A Fresh Start: The University Library: From stock issues to electronic lending and digital collections
5 December 2022 was the day Natalya Matsneva passed away. She was head of the Faculty of Law branch of the University Library in 1996–2008 and Director of the M Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University in 2008–2012. During this period, the library of the Faculty of Law has changed greatly. Radical transformations have been carried out, including computerisation of all technological processes of library work. That has made it possible to ensure seamless access of users to scientific and educational information.
The staff of the Scientific Library did a great job with the library stock. Up-to-date reading rooms and electronic resource rooms were opened. Advanced information technologies began to be more actively introduced into the work of the library and user service. E-recataloguing of the holdings was dynamic and the use of electronic information resources expanded (In memory of Natalya Matsneva).
This interview with Natalya Matsneva was held a few months ago. We publish this material in her memory.
Today’s students have little idea of how the library worked 25 to 30 years ago. They are used to looking for the right book or journal in the electronic catalogue on the library website. Then, they come to the library (it may happen even half an hour later) and receive their order in a matter of minutes. And that’s it! In the 1990s, students of law had to wait for up to two months at the beginning of each academic year to be lent their textbooks. The library was closed to other readers for that period. And they could not lend books out faster!
In addition, the very procedure of ordering the right book or journal was long and tedious. To do that, the student or teacher had to visit the library, search for the required book in an alphabetical or systematic catalogue, and fix all of its data on a special order form. It included the name of the author, the title, the year of issue, and the code. At the same time, it was very important to specify the correct cipher of the book (several letters and numbers), otherwise it could not be found and lent. The orders were made, processed, and in three or four days the reader could have the required book — if it had been found on the shelf.
’When I came to work at the library in 1996, there were big announcements that orders were completed within three days at least,’ recalled Natalya Matsneva. ‘Sometimes it took even more time. The book could simply be missing from the shelf (it had already been lent to another reader; it had been taken to an exhibition; it was being repaired; or simply could not be found in the right place). And no one knew about its absence, did not remember it until the order came in and they started looking for the book.’
Everything changed in the mid-1990s, when Nikolay Kropachev, Dean of the Special Faculty of Continuing Legal Education at St Petersburg University and Senior Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law (now Rector of St Petersburg University), came up with the initiative to turn the library of the Faculty of Law into a modern, computerised, one. The task was ambitious, given that laptops were unheard of back then and only few people had PCs. Many academic departments were not even equipped with a computer. Yet, when discussing prospects for the Faculty development, the Academic Council of the Faculty of Law decided that it was necessary to start... with the library! Because everyone, from a student to a professor and an academician, needs a library. And by 1998, the library of the Faculty of Law at St Petersburg University became the first computerised library in Russia!
The Faculty of Law branch of the M Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University is the first entirely computerised library in Russia. It is a full-fledged digitised library facility. An electronic catalogue and an electronic library pass were introduced there back in 1998. For their cycle of works "Creating New Learning Technologies Using a Digitised Library Facility" for educational institutions of higher professional education, Rector of St Petersburg University Lyudmila Verbitskaya, Vice-Rector of St Petersburg University for Legal and Economic Affairs Mikhail Krotov, Professor Vadim Prokhorov, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Law of St Petersburg University Nikolai Matsnev, Head of the Information and Analytical Centre Valery Grigoriev, Head of the Library Natalya Matsneva, Chairperson of the Statutory Court of St Petersburg, Dean of the Faculty of Law of St Petersburg University Nikolay Kropachev won the 2001 Presidential Prize in Education (Decree of the President of the Russian Federation dated 3 October 2002 № 1114 "On the award of the 2001 Presidential Prizes in Education").
An electronic catalogue, electronic lending, an electronic library pass — 30 years ago it was only a dream. Natalya Matsneva spoke about solving this task.
We started with the book, not with the card
What was your starting point in the mid-1990s?
In 1996, I was employed by the Faculty of Law to teach financial law. Nikolay Kropachev persuaded me to head the library. He described the prospects and the importance of the task being solved. And as a result, I began to combine teaching and work in the library.
