Lithography by Andrey Martynov. 1820s
The library was open for both "usage" and "viewing". From the outset it also functioned as a museum — the visiting public were introduced to its printed and handwritten treasures and shown the halls of the building, while the staff sought to enhance the tour with commentaries on the character, history and significance of the articles on display. In the early years between 500 and 600 people used the library annually. Those who applied to do so were a very mixed bag in terms of origin and social status: scholars, civil servants, military men, clergymen, merchants, members of the lower middle class and students of civil and military colleges. Raznochintsy (representatives of the legally undefined group of varied non-noble, non-peasant origin who mainly did "white-collar" work) and "free men" accounted for roughly 11 % of all the library users in 1816-19. The "new youth" came into the reading room with interests shaped, as has already been said, by the "social excitement after the Napoleonic Wars". Notable library users at this time included the future Decembrist Wilhelm Kiichelbecker, the mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky and the explorer Fiodor Litke. In 1817 the library's records noted the appearance of the first female readers.
The Olenin years, in the course of which over 15,000 library cards were issued and some 100,000 volumes given out to readers, also saw the first attempts to analyse reading patterns, the range of subjects which interested users of the library and the demand for works by particular authors (Lomonosov, Karamzin, Derzhavin, Krylov, Zhukovsky, Gnedich, Batiushkov, and others). The same period was marked too by the inception of a reference and bibliographical service within the library as members of staff began to select literature systematically in response to readers' requests (books, for example, on the history of the 1812 War, Suvorov's campaigns in Italy and Switzerland, or public education in Russia).
Watercolor by Fyodor Solntsev. 26 May 1834
At the request of Stroganov and Olenin, the book-dealer Vastly Sopikov, a member of the merchant class, was taken into state service at the library. Sopikov had become famous for his knowledge in the field of Russian bibliography and the book trade. He was entmsted with managing the Russian stocks and the library saw to the publication of his major work An Essay in Russian Bibliography which the author per-spicaciously believed "will be a classic not only in Russia but also in foreign parts". Sopikov's work contained "an accurate and thorough description" of books published in Russia from the introduction of printing to the beginning of the nineteenth century and still remains a valuable handbook for librarians and bibliographers today.
Probably no other period in the history of the Public Library has produced such a quantity of stories and tall tales as Olenin's. There were, of course, some reasons for this, primarily the figure of the Director himself who managed to gather around him many talented, extraordinary people whose behaviour could at times give rise to talk. Thus, for example, in his memoirs Vasily Sobolshchikov (who entered the library as a scribe and was later transferred to sorting out the collection of prints) described the librarians of Olenin's time as "parasites". Yet one of those "parasites" — Ivan Krylov whose work at the library generated an especially large number of legends and anecdotes — kept track of the statutory copies coming into the Russian department. He compiled registers of the books which had not been delivered and prepared material from which Olenin made inquiries that were sent both to the "originators" and to the censorship authority.
Drawing by Georgy Chernetsov. 1826.
The "patronal haven for men of letters", as Dmitry Filosofov, a prominent figure in the cultural life of the turn of the twentieth century, described the library, was an inseparable part of Olenin's "salon". He encouraged the literary and scholarly endeavours of his staff and took a very active interest in them. Under Olenin particularly, the library generated a special cultural atmosphere which appealed to staff and users alike. When Gnedich conceived the idea of rendering Homer's Iliad into Russian, Olenin was the first to come to his assistance and he proved a subtle interpreter of the text. Gnedich's translation, which Pushkin called "a great feat", became the common cause of the library. Apart from Olenin, the librarian Dmitry Popov with his knowledge of Greek, Alexander Yermolaev with his grasp of the chronicle tradition and the genealogist Maxim Semiganovsky all contributed to the poet's work, and even the reputedly lazy Krylov learnt Greek in order to help. Assistant Director Sergei Uvarov gave useful advice regarding the metre of the translation. Something like tableaux vivants were staged in the hall of the library, with all those interested participating, in pursuit of the precise translation of Homer's text. Olenin's directorate also saw collective work to produce a commentary on the Lavrentyevskaya Chronicle and preparation for the publication of the Russian chronicle collections. From 1812 a society formed under the auspices of the library worked on the compilation of a concise Slavonic-Russian dictionary, a project which, sadly, never came to fruition.
Anton Delvig, while assistant librarian for the Russian stocks (a position which he had determinedly sought, working for over a year without remuneration), devoted his free time to gathering together in the library what his friend Pletnev termed "the most precious treasures for the demands of intellectual life". Delvig served here from September 1820 to May 1825, a period when he was almost constantly in fine creative spirits. The collective work on Homer's epic and the cult of the Ancient World which Olenin encouraged found reflection in his poetry. Delvig greatly valued his position at the library and would probably never himself have tendered his resignation. The true reasons for his departure, and also for Olenin's unexpectedly harsh attitude towards him, never became known to contemporaries.
The scope of a library's activity and its influence on society depend axiomatically on the state of society itself. This became obvious even in Olenin's time when conditions in the Public Library's "environment" were in almost constant flux. Before the second decade of Alexander's reign was out, the celebratory gatherings on 2 January to mark the anniversary of the library's opening had lost their sparkle. The court was no longer interested.
The enlightened part of Petersburg society was unhappy with the official character of the proceedings and the preponderance of members of the highest four classes of the Table of Ranks and not below. Printed reports of the library's activities ceased to be produced. The demand for annual catalogues of what had been read by the users of the Imperial Public Library and lists of visitors also disappeared. After the Decembrist Rebellion of 14 (26) December 1825 which accompanied the accession of Nicholas I, a monarch with a passionate belief in drill and military discipline, Olenin' s manner of living and of running the library were already quite clearly out of step with the court. Although the number of users continued to grow, albeit slowly, in the 1830s, the library's influence on society and indeed its own condition fell in some respects far short of the original plans and intentions.
Olenin was a product of Catherine's era and he had outlived his time. Already an old man, suffering from a number of ailments and in part also from lack of understanding, he continued to concern himself with the well-being of the Public Library. His small, frail body contained a heart that was kind, generous, and even courageous. At a time when the whole of St Petersburg stayed at home for fear of cholera, Olenin did not abandon the library, demonstrating an astonishing sang-froid. "Of all living beings," Vladimir Odoevsky wrote in 1831, "virtually the only one I saw was Olenin — with a huge greatcoat over his shoulders, port-wine in his hands, a cigar between his teeth, 'cholera' on his lips, and yet with calm in his heart... He acted splendidly and helped the sick with all his might; I have been twice as fond of him from that time onwards." In 1833 Olenin managed to bring a major construction project to completion. A splendid edifice was built onto the block on the comer, consolidating the library's prominent position on Nevsky Prospekt and the adjacent Alexandrinskaya Square.
Principal Book Repository in Russia (1795 - 1813)
New Temple of Enlightenment (1814 - 1842)
Arrival of Dmitry Buturlin as Director (1843 - 1849)
Political Spring in Russia (1850 - 1859)
"Modern Era" (1860 - 1899)
Pre-Revolutionary Years (1900 - 1917)
Civil War and Building a Socialist Economy (1918 - 1940)
WWII. Siege of Leningrad. (1941 - 1945)
Second Half of the 20th Century (1946 - 2000 )