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A Slavic Center for the Library of Congress

Archibald MacLeish,
Former Librarian of Congress

(Originally published in the American Review on the Soviet Union, November 1944. This article is a work of the U.S. Government and is not subject to copyright protection in the United States.)

The changing treatment of Russian books in American libraries has followed the changing pattern of the interest of the American people in the people of Russia. During the years when the Americans thought of the Russians as a remote and different people, Russian books were treated as special collections to be held separately from general library collections and cataloged accordingly. Now that the people of Russia have become a part, and an immediate and present part, of the common world of all peoples, Russian books are being treated not as Russian books but as books.

In the Library of Congress they are in process of incorporation into the Library's general collections, with control through the Library's central catalog. From this time on, the Library's special services in the Russian field will be special services not in terms of the treatment of books but in terms of the relations of men. They will be services, that is to say, intended to bring Russian and American readers together rather than to keep American and Russian books apart.

The incorporation of the Russian collections into the general collections of a library is not without its difficulties. For one thing, the Cyrillic alphabet presents problems for the general staff of any library. For another, specialized scholars who have become accustomed to working with Russian materials in separated and isolated collections, regard a different shelving with apprehension, fearing that Russian books will be less available in general collections than they were when shelved alone.

The difficulty of alphabet can, however, be overcome. With the sympathetic assistance of a Congress and an Appropriations Committee which understood the importance, even in time of war, of making Russian materials more readily available, the Library of Congress has now materially increased its staff of Slavic catalogers and has developed a program for the preliminary cataloging of Russian books which will, it is hoped, make broad control of the collection relatively easy.

The apprehension of scholars who have been accustomed to the use of Russian materials in separate collections can also, the Library believes, be met. That apprehension is based in large part upon a misconception as to the uses of systematic classification in a large library. Books systematically shelved under a system of classification, and controlled by a central catalog, are more readily available to a larger public than books shelved in special collections. What is essential now, is to make Russian materials as available as possible to the broadest possible public.

But it is not enough merely to treat Russian books like books and to make them as readily available as other library materials. It is necessary also to supply learned counsel and advice to their users. This purpose the Library of Congress intends to achieve through the establishment of a Slavic Center which will provide American students of the U.S.S.R. with expert assistance and promote the exchange, between the U.S.S.R. and the United States, of librarians and scholars able to interpret the two countries to each other. (Since the principal interest of readers of this magazine is in Russian material, I will confine myself in what follows to our Russian plans, merely remarking in passing that related plans are under development in other Slavic fields.)


The collection, on the basis of which the Library plans to build its services in the Russian field, is a collection of unusual interest to students of Russia as well as to students of libraries, for it is the collection used by Lenin in the late 1890s to complete his The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Lenin, exiled in 1897 to Krasnoyarsk, a provincial capital in Siberia, found there a remarkable library of books collected by a merchant of the town named Gennadius Yudin.

Yudin's library, purchased by the Library of Congress in 1907, was reputedly one of the greatest private libraries ever collected. It was extraordinary, not only for its location in an undistinguished town of some 30,000 souls, and not only because its collector was neither a man of wealth not a man of letters, but because, in spite of these facts, the collection had grown to 80,000 volumes and because it documented with unexpected completeness the flowering of Russian literature in the 19th century and the history and archeology of Siberia. It included in addition to the usual standard works, solid sets of scholarly publications and journals and rare manuscripts on the Russian discovery and colonization of Alaska.

But great as it was, there were gaps in the Yudin collection — understandable gaps in a Czarist collection but gaps notwithstanding. Writing to his sister on March 27, 1897, Lenin says, "Yesterday I visited the famous local library of Yudin, who welcomed me cordially and showed me his collection. He also gave me permission to work in his library. . ." On the same day, however, in a letter to his mother, Lenin added, "I have found much less material on my subject in the library than one would think in a collection of this size."

The weaknesses of the Yudin collection in 1897 when Lenin used it were still weaknesses in 1907, when the Library of Congress brought the books to the United States in 519 heavy cases. They remain weaknesses today, some forty years after purchase. Great collections, like the Yudin collection, when used as the foundation of library holdings have a natural tendency to determine the form of the structure raised upon them. Although the Library of Congress has added to the Yudin collection since its delivery in Washington, Lenin would still have found our holdings inadequate for the purpose he had in mind, had he turned to them at the end of his life. They are inadequate today in their representation of the new Russia Lenin helped to create.

One of the principal tasks to be undertaken, therefore, before an effective service of Russian materials can be given, is the task of extending the Library's Russian holdings to cover the entire field of Russian publishing activity. This, however, is a problem not in the Library of Congress alone, but in American libraries generally. It can best be solved by cooperative and collaborative effort. With the generous and imaginative assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, a plan for a collaborative attack on the problem has been worked out and is already in operation.


A group of Russian scholars, under the direction of Professor Karpovich of Harvard, has prepared lists of basic Russian materials in the various disciplines and fields of knowledge to be circulated by the Library of Congress among American libraries specializing in Russian materials. It will be possible to determine by the checking of these lists against existing collections what basic Russian books are now held in American libraries and what books are still to be acquired. It is expected that reports from the participating libraries will reach the Library of Congress by the end of the calendar year, thus enabling the various libraries concerned to work out a post-war purchasing program in the interest of American scholarship as a whole.

Preliminary moves have thus been made on two fronts. We are incorporating the Library's existing holdings of Russian materials into the general collections, under control of the public catalog. At the same time, we are preparing, in conjunction with other libraries, a program of acquisition of Russian materials which will attempt to correct existing weaknesses, not only in our own collections, but in the collections of the country as a whole.

It remains to plan for the service of these materials through a Center which will increase their usefulness, not only to specialists in the United States but to American readers generally. The project we have in mind is based upon our experience with our Hispanic Foundation — one of the most successful divisions of the Library of Congress, and one of the most effective instrumentalities of the National Government in its effort to improve cultural relations with the other Republics of this hemisphere. The Hispanic Foundation not only provides advanced reference assistance to American students of Hispanic subjects, but also encourages the interchange of scholars and of scholarly materials between the centers of American culture.

The same program would be adopted, if our efforts are successful, in the general Slavic field. We are attempting now to raise funds through private gift for the establishment of a Chair of Russian Studies and for the further establishment of Consultantships to which we may invite Russian scholars and librarians for periods of a few months or a year. In addition, we propose a limited publications program which will make the work of the Center known and useful to persons unable to visit Washington.

Since this project, in its early stages, will be experimental it cannot depend upon appropriated funds. It is our hope that citizens interested in the wise development of our relations with Russia, and conscious of the importance to those relations of a sound library program, will make the initial experiment possible.

Archibald MacLeish was the Librarian of Congress from 1939–1944.

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  February 22, 2017
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