How to rob the Russian National Library

When I was doing research at the Russian National Library yesterday, I got the distinct impression that I might as well have been working on the biography of a convicted felon. The security at the library is as tight as a supermax prison, the rules for visiting are just as strict, and the staff is about as friendly as a bunch of shotgun-wielding wardens.

The “publichka” still works like a Soviet institution, and like most relics of this era, it operates with all the staggering inefficiency and perplexingly complex procedures of a Five-Year plan. But Soviet legacy alone cannot explain the entirely illogical functioning of the library: It has a special “izyumenka” (“raisin bit”) of impenetrability all its own.

I showed up yesterday and deposited my outer clothing at the “garderobe” – no coats allowed in the library. Then I exchanged my shoulder bag for another plastic number – no bags allowed in the library. I headed upstairs to the elaborate entry mechanism with my notebook, folder and dictionary. The guard spotted me before I had even approached the checkpoint and yelled out, “ ‘Molodoi chelovyek’ (‘young man’), from where are those headphones!?” I had to go back downstairs and stash my iPod in my bag – no “players” allowed in the library. I had to wonder, are they honestly that worried I’m going to somehow rig an mp3 player to gyp the library out of a few dollars of photocopy work?

As he approached the gate, the hardened criminal gently patted the inside of his leg, where his specially outfitted mp3 player was taped to his calf. He rehearsed the plan in his head once more: Acting every bit the mild-mannered graduate student, he would wordlessly fill out the documentation and stroll nonchalantly through the checkpoint, then head immediately to philology collection on the second floor …

I got several steps farther on the next try, but then the documents lady spotted my dictionary, which I’ve carried with me on several visits to the library. I had to go downstairs and deposit that, too – no dictionaries allowed in the library, at least on this occasion. It was of course an arduous 20-minute search to find where to check out a library dictionary, involving stops at four different desks on two different floors and tense conversations with twice as many unsmiling, green-uniformed screws.

Having infiltrated the outer shell of defenses, the criminal entered the philology collection, where he innocently requested a number of interesting titles from the librarian at the counter. He took them to the rarely used reference fund on the third floor, where he carefully but speedily began to capture each page in medium-resolution images …

To keep with the supermax analogy, if the entry gate is the confiscation of electronics, metal objects and loose-leaf paper (to be possibly wetted by spittle over a period of several weeks to create a razor-sharp shank), then the collections themselves are like the stalls with two phones separated by a plate of plexiglass. Browsing the stacks is not allowed in the library; patrons must rifle through drawers of card catalogs, then fill out detailed request forms to be given to the lone librarian at the counter. This old crone retrieves all books herself at glacial speed, with the result that most of your visit is spent in glazed-over stupor, waiting in a line with whoever else haplessly wound up in the library that day.

Of course, if you found your materials in the electronic catalog, you need to request them at a distant counter on the fourth floor, which takes two days to retrieve them. Once they arrive, the books will stay for 10 days, speaking of which, I forgot to mention that it’s not allowed to check out books in the library. Once the publichka closes at seven, you better have returned your materials and be on your way out.

Hearing the slippered footsteps of an aged librarian, he was forced to leave off at 27 pages. They would soon grow suspicious, he knew, and he didn’t want to jeopardize his achievement. He returned the books and had his documents stamped. But he couldn’t help a sly grin on his way out; he had 27 pages of prime material to upload to the Internet or sell on the Black Market.  Surely, he could fetch a high price for copies free of that annoying Xerox graininess …

Disclaimer: I cannot pretend to fully understand the intricate workings of the Russian National Library in their entirety. What is written here is an impression based on my limited experience; rules and procedures are subject to change based on whoever happens to be manning the supermax on a given day.

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4 Responses to “How to rob the Russian National Library”

  1. Great post – I really enjoyed it. Are these security measures reflective of a simply distrust or is it indicative of the underlying attitude of the Russians towards an educated public?

  2. And I thought that WHS archives was unreasonable.

  3. seansrussiablog Says:

    I’ve worked in several libraries in Moscow and Ryazan and never had anything close to this experience, though I’ve had to go though the same de-robing rituals. Don’t you think you’re being a bit of brat? So you don’t get to listen to your ipod? I don’t know what you expected.

  4. Hi,
    I stumbled across your blog a while ago and have been enjoying it a lot. It’s hilarious and very astute. I was also in St. Petersburg last June, and I recently returned to study here for the semester. I would love to meet up with you sometime if you’re interested. My phone number is +7 964 396 4191 or you can e-mail me if you want.

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