Monday, August 31, 2020

A Library That Never Closed Its Door

When it comes to libraries, what immediately comes to the mind of the writer is the  Russian libraries during the siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), one of the most terrible battles in world history. 

The blockade, which began on September 8, 1941, when the Germans cut off all land links to Leningrad, lasted 872 days until January 27, 1944. The supply of food and fuel, as well as daily necessities and medicines, ceased. People endured by eating dogs, cats, and mice in a city ruined by air raids every day. More than 1 million civilians died of starvation. This is why some war historians use the word “genocide” instead of the word battle. A university professor reminisces on the use of the libraries during the blockade, in the Peace Column of the Catholic  Peace Weekly.

During this terrible period, the city of Leningrad ran 22 libraries. Among them, the municipal library and the science academy library were not closed for a single day. People starving went to the library reading rooms to read, they were warehouses of ice due to the loss of electrical power. The librarians, who were all dying from malnutrition, wandered through the shelves like ghosts to find the books.

According to the writer Chukovsky's recollections, “People read incredibly much. They  read classical literature and poetry handed to them from dying librarians, read under soot-eating oil lamps.”  During the containment period, 80,000 books were officially loaned out. More than half of the librarians lost their lives. Thanks to the librarians, the concept of an "unclosed" library have been imprinted in human history.

The professor wonders why librarians were so obsessed with opening the libraries. For her who has not experienced such terrible hunger, she will never know what it means to read a book until just before starvation. But for one thing, it can be speculated that there must have been some solidarity between library users and librarians. In the face of the coming end, the books would have made everyone equal. People sitting in the dark corner of the reading room and feeling the nearness of death and flipping the pages of a book with their frozen fingers, what they were reading, how they had lived, they had something in common that cannot be judged on the scale of good and evil. Whether it was human nature or human dignity, librarians were there to protect and share it.

However, in front of the virus, a library that 'never closes' also raised their hands in surrender. The Library of Science Academy was completely closed from March 20 to July 6, when Corona 19 was in full swing. Now, opening the door unconditionally is no longer the virtue of a library, in our world. It has become a desirable requirement for librarians to take care of themselves when they are sick.

Of course, the library will still exist. Operation hours will be adjusted according to the government's quarantine guidelines, and new services will be introduced for the convenience of users. Most libraries will rely more on electronic resources and the digital transformation will accelerate. However, the library space where finite humans physically connect through books will disappear to the other side of history. Instead of the sad and magnificent space shown in the pictures of the library during the Leningrad blockade, a cool, clean, and empty space isolated from people will symbolize the pandemic.

For someone whose access to the library is a way of being, the difference will be huge indeed. "There is nothing in this world that disappears without a trace," said Bakhtin.
Where to find the traces of the “unclosed” library?