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Ukrainian library reinvents itself for a New Age

Library staff pose in front of the Borys Lavrenyov Regional Library for Youth. Photo courtesy of Rubryka and TOL.

Library staff pose in front of the Borys Lavrenyov Regional Library for Youth. Photo courtesy of Rubryka and TOL.

Virtually every city, village, and district in Ukraine has a public library, around 15,000 in all for this country of 42 million people. While that means a library is almost always close by, most people hardly notice them, especially as access to a vast range of resources on the internet constantly grows. Yet in the port city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, one award-winning library is bucking the trend.

The Borys Lavrenyov Regional Library for Youth has managed to achieve two major goals at once: meeting the specific needs of the local community by becoming a multifunctional public “hub,” while also redefining Kherson, population 290,000, on the cultural map of Ukraine.

From humble beginnings, the library has become a fully functioning youth center, while retaining its appeal to older people, and currently employs a core team of 26 librarians. Visitors can take part in creative clubs, meet famous writers, and receive psychological and legal support. The library collaborates with schools, offering leisure and educational activities for their pupils and encouraging them to read, as well as with universities, jointly conducting activities for students. The icing on the cake of these unusual activities for a small-city library are the large-scale, regional cultural events that Lavrenyovka organizes – including an ambitious book festival.

The Library as a Public Space

Most libraries in Ukraine simply house books, and even some of those haven’t had their collections updated properly in years. They aren’t particularly popular with the wider public. At first glance the Lavrenyov Library – or Lavrenyovka, as  staff and local visitors affectionately call it – would seem to fit into that category. Founded in 1980, it is located in a one-story building in a quiet and somewhat distant residential area of ​Kherson among nine-story apartment buildings and tall poplar trees. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by a mural of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The walls are covered with paintings by Kherson artists, and then it is almost like in a classic Slavic fairy tale: go right – find this (books), go left –find that (a master class).

The director of the library, Viktoria Lobzova, sits in a neat and cozy office with houseplants and a small sofa for visitors. Photographs of the surrounding neighborhood hang on the walls, and not surprisingly, there are books everywhere. The transformation away from a mere book repository came organically and gradually, she says. Starting in 2006, the staff decided to put an emphasis on work with young people and came up with the idea of integrating a youth center into the usual activities of the library.

That has paid off. In 2017 Lavrenyovka won third prize for its activities with youth in the Ukrainian Library Association’s “Library of the Year” contest. And Barabooka, an all-Ukrainian portal promoting reading for younger people, reports that yearly Lavrenyovka serves over 12,000 readers – quite a healthy figure when one takes into account that the national children’s library in Kyiv, the capital, reaches around 20,000 people each year.

What does it take for a library to become a youth center? Organizing such a wide range of activities has been a challenge, especially since the program has been expanded without more funding from the state. That includes clubs for the kids in subjects such as arts and crafts. Library deputy director Tatiana Ihnatova says Lavrenyovka stuck to its existing structure, with each department deciding to start new activities based on its own experiences, interests, and desires to work in certain areas. That’s how clubs, local history initiatives, and participation in festivals, among other things, came to pass. Constant communication among Lavrenyovka employees has also been key.

“Even during quarantine under the pandemic, we met several times a week on Zoom,” Ihnatova says.

A lot depends on the librarians’ enthusiasm and willingness to learn new things and be proactive. Searching for volunteers, innovating, mastering new skills (such as content creation for their website and social media), and doing all that without additional financing, is not an easy job. What keeps them all going is personal interest, Ihnatova says, and positive feedback from visitors.

Yet Ihnatova and others make clear that little on the youth center side of things could be done without the work of volunteers. Most are enthusiastic young people. “Especially students, so they get experience and practice,” Ihnatova says.

Despite the lack of pay, Olha, who works with kids in the library, remains upbeat: “We like it. And there is so much curiosity and demand. We see how much the children like it; their eyes are shining. It’s very motivating.”

As Lavrenyovka added programming, librarian Iryna Taradymenko says library staff relied on the expertise of outsiders. They invited lawyers and psychologists from the Department of Justice in the Kherson region who work with young people; the youth-focused New Generation nonprofit; the psychological services office of Kherson State University, which provides counseling to university students; and the Center for Children’s and Youth Creativity, a state institution. University students, under the supervision of professionals, have also pitched in over the years.

