its collection gradually and, within eight years, had restored its volume to its pre-war level, including trophy books.
After the war, two echelons of books were brought to Belarus from Germany: all originally taken from libraries in Belarus. As the Hitlerites had plundered many European countries, there were lots of books: from Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp and so on. Editions from the French Turgenev Library appeared in the Presidential Library (the Governmental Library at that time). It was the first Russian public library, created about 140 years ago by Russian emigrants in Paris, thanks to Ivan Turgenev. At the beginning of World War II, the Nazis took editions back to Germany; then, books stamped Bibliotheque Russa Tourgueneff began to appear, scattered across the continent. The Presidential Library has about 500 documents from its archive, which have proven useful as an exchange, in reclaiming Belarusian treasures from abroad.
In addition, the Presidential Library of Belarus holds documents from Poland’s Supraśl Lavra, and from the libraries of Russian emperors, as well as from the library of the Nesvizh Radziwiłł family. I’ve held a 200-year-old dictionary, once belonging to Jerzy Radziwiłł; its margins were full of notes. Probably, someone, not being able to remember compound words, purposefully wrote them out. Books can tell us a lot about their owners. For example, the owner of the Cologne philosophical treatise De Imperio Virtutis, the most ancient book in the library, must have been very careful, since its condition is exemplary. It’s hard to believe that it’s almost 420-years-old!
The department of early printed and rare editions, perhaps, is the most interesting place in the Presidential Library, holding piles of ancient documents and photos, thick encyclopaedias and directories carefully stored behind glass, in special bookcases. Such unique rarities are found nowhere else: a map of Belarus from 1772 and Napoleon Orda’s engraving of Karolin, near Pinsk.
Document — through kilometres
According to Sergey Kvachan, the Director of the Presidential Library of Belarus, digitising editions and the formation of electronic collections is one of the major focuses of the institution today. It’s vital to make ancient, rare editions accessible, and protected from time — such as those from the Radziwiłł and Turgenev libraries and valuable official documents which reflect state policy. It’s best to make digital copies, for placing online or on discs. Digitisation is part of a state project entitled National Electronic Library of Belarus.
Today, the library uses a great many of the latest technologies, including a remote enquiry service and electronic delivery of documents.
E-books are no rivals to printed word
The Library also presents regular exhibitions: for the public and for deputies. Its current display editions, bearing presentation inscriptions by Maxim Tank, Ivan Shamyakin and other notable figures, who worked in the Library years ago. Writers and researchers can still be met in the Library today.
In its 80 years of operation, the Library has seen much. We now have tablets, iPads and e-books but printed editions remain in demand and the Presidential Library is as busy as ever. Its strength lies in its specialist books, its unique collections and its rare editions, as well as in the respectful attitude of librarians towards every visitor.