Belarusians in the UK: library as a soft-power tool

Ihar Ivanoŭ

This article appeared in Belarusian Review, Vol. 27, No. 3.

When few months ago the Anglo-Belarusian Society held an event commemorating the life and work of Guy Picarda, a former Chair of the Society and promoter of the Belarusian culture in the UK, one of his close friends noted that Guy Picarda re-discovered the Belarusian sacral music for people in Belarus. It was not an exaggeration to say: he indeed was the first researcher to take the Belarusian sacral music tradition seriously and approached it as a researcher.

Most of his research was conducted at the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum in London. Using their own heritage, Picarda effectively created a new field of knowledge for Belarusians. Many similar stories going back to the network of Belarusian organisations and institutions in London established after the Second World War can be told. Among those organisations, the Skaryna Library is the best known and respected.

Formally, the Library’s history begins in 1971 when it was launched at its own building in north London. The real story is much longer. After the Second World War, several Belarusian priests settled in London; they, as well as other immigrants, carried with them whatever precious they had: books, hand waived fabrics, embroided traditional clothing and icons – memory of the motherland they had to leave. The book collection of Bishop Ceslaus Sipovich, later enriched by private collections of Fr Leo Haroshka and Fr Alexander Nadson, became the basis of the Belarusian Catholic Mission library (known as Bibliotheca Alboruthena) which eventually, after extensive fundraising among the Belarusian diaspora around the world, acquired an independent status as the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum.
1950-80s was the period of great opportunities for Slavonic and East European studies in Britain: during the Cold War, the British government generously funded research of the Soviet Union and its allies. The Belarusian diaspora, Bishop Ceslaus Sipovich in the first place, made efforts to encourage the Belarusian studies which were virtually non-existent until then. For that purpose, the Anglo-Belarusian Society was established in 1954 and a peer-reviewed Journal of Byelorussian Studies was published since 1965. As the interest to Belarus in the British academic circles started taking off, the need in a well-resources library became clear.

This historic background explains why the Skaryna Library, from its very beginning, was primarily oriented towards the international academic community, not the diaspora in London. In its first forty years of existence, over a thousand researchers, both working for established institutions and carrying personal projects, used the Library. Dozens of books were written there or were substantially informed by the materials from the Library. To name few: a ground-breaking series on history of Belarusian literature by Prof. Arnold McMillin; Vera Rich’s translations of Belarusian poetry; Prof. Oleg Latyszonek’s work on the development of the Belarusian national identity, “Od rusinów białych do białorusinów”. Dozens, maybe hundreds of journal articles and conference papers can be added to this list.

The Library operated as a research library and reference centre, not a public library. Its close physical proximity to and symbiotic existence with the Belarusian Catholic Mission meant that Library users could lodge – often for free – during their research visits. This made the Skaryna Library unique and attractive to a vast number of researchers from abroad, incl. Belarus. Already in 1980s, long before the Iron Curtain fall, the Library hosted such visitors as Adam Maldzis, a Minsk-based prolific writer on the history of Belarusian literature, and Rev Uladzislau Carniauski, a translator of the Bible and Roman Catholic liturgical texts into Belarusian.

Over the years, the Library collection was formed by various means. Both Bishop Sipovich and Fr Nadson travelled extensively to visit the Belarusian diaspora around the world. As the Library enjoyed a lot of trust from the compatriots, they often returned with valuable gifts of books, museum objects, archive materials and donations. An extensive collection of the early XX century publications, incl. first editions of the Belarusian classics was amassed, as well as a significant collection of pre-war BSSR and western Belarus (part of Poland in 1919-1939) titles. The collection of the post-1945 diaspora publications covering Europe, northern America and Australia is arguably the most comprehensive in the world.

Bishop Sipovich, the Library co-founder and main instigator of numerous Belarusian initiatives in Britain, passed away unexpectedly in 1981. The role of the Library head was passed to Fr Alexander Nadson who already by then had earned reputation of a leading scholar in Belarusian Church history. He also made an important contribution to researching the life and work of Francis Skaryna, the first Belarusian printer. Comfortable in the world of academia, he won many friends for the Skaryna Library among scholars.

Then, in 1980s, collaboration with the library of the Academy of Science of Belarus was setup: in exchange for academic journals published in the west the Skaryna Library received books and magazines from Soviet Belarus for a great variety of topics, like literature, history, law, nature, cinematography, nature and humour – just to name few. In addition, the Library was purchasing anything Belarus-related in any language that was appearing outside Belarus. As awareness of the Library was growing, an increasing number of authors and publishers were donating their publications: the Library has hundreds of volumes with authors’ inscriptions for the Library and Fr Nadson. The collaboration with the Academy of Science ended after Belarus became independent in 1991 due to the high cost of that scheme. Although receiving printed materials without expensive intermediaries became possible, finding publications wasn’t always straightforward: the number of publishers exploded, circulations dropped, but reliable and politically impartial distribution channels have never appeared. For many years until very recently, Prof Adam Maldzis singlehandedly supplied the Library with books and periodicals appearing in Belarus. His extensive contacts secured for the Library both mainstream and very rare publications. The role of an “acquisition librarian” adds one more interesting dimension to the life of this fascinating, multifaceted scholar and prominent promoter of Belarusian culture.

