Monday, November 24, 2008

Slavic Studies Conference 2008 in Philly

[I have a blog etiquette question – is it best to mention people’s names or not? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be mentioned in other people’s blogs? I’m going to go with not mentioning them for now, but can always put names in later.]

I started attending some American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) conferences when I realized that all Baltic collections in research libraries were in the Slavic departments, and that the bulk of conversation was happening here, not in the Slavic and East European Section of ALA. I believe I attended about three of these conferences while at the Latvian Studies Center, once chairing a panel on Baltic library issues. Since working at WMU, I had only attended one, but when the head of the European Reading Room from the Library of Congress asked if anyone would be willing to research and present on what has happened to the book chambers (I’ll explain later) of the former Soviet republics since they gained independence in 1991, I volunteered to do the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Thus I had reason to attend the AAASS 40th annual conference in Philadelphia, held November 20-23, 2008.

Our Presentation
Book chambers were government institutions in each Soviet republic that were responsible for receiving deposit copies of every published item, compiling statistics about them, and documenting each item to create a national bibliography. These were lists of all books, periodicals, sheet music, etc. as well as indexes to the articles in all the periodicals published in the republic. This was all published monthly and annually. I knew something about the situation in Latvia, and was able to talk to the right people when I briefly visited Latvia last March. I found that in all three Baltic States, the responsibilities of the book chambers had been mostly taken over by the national libraries. (To my colleagues at WMU – if this is of interest to anyone, I could do a brownbag lunch presentation.)

I presented with people from the University of Pittsburgh, Library of Congress, and British Library. The chair had researched Armenia, the discussant had information on Georgia, so between all of us we covered 13 of the 15 republics, and intentionally not focusing on Russia, since most in the AAASS audience knew what is happening there. The hardest job was to get information on the Central Asian republics, as they did not have information on websites and often did not respond to e-mail inquiries. Our panel was well attended with a full room of over 30 and lots of questions and a lively discussion. I got a couple of offers to publish my presentation. I plan to publish it in an article, though I think the five of us will also have to come up with a unified article on all the republics.

Digital Access
There was a session on digital projects and issues. The most fascinating idea I heard was about putting Russian (or whatever language) texts online in digitized form and asking the general public to translate them. Then an editorial board of some sort would put a stamp of approval, but the amount of texts made available to the public would be much larger and could grow by this wiki method.

Hidden Library Treasures
We heard about three different “hidden treasures.” The speaker from the British Library explained how BL librarians are being given 10-12 week sabbaticals to research some aspect of the BL collection. She had looked at how the Polish immigrants of the early 1830’s were depicted in Britain. She had identified 3000 periodical articles, 80 popular songs, some plays and a few novels written about the Poles. The Brits were supportive of Polish independence and the poor Polish immigrants, such that some Brits pretended to be Polish.

A representative from the Frick Museum Research Library in New York City talked about all the books, images, catalogs, etc. available there on East European art, though the Frick concentrates on Western European and American art. They catalog each ephemeral item, even announcements of exhibits. I hadn’t thought about the importance of art images, especially to that art, which is no longer around. They also have an art periodicals index going back longer than The Art Index, and there are plans to digitize it.

The last “hidden treasure” was in the Wolfsonian collection in Miami Beach, FL. This is a “museum and research center focusing on how decorative arts, material culture, and design help shape our interpretation of the world.” ( The collection was donated to the Florida International University by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., who had spent his life collecting books, periodicals, prints, objects, etc. on architecture and design including an extensive collection from Eastern Europe, especially the Soviet Union, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Grand Duke Alexis’ visit to America
I was reluctant to attend this session, but it was the bibliographic session in the time slot, and I was exposed to the fascinating story of the visit to America by the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia in 1871-72. (His father was emperor Alexander II.) The presentations were based on materials available in libraries and one woman is writing a whole book on this visit. This was the first major contact between Russia and the U.S. and the papers of the times are filled with accounts of the balls and receptions organized for him. The most highly publicized event was his buffalo hunt with Buffalo Bill and General Custer. The Grand Duke gifted books to several libraries including the University of Michigan.

Childhood in Russia
I attended one totally non-library session on childhood in Russia at various historical time periods and sat in on the tail end of another session. What struck me about these sessions was that there was substantial academic criticism by the discussants, which was useful to the presenters as they were getting good feedback before they published their article or book. I didn’t see it in the bibliographic sessions or in library conferences in general. I wonder if there is a place we do this in my profession.

Baltic Collections in the U.S.
The last session I was able to attend was on Baltic collections in the U.S. Two Lithuanian librarians talked about the two major Lithuanian community archives in Chicago and Connecticut. The Estonian representative talked about the Estonian Archives in the U.S. in Lakewood, NJ and read remarks by a man who was unable to attend about Latvian collections. This was the first time I officially heard that the Slavic, East European and Baltic reading room at New York Public Library was closed, though it had come up in conversations at the conference. The most interesting presentation was about statistics on Baltic collections in research libraries throughout the country. There were two graphs depicting the Estonian – Lithuanian – Latvian collections in 16 major research libraries. The first graph showed recent (1990-2005) Baltic imprints and the other showed 1800-1989 Baltic imprints. This did not include exile publications, as those statistics are harder to tease out of library catalogs. Baltic dissertation output since consists of around 250. They are still looking at how many of those were dependent on library collections.

One very interesting fact that came out during the questions and comments time afterwards was that Michigan State University has received and endowment from a Lithuanian for the annual purchase of Baltic materials. They would be interested in collecting retrospectively, so they might be willing to take Latvian book donations.

On the Conference itself and Philadelphia
I don’t have a real sense on how many attended the conference, since there was no opening plenary or keynote speakers, but there were over 500 sessions and about 1300 presenters listed in the conference program. I was surprised that there were no projectors in any of the presentation rooms that I attended. In one of our sessions all three presenters lamented the fact that they had brought along interesting visuals. I too had a PowerPoint, but then I might not have gotten through in 20 minutes. The other observation I had was that in some of the sessions a presenter had not shown up and someone told me that was usual for this conference. I think we had one of the few full panels.

I did not stay at the hotel, but heard that on the first night they had all been woken up in the middle of the night and herded outside for some perceived emergency. And they could not use the elevators. I was glad I was staying with friends.

I met one of the venerable Latvian historians, who has now retired. I was able to give him a lift to the house where he was staying – not far from the downtown hotel in the old part of Philadelphia with narrow streets and nice old houses and apartment buildings. I was staying with friends out in the country near Quakertown, so I didn’t have chance to see anything of Philadelphia, except one restaurant, the convention center and a wonderful indoor market, that was across the street from the conference hotel.

Taking a moment to enjoy the relief of a job well done, I will then take a deep breath and prepare to work on my article and maintain contacts with those colleagues where we could work on some joint project.

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