BY JOHN VAN OUDENAREN
A set of Imperial Russian playing cards from the early 1800s, an album of lithographs by French artists who circled the globe on the Russian naval ship Seniavin in 1826-29, an album of watercolors created by the artist and writer N. N. Kazarin and presented to the future Czar Nicholas I in 1891 and rare books on various topics relating to Siberian culture and history were among the collections recently added to the Library's "Meeting of Frontiers" Web site at frontiers.loc.gov.
These collections were contributed by the Russian State Library in Moscow and the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, where scanning operations have been under way since May 2000. Another project partner, the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, contributed illustrated modules about native peoples in Alaska; the Alaska fur trade and exploration and science in the North Pacific; and 82 rare maps of the North Pacific, completing a collection of 188 maps relating to the exploration of the region. The new online materials also include an expanded bibliography of readings relating to the American and Russian frontiers and the papers from a scholarly conference dedicated to the history of Russian America that the Library of Congress co-sponsored in May 2001 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"Meeting of Frontiers" is a congressionally funded Library of Congress project to create a digital library that chronicles the parallel experiences of the United States and Russia in exploring, developing and settling their frontiers and the meeting of those frontiers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The site was unveiled in December 1999 and has been expanded four times with the addition of new collections from the Library of Congress and partner institutions in Russia and the United States. The site is bilingual, in Russian and English, and is intended for use in U.S. and Russian schools and libraries and by the general public in both countries.
With the latest update, "Meeting of Frontiers" includes more than 4,000 items, comprising some 100,000 images. The latest collections added to the site are striking for their rarity, the variety of subject matters that they cover and for their visual appeal. The Kazarin watercolors from the Russian State Library, for example, depict the history of the Cossacks east of the Urals, beginning with the legendary Ermak's victory over Khan Kuchum in 1582. The voyage of the Seniavin was one of 40 Russian round-the-world expeditions in the 19th century. These circumnavigations had scientific as well as commercial and political importance, and trained artists often were sent along to illustrate the peoples and scenery encountered on the journey. The Seniavin lithographs from the National Library of Russia include scenes from Alaska, Kamchatka, the Philippines and the Caroline Islands.
The Imperial Russian playing-card collection from the National Library of Russia reflects the passion for card-playing in 19th century Russian aristocratic society and is among the most unusual collections on the "Meeting of Frontiers" site. The back side of each card has a map depicting a region or territory of Imperial Russia, including at the time the Grand Duchy of Finland and Congress Poland. The front of each card shows the local costume and coat of arms of the corresponding region. Present-day Alaska is labeled as "Russian dominions in America" on the card for Chukotka, the Russian province just across the Bering Strait.
Under agreements concluded with the Russian State Library and National Library of Russia in 1999, the Library of Congress is lending high-resolution scanning equipment to these institutions for use in digitizing rare maps, lithographs, photographs, prints, books and sheet music from their vast collections for inclusion in the project. Russian curators identify collections that illustrate key themes from Siberian and Alaskan history. These collections then are scanned by Russian technicians and sent to the Library of Congress for incorporation into the site.
"Meeting of Frontiers" also will include collections relating to Siberian and Alaskan history that are housed in libraries, archives and museums in provincial cites in Siberia. Under a cooperative agreement between the Library of Congress and the Open Society Institute-Russia that was signed by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and OSI-Russia President Yekaterina Genieva in August 2001, OSI organized a competition in Western Siberia for institutions interested in having some of their rarest and most interesting collections digitized for inclusion on the site. OSI and the Library of Congress then established a mobile scanning team, headquartered in Novosibirsk, that traveled to institutions in Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Omsk and Barnaul to scan the winners of the OSI grants competition. In this way, the project is providing free online access to a virtual library of collections, the originals of which are dispersed in remote locations that few Russians and even fewer Americans will ever have the opportunity to visit.
In 2002, scanning activities are being expanded to Eastern Siberia, notably the cities of Irkutsk and Krasnoiarsk. Under an agreement signed with the State and University Library of Lower Saxony in Gšttingen, Germany, the Library of Congress also will receive for inclusion in the Web site images from the famous Asch collection in Gšttingen. Baron Georg Thomas von Asch, a German doctor who served in the Russian army as a medical officer in the late 18th century, assembled a large and rare collection of books, manuscripts, maps, medals and coins, mainly pertaining to Siberia, that helped form the basis for Russian and Siberian studies in Germany. The partnership with Gšttingen, which is funded by a grant to Gšttingen by the German Society for Research, is the first in "Meeting of Frontiers" with a library or archive outside Russia and the United States.
Since its inception, the "Meeting of Frontiers" project has drawn on the contributions of American and Russian historians who have helped to identify collections of primary materials relating to the American West and the Russian East for inclusion in the site and who have written the introductory narratives, timelines and captions that introduce these collections to the public. The purpose of the May 2001 conference was to bring together scholars, librarians and educators to discuss future directions for the project. Co-sponsored by the University of Alaska, OSI-Russia and the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the conference focused on recent scholarship relating to the exploration and settlement of Russian America. The conference also discussed how the Internet can be used for teaching geography, history, foreign languages the natural sciences and other subjects–both in school and outside the classroom–with contributions by representatives of the Foundation for Internet Education in Moscow, the National Park Service, the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and several universities and libraries in Russia and the United States.
In his paper, Academician Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, discussed the differences between the fur trade in Siberia and Alaska and the effect that they had on the development of both regions: "The basic difference between the seagoing colonization of Russian America and the continental colonization of Siberia can be defined in two words: the sable and the kalan (sea otter)." In Siberia, the hunt for the sable took place in the winter, which allowed time for agricultural work in the summer. Siberian furs mainly were sent overland to Europe and traded for manufactured products. In Alaska, the hunt for the otter began in April and lasted all summer, which hindered the development of farming. Sea otter furs were particularly prized in China, where they were sent by Russian traders and exchanged for tea, silk and other goods. Although profitable at first, in the end the fur industry proved an inadequate base on which to build a sustainable Russian presence in Alaska.
In his paper, Ilya Vinkovetsky, of the Department of History at the University of California-Berkeley, discussed the impact of round-the-world voyages on Russia's thinking about the world. The Russians who traveled overland across Siberia to Alaska were often of peasant, tradesman or Cossack background–tough, resourceful, but with limited formal education. Those who traveled around the world by sea were the elite of the Russian navy, often trained in England, fluent in French and other foreign languages, and exposed to the Americas and parts of Asia on their long voyages to Alaska. These naval officers saw how British, French, Dutch and other European colonies were administered and tried to reshape Russian America in the image of a "modern" European colony. Lydia Black, professor emerita at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, presented a paper on cultural fusion between ordinary Russians and native peoples in Russian America. She demonstrated how, through the employment of guides and interpreters, intermarriage, trade and other means, Russian settlers and native peoples taught and learned from each other recipes for cooking, songs, games, dances and other aspects of everyday life.
These papers, as well as others presented to the conference, suggested many ideas for themes, topics and collections that will be explored as "Meeting of Frontiers" is expanded.
The "Meeting of Frontiers" project team includes this writer; Deborah Thomas, digital project coordinator for the Public Service Collections of the Library of Congress and technical coordinator for this project; Michael Neubert, a reference specialist in the European Division and coordinator of Russian operations; and David Nordlander, of the European Division, who is the historian and content manager.
Mr. Van Oudenaren is chief of the European Division and project leader of the "Meeting of Frontiers" Web site.