The first attempts to computerise the library started in 1993. The very first computer models, 286 PC, were at our disposal back then. And the software was also simple. We started with the creation of an electronic catalogue of our library collection. Led by Valery Grigoriev, Head of the Information and Analytical Centre, our IT specialists created their own software product titled "Joker".
We have been on the right track from the very beginning. Usually, in large libraries, an electronic catalogue was created as follows: the employees simply scanned paper-based catalogue cards. It seemed so natural. It was easier to do it that way. They started with recent accessions and moved back in time. We did it differently. We started from the book, not from the card, and created new accounts for each book, brochure, or journal. Where did that get us? Paper-based catalogue cards were filled in at different times by different librarians. Each one did it in their own way. Earlier, in the 19th and even in the 20th century, such cards were handwritten. The records were incomplete. Sometimes they contained errors. And most importantly, searching by such cards (even by the scanned ones, also "electronic") is difficult.
And our librarians took each book from the shelf and fully described it in the MARC cataloguing system. If a book or an article in a journal had 10 to 30 authors, each of them was included in the account (and not just the first one or three as it was usually done). When you have such a complete electronic catalogue, searching by any author improves dramatically. In addition, there are many dedicatory inscriptions and stamps of different years in old books. Back in the 19th—20th centuries, books used to change owners quite often. And such inscriptions and descriptions of stamps were also included in the full bibliographic record. It helps us conduct scientific studies of our library stock.
How quickly did you manage to create an electronic catalogue?
We created our e-catalogue not by year, but by library department. There were four or five cataloguers at different times. They were hired especially for that job, which was paid by the piece. The library staff delivered the books, and the cataloguers described the titles, shelf by shelf. Such organisation of work made it possible to process a huge amount of literature and compile an e-catalogue of over 300,000 accounts in just three years. Those cataloguers later became members of the library staff.
I turned it off automatically
How was your library e-service organised?
By 1997, our electronic catalogue had grown significantly, so we decided to switch to electronic lending. At the same time, electronic library passes were introduced. The "Joker" system was a multifunctional one. It allowed keeping library records from the moment the book entered the library. At any moment, we could find out where each book was located: whether it was on the shelf (in which department and on which shelf), whether it had been sent to an exhibition, or whether it had been lent (to whom, when, and when the reader had to return it, whether it had been returned on time or not). That made it possible to keep a permanent record of the entire library stock and to control the movement of each edition. When ordering a book, the reader saw at once whether the book was on the shelf and whether it could be ordered, and if not, how long should it be expected to be returned.
If any reader did not return the book on time, the system disconnected them from the library for as many days as they delayed the book. Our readers were warned about that in advance, but... Everyone got their own "bruises and bumps". It was a new feature, unusual for readers but very effective. During the office hours, a queue of students and staff lined up by the library director’s door. Everyone begged to connect them back. But the readers understood that the system turned them off automatically. The librarian did not take part in that process. As a result, the attitude of readers towards our librarians changed. It was impossible to beg pardon and come to an agreement as before.
Only the heads of the library (director and their deputies) could listen to the reader’s arguments and restore access to the library ahead of schedule. For example, the reader had been ill and brought a medical certificate; or a student by correspondence had been on a business trip and out of town.
I recall a case. Nikolay Kropachev once told me that he had not returned some books on time and had been disconnected from the library. The dean had to ask his colleagues to lend the required books for him. The system treated everyone equally.
Of course. Among the students of the Special Faculty of Continuing Legal Education there were big bosses, but they also obeyed the common rules. More order was introduced, and it took us fewer nerves.
In a couple of minutes
What else has changed in the work of the library with the introduction of electronic lending?
The lending speed has increased significantly. When ordering a book, the reader could see whether it could be at their disposal right away. E-lending made it possible to deal with non-issuance of books. Previously, with paper-based accounting, the reader ordered a book and had to wait whether it would be brought or not. And now, if the book could be ordered, it was possible to get it. Previously, the reader filled out an order for each edition in paper form. When issuing a book to the reader, the librarian manually filled out the forms for each book and made an entry for each book in the library pass. If there were 10 to 15 books, it took much time. With e-lending, the library employee could read the barcode of each book in a fraction of a second.
