How do old editions become modern and how does a text printed on paper become digitised? How are books “reproduced”? To answer these questions, we visited the Presidential Library, where rare editions of the late 19thand early 20th centuries from the M. Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University have been recently digitised.

It is common knowledge: if I give my apple to someone, I will no longer have that apple. But if I share an idea with someone, we will both have that idea. As it happens, the same effect is possible to achieve with... books. If we give rare, unique books to the Presidential Library, not only do they return back to us — they stay in the Presidential Library as well! Books can be “multiplied” in the same way as ideas, and even the oldest editions become quite modern-looking, the copy practically indistinguishable from the original.

Just before the start of the new academic year, another portion of unique documents and materials, rare editions of the late 19th and the early 20th  centuries from the M. Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University, were digitised on the equipment of the Presidential Library and became available for millions of Internet users: Unique collections of the St Petersburg University Library are now available online. Active cooperation between St Petersburg University and the Presidential Library has been developing for several years now, and it is reciprocal. The University and the Library have similar goals and carry out joint projects (this topic was discussed at the Rector’s Meeting held on 15 September  (see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 15 September 2014, clause 6). The Director of the Presidential Library A. Vershinin is a St Petersburg University graduate and professor of the St Petersburg University Department of Civil Procedure. In 2009, when A. Vershinin was appointed to the position of Director of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library, he left his post of Deputy Dean for International Affairs at the St Petersburg University Faculty of Law.

Let us read

So how are books “reproduced”? We are going to find that out at the Presidential Library. First let us enter its unusual reading room. Just like the rest of the library complex, the reading room is located in the historic building of the Holy Synod, an architectural masterpiece of Carlo Rossi built in 1836. It seems quite natural that the electronic reading room does not have tables and chairs standing in rows like in a usual library: here you will find special bureaus similar to those that stood in the Synod a hundred years ago. Large modern flat screen monitors and white plastic computer keyboards look very elegant on these “antique” desks.

A few movements with a swift mouse, and not only do we see the cover of the Soviet Justice Weekly (No 30, 1928) from the St Petersburg University library collection (even the font used in the title is evocative of the 1920s) but we can also “flip” the pages of the journal. You get a full impression that the page is moving in front of your eyes. The quality of the scanned text is so high that you can see the colour and the texture of the pages that are 90 years old! If any particular fragment interests you, the page can be “held up closer”, i.e. enlarged on the screen. This is especially important, for example, when you are examining a large map or other graphic materials.

“We are now using the 2D mode,” explained Maria Bishokova, a bibliographer from the department for customer care of the Presidential Library. “In the 1D mode the user sees all the pages one after another, like in a presentation. This is a convenient mode for viewing, for instance, archival documents — they are not bound together. And in the 3D mode we can see the entire book at once”.

I click the right mouse button and the book, seen in 3D from three sides (as an example we chose the old Heraldry Book of the Nobility of the Russian Empire, part XI, published in 1861), starts slowly turning, showing its richly decorated cover, its leather back and its golden edge. I press the left mouse button — the book stops moving and first the cover opens, then the first page, then the second... All this happens fast and without effort, but it is obvious that the computer is powerful and can easily deal with a large volume of graphic information.

For five years the Presidential Library has been collecting editions on four main topics: System of Government, Territory, People, and Language. Publications are collected from hundreds of libraries, archives and depositories of our country and the world. By now, they have collected 327,500 depository units - not the original books, journals, newspapers or archival materials, but rather their electronic copies. All of them are available for millions of users in 115 electronic reading rooms in Russia and 17 abroad. About one third of this extensive collection is accessible to users from a usual home or office computer via the Internet, on the Presidential Library website. You would agree if I say that users obviously have enough material “to flip through”, enough to choose from.

