The Komi National Library is the oldest institution of culture in Komi, second oldest library and second largest book depository in the European North of Russia. In the span of 180 years the status and priorities of the library have undergone key transformations related to social and cultural changes, a growing influx of books and increasing number of readers. Here are just a few figures and facts from our history.
|Ust-Sysolsk in the 19th century||Courtesy of the Komi Local History Museum|
The library opened on 1 November 1837 in Ust-Sysolsk (now Syktyvkar) by the initiative of seven private individuals belonging to nobility and civil servants. Each of them granted 50 rubles and their own books to start the collection. The very fact of the library’s foundation in “the most remote wilderness of the Vologda Province, in a place where the postal road ends and impassable woods and tundra begin” (according to the journal of the Russian Interior Ministry, 1849, No.2) marked an unprecedented cultural event. Ust-Sysolsk was then a tiny town with a barely literate population of 2,500 people, predominantly Komi. Less than 10 % could read or write. There was a single church school for the clergy and a technical school for 40 students who would often cram the lessons without understanding their Russian-speaking teachers. Opening a public library in such a context was a truly idealistic venture. “By the general agreement of the founding fathers, nobility representative of the Ust-Sysolsk parish court Andrey Popov was elected to be the curator of the books with the library installed in his house in specially furnished for this purpose bookcases”, reported The Vologda Province Gazette in 1838.
The annual membership fee in the library cost from 3 to 5 rubles – a very modest amount which could buy you 3 kilos of butter or a cart of hay or 7 hens or one hard-cover book. The money was used for purchasing new books. The number of library members varied from 30 to 60 people in different years, which in just a decade allowed raising 488 rubles in silver for purchasing of new books and binding of the old ones. Giving an official permission for the opening of the library, the local authorities totally neglected its funding. The library survived on loaning fees and donations. In the 1860s, being extremely short of cash, the curators of the library had to appeal to publishers with a request to send free copies of journals and newspapers. Writers Sergey Aksakov, Nikolai Nadezhdin and Aleksander Ishimov responded to the request providing their published books as assistance. Industrialist and prominent public figure of the northern province Vasiliy Latkin supported the library from the day of its foundation buying annual subscriptions of popular periodicals.
|Ust-Sysolsk Trinity Cathedral||Courtesy of the Komi Local History Museum|
Notwithstanding the financial difficulties, the library’s collection was considered one of the best and steadily growing in Russian provinces. In 1848 the library owned about 1,000 books; five years later the collection expanded to 1,737 volumes whereas in 1900 it reached more than 10,000. The library collected and purchased ancient manuscripts, important legal papers, inventories, records and other documents of value in regional history, geography, ethnography, economy and linguistics. In total the collection accumulated over 400 original manuscripts. One treasured item that still remains in the library museum is a handwritten Book of Psalms dated circa 300 years old.
In the 1870s, the library faced an emergency: the membership had declined making a hole in the budget; government authorities persistently overlooked the library’s needs and the salary of even one librarian was becoming a luxury. As a result, it was decided to assign the book stock to the Ust-Sysolsk Public Assembly (the club of nobility and public officials) and the joint club and library membership was established. Unfortunately, it limited an affordable access to the library for a wider public with a membership fee rising to 10 rubles a year. In 1890, the prided collection of manuscripts, which was in a way underestimated by the new library curators, was handed over to the Imperial Public Library in the Russian capital in exchange for printed books in Russian. Now manuscripts from Komi form part of the main manuscript depository of the Russian National Library in Saint-Petersburg.
|The library's building in 1902|
For more than fifty years the Ust-Sysolsk public library was the only one in Komi, never getting any financial support or due attention from local authorities. Finally, the town’s governing elite was urged to turn to people’s cultural and educational needs.
In 1899 the so-called people's library was established by the town's Duma which allocated 20 to 30 rubles a year from the town's lean budget. It could not boast a rich collection and was truly people's library for poorer townsmen, mostly students. Newspapers and books passed quite a few hands until they were finally donated to the library.
Three years later the Zemstvo (or district) library was set up at the headquarters of the local government. Due to wise management and focus on the intellectual community, it quickly gained popularity attracting about 400 readers. With a more professional leadership, the district library published its own catalogue and even stashed illegal literature.
In 1918 the armed revolution led by Bolsheviks changed the old Russian order, wiping off the government structures and administrative division. Three Ust-Sysolsk libraries were closed and merged into a single stock, seizing also private collections and school libraries. However, it was the former district library that became a foundation for the Komi national book collection in these turbulent years, when the region of Komi gained an autonomous status and became a republic with a strong national identity.