A review of the New York Public Library Slavic, East European and Baltic Collection (New York, NY, United States of America).
The New York Public Library is a treasure trove of Slavic, East European and Baltic materials. The Library actively collected materials from the Slavic world from 1899 through most of the twentieth century and has recently recommitted to it as an area of focus. This period includes the 1920s and ‘30s, when the Soviet government sold fabulous and rare items in order to raise the hard currency needed for industrialization.
However, some of the greatest titles come from predecessor libraries, such as the Astor Library, founded by John Jacob Astor, which held Pallas’ great work, Flora Rossica. The Lenox Library, another predecessor library, possessed a copy of the Ostrog Bible of Ivan Fedorov (1580-1581). In 1895, these two libraries, plus the Tilden Trust, were joined together to create the Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Thus, the research libraries, although called The New York Public Library, are technically part of a private foundation engaged in extensive public-private work, of which the branch libraries are the primary public component.
In 1899, only a few years after the Library’s founding, a group of readers, mostly Russian Jews, petitioned for the creation of a Russian Department. The name was later changed to the Slavonic Division, then the Slavic and Baltic Division. The Division underwent a period of significant growth during the leadership of Avrahm Yarmolinsky from 1918 to 1955. Between 1923 and 1924, when Yarmolinsky went on an epic book buying trip to the USSR, and later through dealers such as Israel Perlstein, the Library acquired Romanov coronation albums and more than 600 items from the personal and palace libraries of the Imperial family, 326 original watercolors by Fedor Solntsev, examples of the earliest printed Slavic books, and many other treasures. At the same time, the Division continued to engage in many exchanges with organizations in the USSR and elsewhere in the Slavic world, including émigré publications. Collections of South Slavic, Czech, and Baltic materials for this period and later are especially strong, due to the presence of immigrants who demanded materials in their own languages. Many works that are now expensive and rare, such as Constructivist children’s books in these languages, were bought for this reason. During the 1970s, the Library and the City went through a period of financial difficulty. Exchanges continued to form an important part of acquisitions, but other activities were pared back. The tide turned under Edward Kasinec, Slavic curator from 1984 to 2008, when the Library acquired many rare or unique printed and manuscript items by sale and donation. The Slavic and Baltic Division was a meeting place for scholars from the United States, Russia, and elsewhere, as well as Russian-speaking patrons of the library.
In 2008, the Library closed the Slavic and Baltic Division. Its employees were either given severance packages or moved to other departments where they did not serve the public directly. As a result, immediately after the closure, access to the materials became very difficult. The Library as a whole has a unique cataloguing system for these collections that can include the Cyrillic title and/ or author on the spine as an integral part of the call number. While Romanized in the catalog, they were unchanged on the spines of the books. Most pages working for the library were unable to find such materials. In 2009, as a result of the experiences of the participants in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar held at the NYPL, I organized the Committee in Support of Slavic and Baltic Scholarship, which has advocated for the needs of the collection. The Library has responded, putting Hee-Gwone Yoo, a senior librarian who had worked in the Division, in a position where he can work with the public. They named Steve Corrsin, who is full-time curator at the Library’s Dorot Jewish Division, as a half-time Slavic curator. The Library has also committed to raising funds for a full-time Slavic curator, as well as curators in Latin America and the Middle East. It is also currently recruiting for a humanities curator.
The Library is located in an iconic Beaux-Arts building with two lions, Patience and Fortitude, keeping watch outside. Although technically called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, it is usually referred to as the “Main Library” and is located on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The Slavic and Baltic collection is now divided between many divisions, such as Rare Books, Manuscripts and Archives, Prints and Photographs, as well as the General Research Division.
All those interested in Slavic materials must consult the Dictionary Catalog of the Slavonic Collection, popularly known as the Red Catalog, in Room 315, the Bill Blass Catalog Room. Between 40,000 to 80,000 items in the Red Catalog are not in the online catalog, including some of the oldest materials. There are also many smaller supplements to the catalog that researchers should look through in the Catalog Room. Such works were mainly published by Norman Ross in small print runs and consist of useful and highly detailed descriptions of various parts of the collection.
Those using the online catalog should first get a library card. You can apply in person or online at: http://catalog.nypl.org/screens/selfregpick.html. This will allow you to order books. Those using the online catalog should note that non-standard transliteration systems were used at various times, so persistence and imagination are sometimes needed. Ask Hee-Gwone Yoo for assistance if it is needed. Books that had been in the stacks in the lower part of the building were moved out in preparation for a controversial renovation and possible relocation of a major circulating library, the Mid-Manhattan, into the former stack area. Many of the books were sent offsite. Some books remain in the storage facilities under Bryant Park and the Library has committed to expanding the storage there. As a result, it is important for researchers, especially those from out of town, to order books ahead of time if those you need are off site. In practice, this usually takes at least two to three days. Some materials may be delivered more quickly. If you find that you are not getting all of your books, it is important to ask Hee-Gwone Yoo for help. Please note that locations of many items have changed and may not always be reflected in the catalog. Some persistence may be needed.
Scholars should search the Library’s manuscript portal, which provides access to the materials across the Library’s various divisions. There is an extraordinary wealth of material on Slavic areas from the early modern era to the present. The website is: http://archives.nypl.org/
Users should also know that there are materials that are available in full text only at the main library itself. The Library has subscribed to many such collections, such as early American newspapers, so it is worthwhile to ask if materials are available online at the library. This is not always clearly noted on the catalog entry.
Scholars using microfilm machines should know that at present the machines only print out paper copies. As of this writing, the coin changer machine also does not work. Thus, come prepared with change and dollar bills. The library has ordered new machines but it is not clear when they will arrive.
The work environment is inspiring, as you are working in one of the greatest and most beautiful libraries ever built. Staff members are friendly and helpful. Scholars who plan to be at the library from a few weeks to several months should apply for space in the Research Study Rooms at the Library. These positions are without funding, but do provide a space to work and membership in the scholarly community of the rooms, as well as invitations to a lecture series. The Wertheim Study is for scholars working intensively with the collections from between three to nine months; the Allen Room is limited to those scholars with a book contract; the Shoichi Noma Reading Room, also known as the Global Studies Reading Room, is for scholars in the humanities and social sciences who are working with the collections for a limited amount of time. For more information, see: http://www.nypl.org/locations/tid/36/node/54780. Senior scholars who need longer-term access to NYPL materials for should consider applying to the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, which provides access to extraordinary support and a vibrant research community. See: http://www.nypl.org/help/about-nypl/fellowships-institutes/center-for-scholars-and-writers. Junior scholars needing access to materials for up to four weeks should apply for the Short-Term Research Fellowship, which is funded. See: http://www.nypl.org/help/about-nypl/fellowships-institutes/short-term-research-fellowships.
Department of History
College of Staten Island, CUNY
Davis, Robert H., Jr. Slavic and Baltic Library Resources at the New York Public Library: A First History and Practical Guide. New York: The New York Public Library, 1994.
Kasinec, Edward and Robert H. Davis, Jr. Slavic and Russian Books and Libraries: Occasional Essays and Notes. New York: Ross Publishing, 2007.
Mansbach, S. A. Graphic Modernism from the Baltic to the Balkans, 1910-1935. New York: The New York Public Library, 2007.
Whittaker, Cynthia. Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Image: New York Public Library. Photograph by Razimantv. Wikimedia Commons.
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