How is a library different from a book storage? Can it become a testing ground, a platform for discussion, a space of freedom and a hub for service exchanges? Or should it just get a fresh coat of paint?


How is a library different from a book storage? Can it become a testing ground, a platform for discussion, a space of freedom and a hub for service exchanges? Or should it just get a fresh coat of paint?

—My passion for libraries dates back to my term at the Krasnoyarsk Museum Centre. It had a great library with a wonderful space, and my heart was bleeding out for the way it was never used. It was a book storage, not a library, because a true library works with the public that comes to borrow and return books. We were dreaming of reading groups, of engaging the funds and the audiences, inspiring people and getting them to think about the texts. In the end, the plan was carried out in Novosibirsk. We applied for a Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation grant under the New Role of Libraries in Education programme. Our application said we were building a new library in a newly reformed institution, and some of the budget had to be spent on acquisitions. But we also contacted the NCCA, Garage, and all the other institutions we could get in touch with. We amassed all the titles we could get, which were actually not much: in total, the catalogue has 600 entries. We are trying to get hold of anything that has to do with the Siberian scene and all the Biennale catalogues. Today, we are getting a lot of volumes for free, and the duplicates are given away to other places: for instance, sent to Tomsk, where there is a new self-organised library. Our reading group also comes together in the library. In this case, the focus is on immaterial labour and artistic production. But we try to avoid the classic scheme whereby everyone reads the same book that is later brought up for discussion. We opted for a selection of articles and separate chapters, from Walter Benjamin to Pascal Gielen. There is no central theme. Maybe one day the library will get a profile and a focus on art criticism and art history.

Librarians should not be forced to fight or become dissidents. But inviting their municipal deputies to have an honest, direct, no-nonsense meeting with the citizens is feasible. That’s what they did in Tomsk. The parliamentarian was outside his office, out of his element, while the people were playing on home turf. So the conversation was really serious. And yet, the library remained an unbiased, neutral, non-politicised space. It is just that some things are more appropriate than others. Some issues cannot fit into institutional principles.

Irkutsk has a wonderful Molchanov-Sibirsky Scientific Library that holds public talks and meetings, attracting freedom-loving public from across the region. Independent bookstores are also crucial to consolidate the community of critically minded independent thinkers.

The Heritage Library was conceived as a third place, an additional community centre, home to a fellowship of curators of different backgrounds and areas of expertise that can meet practically any challenge, heritage gurus eager to play a role in the territorial development.

The Library of Foreign Literature emerged as one of the leaders of reforms that unfurled liberalism, a stronghold of democracy and freedom of thought (although this position did not last). Everything that was going on in the country was mirrored in the library. We had a civil war, expelled the Communists and carried out a decommunisation that unfortunately never took place outside our walls. We set a course for open collaborations with the entire world, of which previously we could only catch a glimpse. For that, we have to thank Vyacheslav Ivanov, who used his directorial position to provide us with connections and international ties, and Ekaterina Genieva, who carried on with his work.

What happened next was very important for me personally: the library tried becoming a lab. Wherever the others were afraid, we just went ahead. The things we came up with! We abolished the restricted section and opened the art and children’s department in its place, notice the symbolism. We laid out the groundwork for many of the initiatives that are going on today, embraced by everyone else.

The exhibitions that we held in the art department were based on a curatorial approach: instead of laying out book covers in glass cases, we proposed a theme, a conversation, a topic for amazing discussions. Our library has always been and must remain a bridge.

A library is a place of freedom, hence its importance. Librarians keep saying, "Oh no, not us, we are not into politics, we just place books on shelves." But evidently these books contain every thought that a person may embrace or refuse, interpret or reinvent, they can be a strong influence. And a library is a place where all these books are assembled together, present on the shelves regardless of the relations between their authors. Thus, a library is a realm of free representation of free thoughts. As soon as censorship crashes in, this freedom is violated along with the right for diversity. A library is a place where diversity is emphasised on so many levels, although free people that work there act as if they were not entirely free. There seems to be less freedom than in museums.

The Youth Library in Moscow is among the leaders. Its position is very brave, although they are chastised all the time. They have established an atmosphere of freedom where positions and visions are not censored. It is not only about the freedom of creativity that allows the visitor to make a picture and hang it on the wall. Unlike many other libraries, they hold debates that promote critical thinking. They have a drive of their own that pushes them forward to meet their audiences. After all, youth is always about today, otherwise it would become oldth. The library of the ZIL Cultural Centre gave a start to many excellent professionals, some of them would later move on to work in museums.

