Library Woes

The National Library of the Kyrgyz Republic is located less than ten minutes by foot from my apartment here in Bishkek. It’s a building with an imposing staircase and a marble façade. When I moved into my flat I was excited that I would be so close to this repository of valuable information.

For people who are based in the United States, the workings of a post-Soviet library can be daunting. For one, libraries in this part of the world are generally closed stacks. That means that patrons are not allowed in the part of the building where the books and periodicals are located. It’s not possible to simply browse library resources. Instead, one must search through card catalogs to find either books or newspaper and magazine articles. In theory, every newspaper article is classified by subject and author, then cards are written for each of these categories and filed into the catalog. After looking up which articles you would like to read, you submit a form to the librarians and wait for them to bring them to you in the reading room. The cataloging of articles sounds like it would be an overwhelming task until you take into account that most local newspapers are weeklies, and such a task could be the work of one or two people.

A Kyrgyz professor at the American University of Central Asia told me about how useful the library’s article archive had been for a project he had been working on. Feeling hopeful after hearing of his experience, I obtained a patron card and familiarized myself with the catalogs. After I spent half an hour of hunting in vain for useful resources, kind librarians pulled a few card catalog drawers for me to peruse. I spent the rest of the afternoon going through these cards, trying to find articles on the regulation of bazaars, and corruption in the Customs administration, and connections between the informal economy and the political elite.

I know that these articles exist. When I buy newspapers here to read about current affairs, these issues are acknowledged, if not always explored. The media in Kyrgyzstan has been active since the years following perestroika. However, in the library I found less than ten articles during the past five years. I questioned librarians why my search was yielding so few results. My questions were met with blank stares, and then having the librarians repeat that there must not have been other articles written.

This is where cultural differences felt particularly acute for me. As a scholar from the West, I have expectations that people employed in information industries will be critical of media and their own organizations’ role in the proliferation on information. The National Library is staffed primarily with middle aged workers, many of whom have presumably worked there since the Soviet era. Soviet institutions had a marked tendency to actively overlook shortcomings in work flow and employee performance. When such things did occur, it became standard practice to deny their presence.

As such, my questions about the gaps in information were met with a denial of the information’s very existence. I would have been understanding has the staff explained that they did not have enough people to maintain the database or that it was not a priority of the director so scare resources had been used to maintain the reference collection. However, telling me something that we all knew was untrue left me with a feeling of absurdity. I took a few minutes to ask if there were any other way to find the articles I was hoping for and then resigned myself to the reality that it was a futile exercise. I thanked the librarians and went home.

If anyone reading has experience with post-Soviet libraries and can suggest another tack, please share your expertise.

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