If the book was under repair, at an exhibition, or in circulation, the reader was not able to order it. If the book was ordered but not issued, that meant it was not found in its place. Although rare, such cases did occur, and they were promptly investigated. For example, a book was moved to another department or to another shelf, but this transfer was not reflected in the catalogue. And the order was restored.
The e-pass contained a photo of the owner, which made it possible to prevent the use of other people’s library passes. That incurred deprivation of the right to access the library for a long time.
A few years ago, the branch department in the main field of science "Law" of the M Gorky Scientific Library switched to the "Irbis" software, which is unified for the entire University Library. It also develops the e-service technology.
Bundles of books on the floor
It is important to note that in the mid-1990s the library of the Faculty of Law, like the entire building at 7 22nd Line, Vasilyevsky Island, was in distress. Not only PCs for readers were absent, but also any decent furniture. And the book collection in the basement of the building was threatened by flooding more than once. I know that Nikolai Matsnev, who was Deputy Dean for Administrative and Economic Work, helped solve these problems.
The library of the Faculty of Law was originally located on the second floor. Additional premises in the basement were transferred to it later. I remember that in 1973, when the staff of the Faculty of Law moved to 7 22nd Line, Vasilyevsky Island, me and other postgraduate students dragged up the books brought from the building at 3 Smolnogo Street, the previous home of our Faculty.
The early 1990s were a tough time indeed. There was a shortage of electric bulbs (only one out of three worked in the corridors) and chairs for students (they had to move chairs with them from one classroom to another). The desks were cut with knives and bore numerous ink marks. The situation was improving gradually. Our household needs were funded from the money earned by teachers of the Special Faculty.
The reading room on the second floor was renovated. By 1999, the library had acquired a modern look. There was a stir when the first three desktop computers for students were installed. 10 to 15 people used each one simultaneously. Then there were 20 computers, and still that was not enough. Students rushed to the reading room early in the morning, with its opening, and saved seats for themselves. Then they went to their lectures.
There was groundwater in the basement. Bricks were placed there, with boards on them, and piles and bundles of books, including 19th century library collections, were laid on top. These cellars were drained. Workers and Nikolai Matsnev pumped out water with a manual pump. Later, waterproofing was done. A trench was dug along the entire basement and the foundation was insulated. After that, groundwater flooding stopped.
In addition to the book depository, educational and scientific departments of the library were located in the basement. The collection of educational literature (multiple-copy textbooks) was put on stationary shelves. To store the rest of the editions, extendible shelving units were purchased for compact and convenient storage of a large number of books.
Later, an old-book reading room and a room with access to the e-resources of the Presidential Library were set up. The latter was opened in 2010. This is the first remote reading room of the Presidential Library in Russia.
The demand has increased
Did the established order create new conditions for work?
The electronic catalogue made it possible to constantly analyse the state of our educational and scientific holdings. We were able to find out: how many copies of this or that textbook or another edition were demanded by readers; how many of them had been lent; and to whom. We could draw conclusions from that. If the book was not in demand, extra copies of it could be moved to offsite storage. The book remained available to the reader and, if necessary, it was lent. The process took a little longer, but the shelves were not overloaded. If, for example, the textbook was in demand by many users, librarians moved additional copies to the circulation department.
They say that demand creates supply. As to the library, it seems that informing creates demand, isn’t it? After monographs and textbooks, dissertation abstracts were started to be included in the electronic catalogue.
And as a result, the demand for them has increased dramatically. Before that, only the author’s colleagues in the department knew the subject of their dissertation. Now, everyone is able to find it out, including external users. After all, we had many practicing lawyers as our readers.
The same situation was with the texts of theses and graduation projects of our law graduates. Since 2000, they have been accumulated in the library. Information about them was entered into the electronic catalogue along with other accessions. They could be ordered and issued to work with them in the reading room. A thesis transfer system was developed for transferring them from the academic departments to the library under a handover act. In recent years, graduation projects of our graduates have been in the e-format. They are uploaded to the Repository (open access archive) of St Petersburg University.
