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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

The University of Illinois Slavic Reference Service

Our latest Peripheral Histories? series is all about the places that are essential for researching histories of Eastern Europe and Eurasia: archives and libraries. In this series, we speak to people who work in archives and libraries about their career paths, the challenges of their work, and the contents of their collections. We hope that these interviews offer some perspective to younger scholars who are interested in learning about alternative career paths related to Slavic/Eurasian studies more broadly, and what skills or training might be needed. We also hope to draw attention to rich archival and library collections that may or may not be already on the radar of our readers.

For the inaugural post of the series, Peripheral Histories? editor Susan Grunewald spoke with Katherine Ashcraft from the University of Illinois Slavic Reference Service

The main library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

PH: How did you get to your current position? What was your journey into working in libraries?

My interest in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies began when I received a scholarship to study Tajik language in Dushanbe for 6 weeks through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program as a high school student. In college, I studied Russian and English as a Second Language while majoring in education. This background prepared me to participate in the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program in Kulob, Tajikistan and Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Working with American Spaces, local universities, and American Councils for International Education helped me realize that I enjoyed teaching outside of classroom settings. I also became curious about questions of information, misinformation, and how people seek both throughout the world.

These interests led me to library school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. As a student, I have been able to work with the Slavic Reference Service, a unique library service that is partially funded through the Title VIII grant program. Our mission is to help build expertise in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies by helping scholars find and use regional sources.

PH: What are the main challenges of managing your library collection?

Our collection covers all the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as diasporic and borderlands groups and territories. Our subject scope emphasizes (but is not limited to) humanities and social sciences. We collect in all vernacular languages of the region. As one may expect, the most consistent challenge we face is trying to fill gaps and ensure adequate coverage of each country and language in our collection. The coverage can also be a challenge for our reference team, since it means covering the regional languages, reference sources, and publishing trends of over 30 countries.

PH: Which of your collections or resources are consulted most frequently by researchers?

In the 2022 Summer Research Lab, popular collections included our microfilm collections of the Gulag Press, opisi of the Communist Party Archives, and Samizdat publications. The Everyday Stalinism collection of peasant letters to Krest’ianskaia Gazeta was widely accessed as well. We also have a large collection of reference sources that scholars find helpful in preparing for domestic and international research trips, including the majority of Patricia Grimstead’s guides and Smits’s Half a Century of Soviet Serials, 1917-1968.

PH: Do you have any hidden gems in your collections? What do you have that has rarely or never by used by researchers?

We have an extensive reference collection that can get overlooked by researchers. Many of the materials in this collection are out-of-print and have never been digitized or indexed in databases, meaning the titles they provide may not be listed elsewhere. These sources cover a vast array of topics, with some examples being a 4-part catalogue of illuminated manuscripts held by the Tajik Academy of Sciences, a guide to political parties of Bulgaria from 1879-2010, a bibliography of Jewish bibliographies, and Soviet medical encyclopaedias.

This reference collection also includes national bibliographic publications for the Soviet Union, independent republics, and regions within Russia. These annals can be intimidating at first glance, but researchers will find a systematic array of sources that may provide new perspectives to existing literature. We are passionate about helping scholars use these materials and are always available to answer questions!

PH: Do you have any digital collections at your library?

We are constantly growing our digital collections. Two of our earlier digital collections include the Uzbek National Bibliography and Turkestanskii Sbornik. These publications have been made searchable, which can save researchers some time.

During the pandemic, we created four new digital collections. Memoirs of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Women contains pre-copyright memoirs of Russian women, mostly published in periodicals. We based this collection on I.I. Iukina’s bibliography Istoriia zhenshchin Rossii: zhenskoe dvizhenie i feminizm v 1850--1920-e gody: materialy k bibliografii. The Blondheim Judaica collection was also created from a guide to Jewish studies collections at the University of Illinois and contains over 200 materials. Our other two new digital collections build on existing initiatives. These collections include the Memoirs of the Central Asia Soviet Era, which is based on the original collection from the Russian Perspectives on Islam project and continues to be expanded by the SRS, and the 18th Century Russian Books collection.

PH: Does your library engage in any public outreach activities (for example, exhibitions, work with educational or other public institutions, or organise public-facing events)?

Because we are partially funded through federal Title VIII funding, our services are completely free and available year-round to researchers regardless of academic status or institutional affiliation. We can provide one-on-one consultations about research projects and are happy to provide instructional sessions for university classes as well. We host regular virtual events that are open to all, including our current Research and Language Learning Conversations series which, in partnership with Indiana University, brings established researchers and scholars to discuss their experiences and perspectives with language-learning. We also hold three virtual, regional research forums throughout the year: The Baltic Research Forum in October, the Central Asia Research Forum in November, and the Caucasus Research Forum in March. Finally, the Meet the National Libraries series gives national libraries from around the world a platform to discuss their history, services, and collections to an international audience. We usually announce these events through our Facebook Page (Slavic Reference Service) and Twitter (@SRSUIUC).

PH: Is there anything you wish more people knew about your archives/collections?

We are a public-facing service and are committed to developing researchers’ knowledge and skills related to Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. People sometimes assume that they need to be affiliated with the University of Illinois or the Summer Lab to use our services, but this is not true. We are delighted to assist patrons year-round, whether it’s by sending a book chapter through our duplication service, helping you track a tricky citation, assisting a public library in processing interlibrary loan materials for an independent scholar, or providing an instructional session to your class.

Useful links

Slavic Reference Service homepage:

National Bibliography of Uzbekistan:

Links to programs/funding through the library: (deadlines have passed for this summer, but open research labs and summer research labs are announced through the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Center at the University of Illinois).

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