Among library directors, there are many people who became librarians in 1975 and since then were used to working mostly among women. They do not know how to manage thirty-year-old guys. So one of the essential skills is being able to talk to them and explain why this or that event is important for the city or a specific institution.

Ten years ago, libraries could be perceived as forward-thinking cultural institutions where all kinds of reforms were more active and dynamic than in museums. But museums eventually won the race.

Libraries do not feel the need for cultural enterprises. They feel they are all right as it is. Businesses follow the demand, the deficit, and the market. Museums and theatres are active in production: there is a demand for services that create long chains of suppliers and involve many people. A library, on the other hand, is a completely different institution: it works as a hub, providing access rather than producing. The Nekrasov library in Moscow is an exception: it provides a diverse range of products, but the others are way behind.
—There are several leading libraries, mostly young private initiatives created by all kinds of foundations. But the period when libraries had a civil stance seems to be over. They are out of sync with civic innovations.

And yet, there was a time when libraries were the greatest third places. Later on they got carried away by entertainment opportunities, forgetting that they were actually focused on books and reading. So they have to go a couple of steps back and rediscover reading, understanding, and literacy. A new chapter must be opening as we speak.

After all, libraries have a lot to do with technological innovations and innovative thinking as such. Librarians have been playing with virtual spaces for all their lives: letters, little squiggles on paper, creating virtual worlds inside the readers' heads, imaginary journeys, unique for every traveller. But somehow librarians never think this way. They believe their task is entirely functional, they do not feel as strongly about their civil role as museum people. Whereas museums hold a well-articulated, responsible position spelled out in so many exhibitions.

Libraries, on the other hand, prefer to stay away from contemporary art. They are perfectly fine with lending their walls to a senior landscape artist or a retired floral designer. But they never harness the potential of contemporary artists who can talk about their work and stage collective actions. Urban design is something alien as well, although, with few exceptions aside, libraries store an incredible amount of studies of local lore along with a variety of opportunities for reimagining the old spaces. The latest rage is rediscovering family roots. No one knows what to do with them, with very few exceptions, and here is the missing link with museum work.

Libraries have turned towards the gastronomic industry, slow food, and creative cooking. Cooking is a popular family hobby, which is all very fine, but leaves out social problems.

And yet libraries still see themselves as the only source of information on whatever is published or printed: publications that do not make it to libraries become inaccessible. But they are forgetting that today people have an incredibly wide range of state-of-the-art information sources that do not even consider libraries. As soon as libraries try desinformation, they lose their reputation and their public. A library is within the realm of culture, not propaganda. With the development of media and increase of information scope and capacity, the selection of quality sources does not become less of a mission. If ever, it grows more important. In an ocean of chaos, identifying the correct, accurate, trustworthy resource is almost an art form. Libraries have dismissed it, even though they offer Internet classes. As a result, there is an ongoing degradation of science: research papers are written on the basis of the first ten links in Google query results, without even making an effort to check the facts. People are not afraid to blurt out the most horrible mistakes, and the next round of research is based on that material, topped with assumptions and conjectures. Mistakes spread and multiply.

At the same time, there is a difference between a national scientific library that is tasked with documenting scientific knowledge and cultural agenda regardless of its level, and a public library whose mission is to provide navigation, a digest of mass data, a toolkit, and a handful of tips. The libraries most people use are public, district or municipal.

I have always been critical of any imitation campaigns that pretend to modernise by renovating the facade and leaving the internal processes, concepts, and approach as they used to be. But today I tend to think that a modernised, renovated space may well inspire innovative thoughts in the visitors.

What do you think? We would like to engage in further dialogue. Please feel free to add your comments here.

The Heritage Library is an initiative of the Centre for Cultural Innovations in Culture of Kolomna. Read more:
Vyacheslav Ivanov, 1929−2017, was a linguist and anthropologist, one of the founders of the Moscow School of Comparative Studies, Director of the Russian Library of Foreign Literature in 1990−1993. Read more on
Ekaterina Genieva, 1946−2015, was a specialist in English literature who came to work in the Library of Foreign Literature in 1972 and became its long-serving director in 1993, a position she held until her demise. Read more on
The ZIL Cultural Centre is a Constructivist monument (1930−1937) designed by the Vesnin brothers that hosted a community cultural centre during the Soviet times and became one of the model cultural institutions after the renovation of 2012.
Dostoevsky library in Moscow (design — SVESMI). Image: @fransparthesius
Instagram @nekrasovka