Half a million books in rubble sacks
Since 2008, when you were appointed Director of the M Gorky Scientific Library, you have had to solve library problems throughout the whole University. And one of them is the preservation of books, journals and newspapers.
Yes, there have been several egregious cases of mishandling of books. The most prominent was as follows. In 2007, during an inspection of the University premises in the Petrodvortsovy District, Senior Vice-Rector Nikolay Kropachev stumbled upon piles of books at 6/1 Astronomicheskaya Street,. There were several hundred thousand books! The books were in a terrible state and stored in unsuitable warehouses. Piled on a concrete floor in heaps taller than a person, they were packed into dirty rubble sacks.
Back in 1983, the University handed the premises at 3 Smolnogo Street over to municipal services. Then, a large number of the social science book holdings were moved to the following locations: 41 Sredny Prospect and 33 10th Line, Vasilyevsky Island. In the late 1990s — early 2000s, the books were loaded into rubble sacks by cadets of the Military Academy of Logistics and Transport and moved by several trucks to the University’s storage facilities in the Petrodvortsovy District.
For several years, the Scientific Library staff have been making great efforts to sort through those heaps of books. Employees of the main department and faculty branches (legal, economic, and so on) were engaged. Everyone selected books according to "their" specialisation. Imagine how hard it was for them. Each book had to be pulled out of a long narrow rubble sack and cleaned of dust and dirt. Then, they put the cleaned books on shelves and decided which ones had to be transferred to the existing stock of the Scientific Library or its faculty branches. A complete revision was carried out in accordance with the General Alphabetical Catalogue in order to identify books that were not listed as part of the library holdings. 19th century editions were discovered, including book collections of the so-called specialised libraries, i.e. the Statistics Cabinet and so on.
Another case was as follows. When inspecting the University buildings in Vasilyevsky Island, Nikolay Kropachev discovered around 100,000 volumes in the basement of the Jeu de Paume. Many books were piled up in heaps between the stacks, and two rooms were crammed full of books from floor to ceiling, so that when the doors were opened, the books literally poured out. An inspection carried out with the Director of the Russian State Historical Archive, Professor Alexander Sokolov, showed that these books were being stored in violation of all the rules and regulations.
As it turned out, back in 1999, the library of the Faculty of Philology had been transferred from the premises at 26 1st Line, Vasilyevsky Island, to the Jeu de Paume basement located at 7—9O Universitetskaya Embankment,. The provided premises turned out to be almost two times smaller than required to place the collection. 120,000 books and journals were piled up on the floor and on the shelves of the semi-basement.
After repeated flooding, mould fungi started spreading rapidly and many books were affected. Some of them were lost. The library staff did a huge amount of work to move publications to the premises allocated for their storage in a neighbouring building. For several years, work was being carried out to remove dust and disinfect the books with a solution of a chemical reagent. The processed editions were placed on shelves.
It was very hard work, invisible to the world. The library staff examined each book and cleaned it as thoroughly as they could from dust, dirt, and mould. And then, for each book, an individual decision was made, whether to keep it or to write it off, whether to replace the copy or to restore it... The staff checked the findings with the catalogue to see if there was such an edition of the book or such an issue of the journal listed. We wrote off many old textbooks that were no longer used in the educational process.
To gather the scattered ones
There was also a long-lasting case with the "departmental libraries".
Yes, historically there have always been books at the academic departments of St Petersburg Imperial University — Leningrad State University. These book collections were being formed by the University teachers and other members of staff for many years and even decades. They wanted to have something at hand at their workplaces. Some books were gifts. However, these collections had been unaccounted for, up until not long ago. No one knew which books were kept at the departments. These publications were practically excluded from normal circulation for a long time, and access to them was limited. Only the department staff knew about these books. Anyone including students could take a book to read for an indefinite period. And the books did not always return to their place.
Centralised accounting started at the Faculty of Law in the late 1990s. All the books from all the departments were collected into a library and catalogued. And in 2007, such an inventory of "book collections kept at academic departments and societies" was launched throughout the University.
