Lenin gets a new lease of life

March 12, 1999

Europe's largest library is about to go online. Nick Holdsworth reports.

The Lenin Library is going online. More than 40 years after Europe's biggest public library opened its doors to readers, detailed work has begun on a European-funded scheme to transfer millions of catalogue cards to an internet-accessible database.

During a pilot period of 18 months the . LESS THAN F"?" LESS THAN LESS THAN E

/1 million (Pounds 670,000) project will open just a fraction of the Russian state library's 42 million catalogue records to the world's information community. Existing MS-DOS records will be imported into a new database and work will begin on scanning in old typed and handwritten records. Organisers hope to open the first 300,000 entries on the internet by June 2000. Slavic scholars the world over will then have access to details of all dissertations deposited at the library since 1995 and new Russian and foreign books received since May 1998.

Updating the millions of entries from the library's 220 catalogues, which include records of rare and obscure books in 247 dead and living languages including Russian (in Cyrillic and Glagolithic scripts), Armenian, Hebrew and other languages of the former Soviet Union, is a long-term project that will stretch far into the next century. The 600,000-entry catalogue of 19th-century Russian books is an early candidate for computer conversion when funding is found.

The pilot project is designed to introduce information technology to the library and demonstrate the feasibility of bringing it fully into the world information community. As part of the project, staff will draw up a business and fundraising plan for the eventual computerisation of all the library's catalogues.

Monika Segbert, team leader for the project, said the sheer dimensions of the library's need for modernisation were daunting. Six years ago a Unesco study found that renovation of the vast building in central Moscow, which was plagued by leaking roofs and crumbling masonry, would cost Pounds 500 million. Preserving the multi-million volume collection, which includes manuscripts dating back to the 6th century, Russia's first Bible and other incunabula, will take Pounds 6 million. Improving reader services and introducing IT throughout the library will eat up another Pounds 20 million.

The library is also suffering from a psychological crisis. The staff of more than 3,000 were accustomed to the best treatment in the past when the library's position as the Soviet Union's copyright library gave it the highest status. Now, they are struggling with wholly inadequate funding, poor working conditions and salaries that average Pounds 25 a month, Ms Segbert says.

Getting a computer to read catalogue cards that often display idiosyncratic corrections or barely legible hand-written notes may prove to be a lot easier than changing the library's culture and retraining staff: an IT awareness survey found that just 11 employees had experience of using the internet.

The project, which includes the creation of a local area network for use by the library's 5,000 daily users, is drawing upon the experience of librarians from the National Library of Scotland and the Biblioth que Nationale de France, managed locally in Moscow by the British Council.

Central planks of the project are the training of a key group of staff trainers and the setting up of an online public access catalogue for readers. An unused reading room, one of more than 20 in the library, will be turned into an internet cafe.

The scheme is the first step of a long journey into the modern age for the library, but a welcome one, according to users. It takes hours just to find out if the book a user wants is on the shelves, and anything that makes using the library quicker will be a godsend, according to one exasperated student.

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