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The Development of the Russian Collections at the Library of Congress before World War II

David H. Kraus,
Former Assistant Chief, European Division, Library of Congress*

A paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Library Association, Slavic and East European Section, Chicago, Illinois, July 7, 1985

The development of the Russian collection at the Library of Congress from a few hundred volumes at the turn of the century to more than 850,000 volumes today may be attributed to the vision and foresight of three librarians of Congress: Ainsworth Spofford (Librarian from 1864–1897), who saw the opportunity to add significantly to the collections of the Library when a fire at the Smithsonian Institution caused that institution to seek a sage home for its collections; Herbert Putnam (1899–1939) who not only envisioned the Library of Congress as a great research base and a truly national library but procured the funds to make notable purchases; and Archibald MacLeish (1939–1944), whose reorganization of the Library in 1940 effectively separated processing and reference services and lead to the systematic means of procuring, processing, and servicing the collections that one finds at the Library of Congress today.

Key persons in the implementation of these policies were Alexis Babine (1902–1910; 1927–1930), whose efforts led to the acquisition of the Yudin collection in 1906 and who directed the Slavic Section from 1927 until his death in 1930; Peter A. Speek, who led the Slavic Section from 1917–1927, N.R. Rodionoff, who headed the Slavic program from 1930–1944; Michael Vinokouroff, who was instrumental in acquiring Russian-American materials for the Library (1928); and, finally, Francis Whitfield and Sergius Yakobson who served as consultants in Slavic matters in the early 1940s and whose evaluations and suggestions led to a revamping of Slavic administrative, acquisitions, and processing procedures.

Before 1906, the Library apparently had only a passing interest in Russia. The annual reports of the Librarian for 18671 and 18682 mention Russia as one of the countries from which the Library received official publications on exchange, but from then until 1901 Russia is conspicuous for its absence from the annual reports. The 1898 Report, which lists gifts received by the Library of country, does not include Russia.3 In 1900 the Librarian of Congress visited the capitals of Europe in an effort to improve the exchange of official publications. St. Petersburg was not on his itinerary.4 The 1901 Report lists Russian books held by the Library as 569 volumes, excluding the Smithsonian Deposit. The next listing in that report is for Turkey in Europe, which is represented by 661 volumes or 102 more than for all of Russia.5 Indexing of the annual reports was begun in 1898, interrupted in 1899 and 1900, then continued for good in 1901. Neither "Russia," "Russian," nor "Slavic" was an indexing term until 1919, although there were references to one or more of these subjects in the individual reports. The Report for 1919 contained, for the first time, a component labeled "Slavic Section (Dr. Speek in charge)", which described the activities of that Section.6 From that report through the report for 1940 there consistently appeared a Slavic Section (1919–1927), Division of Slavic Literature (1928–1939), or Slavic Division (1940) with a detailed account of its activities. From 1941 on, the annual reports were arranged by function rather than by division, but Slavic references continued to be indexed in detail. Thus, it is possible to follow the growth of the Russian collection pretty well for the period beginning with 1919. In most reports the figures are given for Slavic acquisitions rather than Russian alone, but according to the annual reports and to Francis Whitfield's special report in 1940,7 the Slavic elements other than Russian held by the Slavic Division were not large. The acquisition figures over the years reflect the difficulties of procurement during the periods of war and revolution and the economic crises in the Soviet Union that affected book production, but despite this there was steady growth. The Russian collection stood at about 125,000 volumes at the outbreak of World War II.8

At this point, let me go back in history to describe several of the landmark acquisitions in the Russian field. The first was the transfer of the Smithsonian Deposit to the Library. Librarian Spofford estimated the deposit at 40,000 volumes at the time of transfer in 1866,9 and Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian stated, "the collections of books owned by the Congress would not be worth of the name of the National Library were it not for the Smithsonian deposit."10 Setting aside a certain bias on Henry's part, this deposit was significant, and a considerable advantage at the Library for the study of Russian matters, for it contained 856 volumes of Russian publications in 144 titles, representing 33 institutions in 11 cities.11 One might recall that thirty-four years later, in 1900, the Library had only 569 other Russian works in total. The Smithsonian/Library of Congress agreement of transfer included a stipulation that this material be available to the public. This was the first formal statement of public access to the Library of Congress and the first step toward making it a national library.12 The Smithsonian continued its international exchanges in the sciences and the Library initiated its own international exchange program in other fields. The Smithsonian deposit remained a separate unit of the Library, amounting to one million volumes in 1946.13 There is no accurate means of determining the Russian share of the deposit in 1946, but 30,000–50,000 volumes would be a conservative estimate.

