onsdag 30 mars 2011

"Back in the USSR" - classification and cataloguing in Soviet libraries

Soviet librarianship was a good example of ideological institutionalism – libraries were used as tools for the communist party to both spread literature that was seen as beneficial for the state ideology, and as guardians of ”bad” literature that might threaten the political stability. When studying institutional development we know that public institutions are formed in the mould of the dominating political culture of the time (and no such lasts forever) – we see it today in the USA and in Sweden (and everywhere else…). We saw it in the Soviet Union and the “old” communist states of the 20th century. One of the ways in which libraries adapt to the ruling powers of their days is to create tools and practices that correspond to them. In the USSR, libraries introduced the Dewey-system in 1921, however in the “European version” of the UDC. During the years to come it was developed to fit the ruling regime, as was the practice of descriptive cataloguing. E.I. Samurin was one of the chief ideologists in Soviet librarianship in the 1940’s (as well as the author of the most thorough history on bibliographic classification to date). At one occasion he wrote about the bibliographic responsibility of Soviet librarians, stating that they must “(1) indicate for each subject its ‘politically acceptable’ place in the classification scheme; (2) grant first place in every division and subdivision to the opinions of the ‘classics of Marxism-Leninism’, as well as to party directives; (3) grant priority to materials relating the Soviet Union as the country of ‘victorious socialism’, with the provision that these materials must be clearly separated from those of foreign (‘capitalist’) countries; (4) grant fist place to ‘advanced’ (communist) theories and practices and literature about them; and (5) provide class, division, and subdivision names in ‘politically acute and distinct terms’ “ [1] This basically lead to a situation where Soviet libraries had two separate catalogues – one “public” available to the average library user, and one “official” containing the complete holdings of the library, but only available to people with special permits (party members, researchers). In 1948 librarians in Novosibirsk Regional Library spent months reforming the catalogue, resulting in an exclusion of about 40% of the library’s holdings from the public catalogue. Gorkij Region Library was even more thorough; 78% of the titles were excluded from the public catalogue, a figure that even made the authorities comment on the issue as somewhat too much. When it came to classification two systems came to serve as role models for various local and regional systems. The first was a developed Dewey system made by (among others) Samurin at the Lenin State Library in Moscow, and the second was used to classify the Knishnaya letopis’ , the “Book Annals”, a periodic part of the Soviet national bibliography. This also takes the Dewey system as its point of departure, but as classifying library catalogues and classifying bibliographies are two different matters it takes on another character. The Book Annals’ classification became widespread through out the USSR and during the years it appeared in several versions (in itself a problem when adapted to library practice). As an example I would like to show the main classes in the 1936 version of it:

1. Marxism-Leninism.

2. Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Philosophy.

3. Comintern. All-Union communist Party (Bolsheviks)

4. Politics. Soviet Construction. Law.

5. Defence. Military Science.

6. Economics.

7. Labour.

8. History.

9. Geography. Ethnography.

10. Mathematics. Natural Sciences.

11. Medicine.

12. Technology. Transportation.

13. Agriculture. Veterinary Medicine.

14. Philology.

15. Belles-lettres.

16. Arts.

17. Antireligious Literature.

18. Cultural Construction. Education.

19. Juvenile literature.

20. Bibliography. Reference Works.

As seen there’s not a lot of Dewey left. The classification systems of Soviet libraries differ mostly in terms of how many main classes they have. They all have several things in common, such as the prime class of Marxism-Leninism (1, 2), the anti-religious literature class (17), the explicit aim at displaying the unified USSR (4, 18). The idea of geographical and cultural construction of unity was actually one of the most important issues in the first developments of the imported Dewey-system in the early 1920’s. The practice of bibliographic control in the Soviet Union is still of interest for bibliographical control research in that – if for no other reason - it is so clear. Libraries are used to establish an order and division of power which is very explicit. We know that this is the case in contemporary political environments too, however, in most cases we find it in more implicit forms. It is important to still keep analysing the bibliographical tools of libraries and bibliographies. From them we can learn a lot about the relation between libraries and societies of today.

I recommend the following articles for further readings on this subject:

Baumanis, A & Rogers, R “Soviet classification and cataloguing”. Library Quarterly, Vol. 28 (3), pp. 172-186.

Delougaz, N. (1947) “Adaptations of the Decimal Classification for Soviet libraries” Library Quarterly, Vol. 17 (april), pp. 148-161.

Whitby, T. (1956) “Evolution and evaluation of a Soviet classification”. Library Quarterly, Vol. 26 (2), pp. 118-127

[1] Quote from Baumanis & Rogers, p.174.

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