“The Presidential Library was opened in 2009, and we have been working with the University ever since that time. On the opening day, the University gave us a large collection of 1,500 digitised editions on political and legal science of the 17th - early 20th centuries. As early as in 2010, on the initiative of the Rector of St Petersburg University N. Kropachev, the first in Russia remote electronic reading room of the Presidential Library was opened in St Petersburg University, at 7 Twenty Second Line of Vasilyevsky Island (see St Petersburg University Electronic Student Reading Room with access to resources from the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library),” Elena Martynova, chief bibliographer of the department for collection and processing of information resources, said, “The University has extensive holdings; it has editions that are of interest to us and which cannot be found anywhere else. Our cooperation with the University is reciprocal, it is mutually profitable.”

Bibliographers of the Presidential Library use the catalogues of the M. Gorky Scientific Library to find editions they need. Four years ago, they started assembling two large collections: The Memory of the Great Victory and The Emancipation Reform of 1861. More than 40 depository units were collected, both modern editions and several rare editions from the late 19th and the early 20th centuries… Now, on the same monitor in the reading room of the Library, we are opening M. P. Posen’s Papers on the Abolition of Slavery, published in 1864, then P. Pestel’s Russkaya Pravda (Russian Law Code): Instruction to the Supreme Provisional Administration, published in 1906. E. Martynova draws my attention to a blue oval stamp on the title pages of both books — a stamp familiar to any member of the University, which says “LGU Scientific Library”. The bibliographic description of every book from the M. Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University on the website of the Presidential Library always specifies where the original edition is from: St Petersburg University.

Mass digitisation of legal periodicals published in the 19th and 20th centuries from the collection of the M. Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University is another important area of cooperation between St Petersburg University and the Presidential Library. In the past few years, 76 sets of newspapers and journals have been converted into digital media — more than 10,000 issues! Currently they are digitising several volumes of the Complete Code of Laws of the Russian Empire (published in 1830, 1839, 1873, 1893, 1895, 1908 and 1911), which have not been part of the Presidential Library collections before.

“We also like that the University published extended abstracts of dissertations on its Internet portal,” Elena Martynova added. “We can find publications which fall within our main subject (studies by historians, lawyers, social scientists, economists) and include them in our collections.”

Let us scan

Now let us see how an old book becomes a modern, electronic one and the text printed on paper turns into a “digit”.

At the back wall of the scanning department we can see three large devices. An open book is placed on a V-shaped cradle in the centre of the scanner. Every few seconds, an automatic “arm” moves towards it and turns the next page. At that moment, the clamps that are holding the book edges at the top and the bottom of the central gutter gently move away and then return back in place in the same gentle manner. Two powerful digital cameras mounted at about two metres high take photos of the pages, each page separately. The monitor on the table to the left shows the digital image of the scanned page… Sergei Tikhonov, head of the scanning department, points out to me that the thick block of pages on the left and on the right got slightly “puffy” with the help of the air blower.

“This is done so that the pages would not stick together, to prevent damage to them,” he explains. “However, this automatic mode is only used to scan sturdy books which were published not too long ago. Rare books — for instance, the ones from the St Petersburg University collections — we scan in the manual mode. An operator in a white coat made of special electrostatic cloth turns the pages manually, working in white gloves. Operators work very carefully, like surgeons. Sometimes they even use gauze masks — if the book is dusty, dirty, if it was stored in bad conditions. Books come to us from a variety of places, including private collections.”

I can see how a colour book illustration, just like the black-and-white one, is easily converted into digital media on the computer. It turns out that all pages are always scanned in colour. This is done in order to preserve the “feeling” of the edition: the specific properties of paper used in the past, the font, the notes made by readers on the margins, etc. Later the digital copy, if necessary, can be converted into grayscale, but originally all copies are full colour.

These scanners work with books in the А4+ format and up to 10 cm thick. Editions in the А2+ format and up to 12 cm thick require a different scanner. The book is placed on a large flat “book cradle” below, while the scanning camera is mounted up high. The entire device is encased in a special box of about 2.5 metres high, with grey inner walls.

