Future apparent from book-rich past

National Library Director Roman Motulsky studies Belarusian books’ roots

By Victor Andreev

Mr. Motulsky wrote his From the Past to the Future: Libraries of Belarus collection at home and in his office, often working at night. The result is certainly worth all his efforts, being not just a monograph but a reflection of the country’s journey via the books written and printed by our forefathers.  Mr. Motulsky tells us about the roots of Belarusian books.

Greek missionaries brought the first books to Belarus from Byzantine, along with Christianity. Unsurprisingly, the words ‘biblioteka’ (library) and ‘Biblia’ (Bible) are similar: the first work — recorded and then printed — was the word of God. Since then, the church has preserved and multiplied its editions over the centuries. The first libraries were founded at monasteries and cathedrals and the first book collection was compiled at Polotsk’s St. Sophia Cathedral, in the 11th century. Its preserved manuscripts are now kept in Warsaw and Lvov.

Belarus was once the most advanced Eastern European state in terms of book publishing. In the 16th century, it released 400 books; Ukraine had only 30 and Russia just ten. Russian researchers mention these figures and I rely on their objectivity. Moreover, our Frantsisk Skorina launched book printing among Eastern Slavs. Judging by the great numbers of books published in Vilno in Old Belarusian, we can conclude that our culture influenced that of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.


Do you think that books have been usurped in our modern society? It’s not fashionable to collect books any more. People seem more interested in spending their money on designer label clothes.

It all depends… In ancient times, each folio was viewed as an expensive pleasure — without exaggeration; only wealthy people could afford them. Old manuscripts boast leather covers decorated with precious stones. However, after Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention, books became more common place. We simply throw away brochures after reading them, without thinking twice. However, this doesn’t mean that books will disappear. When the new National Library building was being built, many doubted our need for it, asserting that the Internet would soon replace printed editions. However, unlike electronic texts, books have exclusivity; their circulations are falling while prices are rising. Moreover, publishing houses now pay special attention to each book’s appearance. It’s no surprise, as history tends to be cyclical.


What inspired you to study the history of Belarusian libraries? Your text is worthy of a doctorate…

I’m already a doctor of pedagogical sciences, which is enough for me. Our society feels the need to know about its past. Books are a fundamental cornerstone of modern civilisation.


What has been your major ‘discovery’ regarding past libraries?

We once had a rich book culture but only a small part remains in Belarus. For example, we know little about the Polotsk Jesuit Collegium’s book collection. In the early 19th century, it numbered 40,000 books, which was huge for that period. Importantly, the Collegium’s status equalled that of a university; it was actually the first higher educational establishment on the territory of modern Belarus, with its own ‘university’ library.


Your book contains interesting tables on the number of libraries in the 19th century. Have you compiled them independently?

My first thesis work focused on statistics. I love figures, as they never lie. Using various sources, I’ve managed to calculate that, in the late 19th-early 20th century, about 8,000 libraries operated in Belarus. Clearly, quite a number of literate people lived at that time.


How many libraries are operational in Belarus today?

There are about 9,500; the figure might be larger were it not for wars and revolutions. Like furniture and pictures, books were viewed as trophies and were often removed, never to return.


Why did you choose a portrait of Mikhail Muraviev for your cover — nicknamed the Hanger by his countrymen for suppressing the Kalinovsky Revolt?

Sometimes, a paradox can help us better understand our history. Following Muraviev’s order, libraries confiscated from rebels were taken to Vilno, for further dispatch to St. Petersburg. However, Muraviev realised that this would turn the country into an intellectual desert. He personally ordered the opening of a public library in Vilno, featuring expropriated books. In the early 20th century, 300,000 editions were held there; judging by its scale, it could be called the first national library of Belarus and Lithuania. An encyclopaedia by Brockhaus and Efron names Vilno public library as ‘the largest’ in the Russian Empire, following the Emperor’s library in St. Petersburg and the Rumyantsevs’ collection in Moscow.

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