There are well over 400 libraries in Moscow. Not that you’d know. They’re easy to miss either because they’re they hidden behind thickset bars or heavy blinds. Deterred by barking librarians and the dearth of new books, even those in the know rarely pay a visit. But this looks set to change. In September, a newly refurbished Prospekt Library opened its doors to the public. Dostoevsky Library followed only days later. In both cases, the bars and blinds were replaced by wide panels of glass and once spartan interiors now boast state-of-the-art computer facilities as well as basics such as comfortable seating and decent lighting.
The man behind the makeover is Moscow’s cultural minister, Sergei Kapkov, best known for his dramatic transformation of Gorky Park. The once drab Soviet-era hangout is now one of Moscow’s star attractions offering an array of restaurants and activities to choose from. Following his success with the park, Kapkov pledged last year to modernise the city’s fusty old libraries as part of a wider plan to integrate them into Moscow’s cultural and social fabric. He assembled a team of experts for a pilot project to refurbish five libraries, bringing on board Boris Kupriyanov, co-owner of Falanster, a chain of bookshops that specialises in radical and political literature, and Alexander Sverdlov, co-founder of Rotterdam-based architecture firm Svesmi.
The team’s initial research unearthed some interesting but disheartening facts. One finding revealed that only 17% of the city’s 11.5 million inhabits paid a visit to the library in the past year. “The small figure pointed to an obvious crisis,” says Sverdlov. The lack of visits didn’t come as a total surprise given the frequency with which Moscow libraries update their collections. “During our research, we compared our system to other countries,” Sverdlov explained. “In the libraries of Toronto or LA, a tenth of the overall budget is spent on restocking the collection. In Moscow, it’s only 2%.”
When it comes to Moscow’s libraries, a Soviet mentality still reigns with more than 90% of books locked up in storage facilities to protect them from “prying eyes”. As a result, reading rooms are small and inadequately equipped. Throughout the Soviet Union, libraries had a clear propagandist role. “The Soviet man knew why he should visit a library, which books he should read and which he shouldn’t,” says Sverdlov.
"In the libraries of Toronto or LA, a tenth of the overall budget is spent on restocking the collection. In Moscow, it’s only 2%”
Kapkov’s efforts are not the first attempt by the city government to revitalise library culture. In the early Noughties, a batch of libraries underwent significant renovations. The results, says Sverdlov, were horrendous. “Awful lighting and lower ceilings made the rooms appear darker,” he says. “Steel doors and grills on the windows gave no indication of what was inside.”
After selecting five libraries for the pilot based on factors such as their location, Sverdlov and Kupriyanov set to work, with Dostoyevsky and Prospekt their first sites. With a location in the centre of Moscow, Dostoevsky was an obvious choice. As well as design, the library’s borrowing system has been simplified. Registration is no longer required to browse its collections and anyone with a Moscow address, even visitors, can borrow both books and journals. What’s more, the addition of coffee machines means you can wile away the hours, nose deep in your favourite book. Plans are also afoot to offer visitors a host of other services including the option of paying their utility bills. Eventually, books, magazines and journals will be digitised.
Crucially, reading spaces in both libraries has been expanded to accommodate books that have been brought out of storage as well as new ones that have been purchased. Prospekt, on the outskirts of south-west Moscow, even offers a book delivery service to local hospitals. Although it’s still early days, Muscovites are beginning to take notice. “When I was last at Dostoevsky library, there were no empty tables,” says Kupriyanov. “I hope the number of visitors will now triple.”
Keen to ensure that the modernisation of Moscow’s libraries is more than just skin-deep, the team will hire curators to oversee an internal restructuring in each institution. The curators will help train existing staff, guide visitors and organise a programme of events, including film screenings and lectures for locals. “Librarians will eventually become a kind of PR agent for knowledge,” says Sverdlov.
Both Sverdlov and Kupriyanov appreciate the important role that libraries play in local communities, especially in a city as vast and sprawling as Moscow. “We have a problem in Russia that has already been solved in Europe,” says Kupriyanov. “In Europe, people who live nearby know each other well. In England, for example, there are local pubs they can go to. But we just don’t have these types of places here because Moscow is such a centralised city.” For Sverdlov, libraries will offer a free and warm space for people to escape the coming winter cold. By next year, the remaining three libraries will be completed and work will begin on a further six. “Our libraries will not be any less comfortable that those in New York or Berlin,” says Kupriyanov. “We will make sure of that.”