“According to technical standards, the walls should be grey — so as to avoid glare or any other unnecessary effects on the scanned image. The Presidential Library, however, is located in a historic building of the Holy Synod, protected by the Committee for the State Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments. The 19th century interiors have been recreated here, and no one would have allowed us to change anything,” Sergei Tikhonov explained. “So we solved the problem on a small-scale basis: we put the scanners inside large boxes. The historic interiors are whole, and the scanners work in the required environment.”

In another, even larger, box there is a scanner for digitising editions in the А1+ format and up to 25cm thick. Right now it holds the annual set of the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper of the Leningrad Military Command Region for 1935.  The set is open on the issue from 23 February… Another location of the Presidential Library has a scanner that can work with the А0+ formats. It is used to scan geographical maps, flags, artwork and other media which are 1.5 х 2 metres in size and have a maximum weight of 300 kg! Its “table” is equipped with a compressor system which creates vacuum suction to bring the map to a near-perfect flat — and the operator does not even have to touch it! The table slowly moves to the left or to the right, and the scanned images are very “heavy”, up to 300 Mb, so their processing requires a very powerful graphic station.

The Presidential Library also has very special scanners — those that can work with microfilms. S. Tikhonov told us that they had recently performed a complex effort on digitising microfilms containing documents on the history of Russian-Brazilian relations, at the request of a historian from St Petersburg University, Prof. B. Komissarov.

“The microfilm was in bad condition: it was damaged, torn. We had to straighten it, glue and splice it, in order to extract as much information as possible,” Sergei Tikhonov explained. “Then the professor together with senior students deciphered and translated the documents from Portuguese… And for the 70th anniversary of the breaking of the siege of Leningrad, we scanned rations cards of siege survivors, triangular letters from the frontline, and 35 volumes of The Book of Memory. Even the employees of the library who were born in Leningrad came here, searched for and sometimes found the names of their relatives.”

Some books from St Petersburg University library holdings about the events of the Great Patriotic War are also included in The Memory of the Great Victory Collection: “Everyday life of Heroism: Life in Leningrad during the Siege in Dairies, Drawings, and Documents”,  “Stalin and the Allies: 1941-1945” by R. Ivanov; “In the Clutch of Hunger: Leningrad Blockade in Documents of German Intelligence Agencies and the NKVD” by N. Lomagin; “Communications of the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers with US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers during the Great Patriotic War in 1941-1945”, in 2 volumes. These and many other books get a new life within the walls of the Presidential Library — and also go far beyond these walls.

Let us make plans for the future

How is this cooperation between the University and the Presidential Library going to develop? New projects were discussed at a meeting between the Director General of the Presidential Library A. Vershinin and the Rector of St Petersburg University N. Kropachev in the spring of this year. Leaders of the University Student Council also took part in the negotiations.

Valentin Sidorin, Director for Public Relations and Mass Communications of the Presidential Library, said:
“The 290th  anniversary of the oldest Russian university and the fifth  anniversary of the first national electronic library in Russia will be marked with concrete actions. Special instruction courses and lectures informing the participants about unique books and documents will be held at the electronic reading room of the St Petersburg University Library located at 7 Twenty Second Line  (see St Petersburg University Electronic Student Reading Room with access to resources from the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library). This is going to be a joint project: we plan for the Presidential Library to provide its digital copies of rare publications, while St Petersburg University will provide books from its holdings.” We already have some experience in this kind of cooperation. In April 2014, for example, the Presidential Library hosted the University multimedia exhibition “On History of Censorship in Pre-Revolutionary Russia”; the exhibition included digitised editions which had not been published after having been read by censors in the 18th and the early 19th centuries (from the holdings of the University Scientific Library).