As a result, each book was registered on a centralised basis and is issued to readers in accordance with the library regulations. The books either remained at the departments or were transferred to faculty branches of the University Library. Now these books can be used not only by the department employees, but also by all University students and staff, if they are readers of our Scientific Library. All users of the electronic catalogue know where these books are located. Each book collection has a University employee in charge of its preservation and lending in accordance with the library regulations.
The University students and staff started returning books to the library of St Petersburg University. Some of them sorted out their books at home and came across University books among them. They brought such books back with an apology for the delay (. Someone found books with the stamp of the M Gorky Scientific Library in a second-hand bookstore. In several cases, books were found by chance, while investigating criminal cases on the robbery of apartments and summer house.
Work invisible to the world
You have noted that often the work of librarians is not visible.
Readers usually think that the main job of a librarian is to find the book required, bring it in, lend it out, and that’s it! However, for example, in 1999, the entire library holdings of the Faculty of Law were moved twice during the summer from the basement to the second floor and back. We then were having a book depository constructed in the basement. The premises required to be refurbished for that purpose. Moving books is an extremely difficult task. It is necessary to comply with the procedure and immediately put each book in its place. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to find the right edition when needed.
And that is not all. On 31 August 1999, we still had no windows in the reading room! And we had to work simultaneously with the workers. They were installing windows, while the librarians were putting books on the shelves. We worked on a double-shift basis. By the morning of 1 September, everything was completed. Both the windows were up and the books were on the shelves. We opened on time and were able to start lending textbooks.
Another case was as follows. You know there are books in the corridor of the main building. Many University students and guests notice that now the books are in perfect order, good-looking and neat. And I recall that back in 1967, when I first came to the University, the picture in the Twelve Collegia building was quite the contrary. It was a dull one. The books in the bookcases of this corridor stood or lay torn and shabby; the shelves were half empty. Then, of course, I did not think that some day in future I would have to deal with putting things in order in those bookcases.
The summer of 2010 was very hot. The corridor was not only lit through the high windows, but also heated by the sun from morning till night. And the librarians of the storage department were putting things in order in the bookcases. To do that, all the books were first taken out, the shelves were washed from dust and lime, which, apparently, had fallen from the ceiling. And the height of the bookcases, as you know, is more than three metres, up to the ceiling. The books are there in three rows. Therefore, we were working not only in rubber gloves and masks, but also standing on stepladders.
The books were dedusted, put in order and placed on the shelves. We made false bindings from coloured (dark brown, dark blue, or black) cardboard. That was done for beauty and order. In addition, they protect the damaged shelf backs of books and journals from the sun. Now, there are more than ten thousand books in these bookcases! These are not random books, but a particular collection. And they are lent to readers like all other books in our stock.
A library open to everyone
Today, the University Library manages not only its own collections, for example, of journals, but also some external ones, including electronic subscriptions to international scientific journals.
The functions of the library have changed and expanded a lot. Science is developing, so cooperation of scientists from different universities in different countries is important. The desire and need for researchers to keep abreast of what is happening in their scientific area has not changed. Specialised electronic resources make it possible to do that. With them, the University’s academic staff are able to be in the forefront of science.
At the same time, our Scientific Library not only grants them access, but also provides training, to students above all, on how to use the available resources. In addition, the library staff help the University scholars find out their publication activity and citation ratios.
And not only University students use our library.
Of course, the University Scientific Library is open to everyone, and there are many third-party users among its readers. They get used to it while studying at the University, and then, after leaving their alma mater, they do not leave the library. Many practicing lawyers are aware of the resources of our library and use them in our reading rooms. Each of them comes here with a specific research task, for example, to select and study publications on a certain topic in order to write a scientific article or prepare a dissertation, etc.
With the help of our colleagues at the Presidential Library, we digitise rare editions from the collections of the M Gorky Scientific Library. The University uploads their digital copies to the repository and presents them at numerous e-book exhibitions (New life of old books and modern extended abstracts).