The Report for 1904 mentions a shipment of 241 books and pamphlets from the Imperial Free Economic Society of St. Petersburg.14 In the next year, 1906, the Library procured the cornerstone of its Russian, and for that matter Slavic, collections — the library of the merchant Genadii Yudin of Krasnoiarsk. This great private library has been described many times and most Slavic librarians are familiar with it, but I will give a few details pertinent to the theme of this paper. It comprised 80,000 volumes, 68,000 of which were in Russian, and the remaining 12,000 in other Slavic or other European languages. Its scope was broad in subject and time of publication, including numerous 18th-century works, and long runs of privately published and government serials. Babine's description of it in 190515 convinced Librarian Putnam of its value and drew Theodore Roosevelt's comment that the acquisition of this collection "will give the Library of Congress preeminence in this particular field, not only in the United States, but as far as I know in the world generally outside of Russia; and this in a field not yet developed at all in America."16 Alexis Babine began processing the collection after its arrival in 1907 in a Slavic Section that was formed in the Catalog and Shelf Department17 to cope with the collection. After Babine left the Library in 1910 to return to Russia, Anna Evarts continued the processing, and Aurielio Palmieri of Harvard University was engaged in 1916 and 1917 to assist with the Russian literature part of the collection.18 In 1926, N.R. Rodionoff and George Novossiltzeff were employed to continue the processing of this collection.19 The worth of the collection was stated in the Annual Report for 1919: "During the last two years ending June 30 [1919], the technical work in the Yudin Collection has progressed so far that the real value of the collection has become apparent and the collection is now available to the readers and especially to the research students of the Library."20 It is noted that many valuable and rare works were discovered and that these were placed in a special enclosure. The opening of this collection to the public and to scholars elicited this comment from Dr. Speek. "It has been a touching sight to see with what wonder and emotion Russian visitors, especially old-time immigrants from backwoods places, find in the collection the books which they had studied and read in their youthful years, and which they had never thought to see on the shelves of a library so distant from their native land."21

Every other important addition to the Russian collection pales by comparison with the Yudin acquisition, but several were, indeed, significant. Dr. Vladimir Simkhovich gave the Library a collection of 1,000 volumes of social revolutionary books and pamphlets in 1915, many by Russian authors.22 In 1920, George Kennan donated his collection of index cards, envelopes, and reference materials that formed the basis for his book, Siberia and the Exile System; this comprised more than 20,000 items, "representing a life's work of Mr. Kennan, the foremost living American authority on the Russia of pre-war times. . . an encyclopedia of the conditions and affairs of Czarist Russia during the last decades before the war."23 The next major acquisition came in 1923 when the Russian Embassy gave its collections of books and pamphlets (two truckloads) to the Library of Congress. ". . . representatives of every shade of Russian thought and political belief have sent to the embassy their published programs, resolutions, decrees, papers, and books during the past five or six years."24 Also in 1923, ". . . the State Department through its agencies in Russia and elsewhere has collected Russian informative publications in considerable number. Now all these publications are in the Library for safe-keeping and are available to students of Russian affairs."25