It has always been held that the Skaryna Library offered the most comprehensive collection of belarusistyka (Belarus-related research) in Western Europe, however it is impossible to substantiate this very plausible claim: neither printed collection, nor archive, nor museum holdings have been catalogued. The book collection is probably about 20,000 volumes and its best existent account can be seen in Fr Nadson’s guide on the Library’s website. The Library has about 20 pre-1800 books, about 100 maps from 16 cent. onwards, very extensive music and periodicals collections.
The archive is mainly focused on the Belarusian diaspora, but contains materials from the first half of XX century Belarus too; it has only been partially researched or even surveyed, and unexpected discoveries happen there regularly.

Today we can only speculate why such a notable institution as the Skaryna Library has never managed to catalogue its holdings. An obvious fact is that from its beginning the Library operated a semi-closed access model: the founders and custodians knew the collection intimately and assisted researchers with accessing the best suited materials. Researchers could browse the shelves freely too. This model worked well as long as the only Library’s aim was supporting academic studies while access was only by appointment. After the collection ballooned in 1980-90s due to the successful collaboration with the Academy of Sciences and work of Prof Maldzis, retrospective cataloguing became a task impossible for a comparatively small institution as the Skaryna Library.

In 1982 – 2001, together with other Belarusian organisations in Britain, the Library organised and hosted a number of conferences dedicated to outstanding Belarusian personalities, mainly writers, the Greek Catholic Church, and the role of the diaspora in preserving and developing Belarusian culture. Many distinguished scholars delivered talks in the Library and writers – read their works.
It will be fair to say that Fr Alexander Nadson determined the character of the Library during its most successful period. His openness to the international academic community, understanding that values of the library world are incompatible with censorship and ideological partiality and impeccable personal reputation among the diaspora are clearly reflected in the Skaryna Library work of his time. Sadly, this also meant that with Fr Nadson’s deteriorating health the Library started declining too. After a long and debilitating illness, Fr Nadson died in April 2015.

If a detailed history of this remarkable Belarusian library is ever to be written, one must not omit the role of Jim Dingley in sustaining the Skaryna Library for almost forty years to date. This British scholar was one of the applicants for the Library’s charitable status in 1979; in 1986-2014 he served as Secretary – a crucial role often invisible to outsiders – to the Board of Trustees. A gifted organiser and persuasive communicator, he championed the Library among scholars and various institutions; he brought structured thinking to its activities and advocated for greater openness towards the changing context. It was his initiative to revive the Board of Trustees in 2014 after several years of inactivity.

Today the Skaryna Library is a registered charity which means that in the eyes of the British society it is an important cultural institution working for the public benefit. It is governed by the Board of Trustees consisting of representatives of the Belarusian diaspora in the UK and British scholars. Though it is the same Skaryna Library that was founded in 1971, with the same continuously developing collection and in the same building, in many respects it is a new institution nowadays. The reason for that is simple: the world around has changed immensely since 1971. Since the end of the Cold War, funding for academic research in Britain has been diverted to other issues. More often than not scholar content is now accessed online through free or paid-for sources (latter are affordable only to universities and few other well-resourced organisations); this has also completely changed the ways and places where scholars conduct their research at. Travel to Belarus is easier and cheaper than ever, and the libraries and archives there are generally accessible. This can be continued for quite a while. Therefore there is no surprise that many people, both in Britain and in Belarus, are puzzled why the Skaryna Library still exists – what for and for whom?!! Trustees received formal and informal requests from Belarus to hand over parts of the collection and the archive to the state-funded institutions. There have been speculations about transferring the Library to Vilnius – only a short train trip away from Minsk.

Trustees see the situation differently: the Belarusian diaspora and Belarus itself need this Library in London. It saved and preserved thousands of books, documents and artefacts which were destroyed, lost or forgotten in Belarus for a variety of reasons. There is no guarantee such a safe place won’t be needed in the future again. The Skaryna Library collected and displayed the materials deemed useless or harmful in BSSR, e.g. anything related to religion. With the Library’s assistance, such materials were “re-discovered” in Belarus during Perestroika – just one magazine Spadčyna reprinted dozens of articles from the émigré publications. Nowadays, the Library has a role to play in preserving the marginal, overlooked and embarrassing for the government and social mainstream materials, for example anything related to the political opposition and various undesired minorities. Not to mention the role in promoting and sustaining interest to Belarus in the English-speaking world…

Therefore, Trustees are making an effort to open the Library to what used to be unconventional users: Belarusians in London and their children, ordinary Britons – virtually anyone who may enrich their lives through Belarus, Belarusian language and culture. The Library is now open to visitors every Saturday, no appointments required. In collaboration with a well-established online library Bielaruskaja Palička, it has started working on an online repository for digitised books and archival materials. To secure its future and development ambitions, the Library has launched fundraising around the world. It has never received public funds and now it aims to rely on generosity of Belarusians and their friends too. This will guarantee independence and a strong reputation in the Belarusian community.

London has become one of the centres of soft diplomacy: foreign governments are pumping money into cultural and educational presence in this city. They organise film and food festivals, subsidise exhibitions and language schools. And Belarusians… They created a library.

Further reading
Nadson, A. (2001) Guide to the Library.
Picarda, G. (c. 2010) The Francysk Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum (London).
Ivanou, I. (2006) Baltic and Slavonic Libraries in Britain. ISBN-13: 978-0901067159.
Гардзіенка, Н. (2010) Беларусы ў Вялікабрытаніі. ISBN: 978-985-6887-63-8.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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