This successful practice of holding joint electronic exhibitions is going to continue. In 2014, publications from the holdings of the Scientific Library were sent to the Presidential Library for digitisation and display at the following exhibitions:

  • “You cannot break the thread of culture …”, an exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of WWI;
  • “‘The Most Premeditated City’: A Monument Created by the State”;
  • “Spotlight on History of Constitutionalism in Russia: Constitutional Drafts and Constitutions of the 18th - 20th Centuries”; this exhibition was dedicated to lawyers from St Petersburg University who were the originators of the 19th century reforms. The exhibition was organised as part of the Research and Practice Conference Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Judicial Reform in Russia, held on 26 September.

Engaging students, including first-year students, into the work of the Presidential Library will help to widen young people’s outlook, to give them additional knowledge. St Petersburg University will be actively involved in the educational activities of the Library: our plans include a number of training sessions and practical classes of “living history” based on documents connected with great cultural figures, politicians and scientists (digitised at the Library), as well as materials from the personal archives of P. Stolypin, S. Witte and other prominent figures; these classes will be organised within the context of exhibitions arranged by the Library.

The Director General of the Presidential Library suggested opening a new electronic reading room in one of the St Petersburg University buildings in the Petrodvorets District of St Petersburg. It could become an information and communication centre, a place for scientific discussion and a creative laboratory. Representatives of the Presidential Library have already held a presentation of their projects in one of the St Petersburg University buildings located at 28 Universitetsky Avenue. “We are interested in research that can be carried out for our Library by the members of the University, including programmers, historians, philosophers, and journalists. The Presidential Library is open to new ideas and solutions,” said Alexander Vershinin.

Suggestions made by St Petersburg University for augmenting the electronic collections of the Presidential Library with digitised copies of publications from the University Library holdings, as well as other issues, were discussed at the meeting of the Academic Council of the Presidential Library held on 1 October 2014. They include, among others, a suggestion to add personal collections of works written by prominent University professors of the 19th and the 20th centuries to the electronic holdings of the Presidential Library. These works represent the academic heritage of St Petersburg University, which played a highly important role in the development of the national system of science and education. It was also suggested to add collections of extended abstracts and dissertations defended at St Petersburg University to the electronic holdings. A decision was made to work out a comprehensive plan of further cooperation between the University and the Presidential Library, and to start implementing it in the near future.




The Law Department  of the M. Gorky Scientific Library is the first fully–computerised subject-specific library in Russia, a whole information-and-computer library complex (the electronic catalogue and electronic library cards were introduced here in 1998). For the cycle of works “The Development of New Technologies in Education on the Basis of an Information and Computer Complex” for institutions of higher professional education, the Presidential Prize in the field of education in 2001 (Decree No 1114 of the President of the Russian Federation dated 3 October 2002 “On awarding prizes of the President of the Russian Federation in the field of education for 2001”) was awarded to: L. Verbitskaya, the Rector of St Petersburg University;  M. Krotov, the Vice Rector of St Petersburg University for Legal and Economic Affairs; Professor V. Prokhorov; N. Matsnev, Deputy Dean of the St Petersburg University Faculty of Law; V. Grigoriev, head of the research and information centre; N. Matsneva, head of the law library; and N. Kropachev, the Chairman of the Charter Court of St Petersburg, Dean of the St Petersburg University Faculty of Law (now Rector of St Petersburg University).

The need to put things right at the University Library and the issues concerning its development were often discussed at Rector’s Meetings:

  • On finding over 500,000 books (including the books from the oldest Russian social science library) that had been removed from the premises of the library located at 41 Sredny Prospect and transferred, with the help of military students to an unheated warehouse of the Petrodvorets Training and Research Complex, which was not equipped for storing library holdings, and left unattended for more than ten years, see the information provided by the Director of the St Petersburg University Library on the condition of specialist-subject book stock in Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 18 April 2011, clause 3, and Books returned to the readers;
  • On the transfer into private hands of 50,000 rare books (including atlases and maps published before 1917, in Russian and in foreign languages), see Minutes of the Rector’s Meeting held on 04 April 2011, clause 9.