This was the beginning of regular transfers from the Departments of State and Commerce to the Library of Congress. In 1927, the Library purchased 198 newspaper titles published in Russia and abroad during the Russian Revolution and Civil War and a collection of 480 war and revolutionary posters.26 In 1928, the Russian Orthodox Greek Churches in North America and Canada sent to the Library the Russian Church Archives of Alaska, which had been stored in the basement of the Russian Cathedral of St. Nicholas in New York City. This splendid collection has been the subject of study since its receipt. The Library emissary in this case was Mr. Michael Z. Vinokouroff of the Slavic Section, whose father had been an Orthodox priest in Sitka, Alaska. A history of this collection may be found in the Annual Report for 1928.27 In 1931, Mr. Israel Perlstein, a book dealer of New York City, visited Leningrad and bought the so-called Winter Palace Collection from the Soviet government, "having the Library of Congress definitely in mind as a potential purchaser."28 This purchase amounted to 2,600 volumes. Although many of the volumes were presentation copies and "coffee table" items, there was much solid material for scholarship. About 10% of the collection consisted of music and musical literature, with some rare items. Law was also represented, the most important pieces being the Ulozhenie Tsaria Alekseiia Mikhailovicha and the Kormchaia kniga. The collection is described in considerable detail in the Annual Report for 1931.29 A collection of 47 monographs and 28 serials, representing exile literature published during the Monarchy, was purchased by the Library in 1936.30 Many other valuable items received on exchange or by purchase are described in the annual reports for 1919 through 1940. The Slavic Division sought works in the fields of philosophy and religion, history and its auxiliary sciences, social and political science, fine arts, belle-lettres, and bibliography. Some materials were transferred to other custodial divisions (Music, Law, Rare Books, Periodicals, Science, etc.).31

As the collection of Russian materials developed and public interest increased, demand upon the Slavic Section became heavy and varied. The Report for 1919 states: "This is explained by the importance into which the Slavic people sprang through the war and revolutions and by the fact that their conditions were little known in the Western countries, especially in this country."32 And in 1924, " the interest of readers in Russian scientific investigations, research, and discoveries was pronounced during the year. Many native American students of Russian affairs, who have mastered Russian so far that they can read Russian material in their specific field quite freely have sought and received assistance of the section. In much the same way, the executive departments, especially the Departments of State, Agriculture, and Commerce, have been assisted, while translations of texts and letters were made for Members of Congress, and in a number of cases, for readers in the Library."33 The 1931 Report notes, "All this interest imposes on the Division of Slavic Literature of a national library a very difficult task, with a small staff, limited funds, and inadequate shelving space to collect as many important Russian books as possible, to handle them technically in the quickest and the most practical way, and to have them ready for reference use."34

All these quotations from the annual reports, and many more not cited, stress the dilemma of the Slavic unit at the Library, namely how to meet the ever increasing demand for reference service to the public and government without neglecting its primary task of receiving, processing, and making the works available to the public. One gets the impression, in reading the annual contributions of the head of the Slavic unit (1930 through the early 1940s), that he protests too much, that he likes the growing need of the Library for the linguistic and area skills of his staff and that his protests are intended to explain why the unit is not keeping up with its principal tasks. However, backlogs were not limited to the Slavic Division, inasmuch as the Librarian stated in his Annual Report of 1941, "Perhaps the greatest problem is presented by the uncataloged collections of the Music, Slavic, and Semitic divisions. The bulk of these collections, amounting to millions of items, has never been cataloged. The nature of the material, however, will not lend itself to brief methods of cataloging. To be of the greatest reference use to the Library, these collections should be cataloged by author and subject entries, with a reasonable amount of bibliographic description."35 It was into this situation in 1940 that the Librarian brought Francis Whitfield and Sergius Yakobson, as expert advisers, "The reference demands of the war period have made us aware of the weaknesses in our foreign collections, which had not previously appeared. We had long known that our Slavic collections were uneven and difficult to use and we had taken steps to strengthen them by the appointment of Francis J. Whitfield as Fellow of the Library of Congress and Sergius Yakobson, formerly of London University, as Consultant in Slavic History."36 The Librarian stated further, "Great quantities of books are in dire need of cataloging, so that our holdings, particularly Russian material, may be made known and available. A more active acquisitions policy is required. . . the staff of the division must be increased. . . Much thought has been given to these problems during the year and it is hoped that considerable progress will be made in the near future."37 This quotation is from the first report on the division that was not signed by Rodionoff, who harbored a resentment toward the importation of outside specialists. Further, these specialists said substantially what he had been saying for years — we need more people to do the job if we are to be both a processing and reference unit — but Rodionoff vigorously resisted the separation of custodial and processing duties. Change was inevitable, however, and in 1944 Librarian MacLeish opted to discontinue the Slavic Division and proposed substituting a Slavic Center, modeled on the Hispanic Foundation, to be implemented,". . . as soon as the uncataloged and unclassified material formerly in its custody can be subjected to catalog control."38 However, the creation of a new Slavic Division had to wait until 1951. Meanwhile, the Slavic Room, attached to the General Reference and Bibliography Division, performed reference functions and the Processing Department handled processing functions.

