Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Our Library - Part 1

Our local public library runs on a shoestring. Over the past few years, the town has cut back the library's budget; so have the Rayon and the Oblast (region and county). Drastic cuts, over 30% and more. The economic crisis in Ukraine, compounded by the global financial meltdown, has affected every aspect of life here. Libraries throughout the country have been hit hard.

The Starobilsk library occupies a lovely historic building well-located in the center of town. Beautiful as it is, the building has not been updated in years; it is drafty, dark and, perhaps worst of all, has ancient wiring and infrastructure. It is not computerized.

The library still uses an old card catalogue. Everything is done by hand. Librarians spend most of their days writing things out on cards and pieces of paper. It's an antiquated library, the kind our mothers and grandmothers may have used, and loved.

It's hard to love these libraries now. Nor is the Starobilsk library an exception. Almost all of Ukraine's libraries are in the same fix.

The oblast-wide library in Chernigov, for example, a town the size of Rochester or Toledo or Tampa, is in the same condition. When was the last time you used a card catalogue and the old Dewey decimal systerm? When was the last time you had those cards in the little front pocket of a book stamped with the return date? Actually, when was the last time you went to the library just to take out books? Amazing really.

Some librarians have been to the U.S. and visited our libraries, which are modern centers of learning, technology, and community. I can't imagine how shocked these librarians must be at the stark contrast. They seem helpless to change their situation, moreover, and knowing the possibilities only makes it more frustruating.

This sense of helplessness and frustration, by the way, is pervasive, a common condition across the board in Ukraine. It affects every level and all aspects of private and public life. It doesn't help that the National Bank of Ukraine, which was supposed to help out other banks and aid the economic recovery, absconded with or misspent billions of dollars in one of worst financial frauds in the nation's history. The extent of the fraud is just now being uncovered.

So the libraries do not have the resources even to begin to enter the 20th century, let alone the twenty-first.

One of the first things I did when I got to Starobilsk, a complete stranger to the place, was visit the library. Iryna Andreenov, the director, is a beautiful women in her early 40s, dedicated to her work. She is almost apologetic about the state of her rayon-wide library, which is supposed to serve Starobilsk and about 30 small rural villages around it in eastern Lugansk oblast. I visited often, had tea, translated messages, and talked about an English Club, which we got off the ground in September.

Meanwhile I learned from other PCVs, and some online research, that there are projects to help Ukrainian libraries. There are Books for Peace projects for example, that donate books. The U.S. Embassy has a "Windows on America" project for Oblast-wide libraries that provides computers and video equipment along with a great a collection of English-language books.
I used these books at the Chernigov Library. My PCV friend Barbara Weiser and I actually did the first literature discussion programs at the library based on the books. They are a treasure.

The Windows on America project is also a huge help with the English Club there, run by my PCV friend John Guy Laplante, at 80 years old the oldest volunteer in Ukraine. John is about to end his 27-months service and go back home to Connecticut, which might leave me as the oldest volunteer here! Before he leaves I'm hoping he can help me convince the Embassy at least to give the Starobilsk library that set of books. It would be of great use here, and helpful for our English club.

The most recent project, called Bibliomist, is supported by a $25 million gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to computerize 1,000 Ukrainian libraries. The project is being coordinated by IREX, an international nonprofit organization, and the relatively new Ukrainian Library Association. All nonprofits are relatively new in Ukraine, organized only since independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991/1992.

I was excited to learn about the Bibliomist project. I printed out information, had it translated, made sure Natalia, my Russian tutor and English professor, was available, and went to the library full of enthusiasm.

Of course Iryna knew about Bibliomist. She is a member of the Ukrainian Library Association. She has dreams for her library. She smiled at me and made tea. We chatted a bit, and then she went to her cabinet and pulled out a large file. It was her Bibliomist file, crammed with documents and information. Well, I said, let's apply!

That's when reality set in. Iryna explained that in order to be eligible for the project, libraries must have modern electrical and wiring systems, security systems, fire alarm systems, and so on. The libraries must demonstrate they are fully ready to have the computers installed with online access.

Iryna then pulled out what looked like architectural drawings. It was a plan to rewire the library and modernize the building. The cost for rewiring was about 20,000 hgryvnia. That's about $2,500 in U.S. dollars, which doesn't seem so bad. For a small Ukrainian library, however, that can't even afford to replace a broken-down printer, it is prohibitive. Deflating, to say the least. I slumped in my chair. I sensed myself feeling like a Ukrainian.

So, then, the libraries that need this project the most are the libraries with the least money and the fewest resources to become eligible for computer installation.

My mind raced ahead of me, and certainly ahead of my Russian language ability. I turned to Natalia. Tell Iryna we will go to the city, the Rayon and the Oblast and urge them to support this project. I will also try to raise some money in the United States. I just threw that in for effect, but honestly I was ready to write a check. We'll tell them they have at least to match any private donations.

Good god, I was thinking, Starobilsk desperately needs the Bibliomist project. Far-eastern Ukraine desperately needs it. The digital divide is HUGE here: so few people have computers, and even fewer have internet access. The hospitals don't even have computers. Everything is done by hand. Everything.

The libraries can become tools of community and change. They can become community information and resource centers. They can lead in civic education. They can be catalysts for reform, and hope, in Ukraine. What can we do? What next?

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