In summary, the Russian collections began slowly and were negligible until 1906 when the Yudin collection was purchased. They developed gradually thereafter, accelerated by the interest in Russia and other Slavic states during World War I and its aftermath, and went through a period of rapid growth following World War I, too rapid for the Slavic unit to perform its processing tasks and meet increasing reference demands. Organizational changes were made in the early 1940s to resolve this problem. By 1950, on the eve of the founding of the new Slavic Division, the Russian collection stood at approximately 265,000 volumes,39 and the way was paved for the phenomenal increase in Russian holdings that took place after 1951. Present holdings are estimated at 850,000 volumes of monographs and bound periodicals, with an average annual increment of 17,000 volumes.

I wish to express my thanks to Dr. Robert V. Allen, Russian/Soviet specialist in the European Division of the Library of Congress for his research assistance and recollections.

References ( ARLC — Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress)

1 ARLC, 1867,External link p. 5.

2 ARLC, 1868, External link p. 6.

3 ARLC, 1898,External link pp. 83-86.

4 ARLC, 1900,External link p. 10.

5 ARLC, 1901,External link p. 303.

6 ARLC, 1919,External link p. 70-71.

7 Whitfield, F. J. Preliminary Report on the Slavic Division. Report submitted to the Librarian of Congress, November 1, 1940, p. 1.

8 My extrapolations based on the Annual Reports (DHK)

9 Mearns, David C. "The Story up to Now," in ARLC, 1946,External link p. 115.

10 Ibid., p. 115.

11 According to my analysis of: Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections. Catalogue of Publications of Societies and Periodical Works Belonging to the Smithsonian Institution, January 1, 1866. Deposited in the Library of Congress. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1866. pp. 20–38.

12 Mearns, David C., loc. cit. p. 114.

13 Ibid., p. 116.

14 ARLC, 1905,External link p. 9.

15 Babine, Alexis V. The Yudin Library. Krasnoiarsk (Eastern Siberia).External link Washington, D.C.: [Press of Judd and Detweiler], 1905. 40 p.

16 Cole, John Y. For Congress and the Nation. A Chronological History of the Library of Congress.External link Washington: Library of Congress, 1979. P. 79.

17 Mearns, ibid, implied, p. 185.

18 ARLC, 1916,External link p. 10; ARLC, 1917,External link p. 9.

19 ARLC, 1926,External link p. 155.

20 ARLC, 1919,External link p. 70.

21 Ibid., 1919, p. 71.

22 ARLC, 1915,External link p. 32.

23 ARLC, 1920,External link pp. 81–82.

24 ARLC, 1923,External link p. 98.

25 Ibid., 1923, p. 98.

26 ARLC, 1927,External link p. 145.

27 ARLC, 1928,External link pp. 27–28.

28 ARLC, 1931,External link p. 38.

29 Ibid., 1931, pp. 16, 36, 42, 137–144.

30 ARLC, 1936,External link p. 218.

31 ARLC, 1940,External link p. 214.

32 ARLC, 1919,External link p. 70.

33 ARLC, 1924,External link p. 125.

34 ARLC, 1931,External link p. 321.

35 ARLC, 1941, External link p. 225.

36 ARLC, 1943,External link p. 55.

37 ARLC, 1941,External link pp. 195–196.

38 ARLC, 1944,External link p. 23.

39 My extrapolation, based on Annual Reports (DHK)

* David H. Kraus was Acting Chief of the European Division, Library of Congress, 1978–1982, 1984–1989, and Chief of the European Division, 1990–1992.

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