A diverse audience

The library has managed to diversify its offerings enough to find audiences among younger pupils as well as university students from all across the city of Kherson and not just nearby schools, the norm for most libraries.

Hanna Hennadiyivna, a primary school teacher at one school which works closely with the library, says her students are delighted with Lavrenyovka’s activities. “Twice a month we either visit the library or they visit us. We create handmade things together: plant trees and flowers, learn something new about this [activity]. Children often ask when we will go to the library next.” Hennadiyivna also works with students with special educational needs, such as motor disorders, and believes that for them such attention and activity is invaluable.

The library cooperates closely with educational institutions in the wider region, such as the Maritime Academy, theCollege of Economics and Law, and Kherson’s universities, whose attendees go to the library for lectures and events, such as student legal debates.

“At the beginning of the quarantine,” Ihnatova recalls, “they even called from the Maritime Academy and asked if we had prepared anything else for them remotely. Apparently, the cadets were bored without us.”

Lavrenyovka has conducted training sessions on overcoming and preventing conflicts in families and schools. Kateryna Hryhorivna, a teacher at a high school in Kherson, said holding these workshops regularly had helped reduce bullying in the classroom.

Nina Sorokina, head of the United Family NGO, says mothers and children often visit Lavrenyovka for clubs and holiday-related festivities.

It is very helpful for parents. They relax and communicate, and the children meanwhile have fun. This is a place not only for children, but also for parents. A real community is being created there.

Even in the conditions of the pandemic and quarantine, the library staff did not allow the creative groups to stagnate. Online lessons and instructions for making handicrafts for young visitors regularly appeared on the Lavrenyovka website, for example.

The library also has its own tour desk and provides city tours – an unusual, if not unique, activity for a Ukrainian library. Larysa Baeva, a librarian and local history buff, conducts the tours once or twice a month at a modest cost of 50 hryvnias per person (around $1.80). Before the pandemic, the tours managed to attract groups of up to 10 people. Even casual passers-by would get interested and request a tour for them and their guests from other cities. “Then we conduct tours for them as well,” deputy director Ihnatova says with a laugh.

Tetyana, a local woman from Kherson who didn’t wish to provide her full name, gushed with enthusiasm over the experience, calling it “a very interesting and informative excursion along one of the oldest and most attractive streets of our city.” Iryna, another tour participant, agreed. “Such a wonderful, informative, interesting excursion to the past of our city. Larysa Baeva, the guide, is unsurpassed! The kids were delighted!” she says.

Vlad Samoilenko, an official at the Ministry of Infrastructure, is also the head of a Kyiv-based NGO called Urban Crew that promotes healthy urban development and inclusivity. He welcomes the library’s broadened scope of activity.

“Libraries should not only be seen as places to borrow books or read them,” he says. “Today they are public spaces. Modern hubs of this type are the places where people of different ages – mainly schoolchildren, students, and graduates – can meet, train, work.”

Bookwanderings

Convinced that reading is what forms a proactive, thinking, young generation, Lavrenyovka puts a lot of effort into running book festivals – a rare activity for the country’s libraries. Held with the support of the local authorities, “Discover your book” takes place in a different town or village in the Kherson region each year, and “Book Nicholas” has become an annual winter festival in the city of Kherson on the weekend closest to St. Nicholas Day.

A solo project of Lavrenyovka has garnered the most attention, however: the Bookwanderings literary tour. Over five months in 2019, the library brought contemporary Ukrainian writers to Kherson, holding meetings and presentations with them in the city, as well as taking them to the towns and villages of the region. That allowed even children from the most remote areas to take part in a special cultural event.

In total, 29 meetings with 17 writers took place in 10 parts of Kherson region with the assembly halls packed with schoolchildren. Earlier attempts to bring famous writers to all corners of the region had run up against a lack of funding, but this time the library won a grant of 293,315 hryvnias ($10,750) from the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, a governmental institution which promotes culture and the arts.

Iryna Kravets is the director of the library in Velyka Oleksandrivka, one of the villages on the Bookwanderings route. She believes this initiative is invaluable for areas usually on the periphery of any cultural life. In this rural area, she says,

We are not so spoiled by cultural entertainment: no exhibitions, no museums, no concerts. And it is very good when people here get the opportunity to communicate live with writers. Of course, there are always those who sit in the back rows and giggle, but so many students had that sparkle in their eyes! For them, those meetings were a breath of fresh air. It would be for the best if this project continues.

Librarians invited writers from all over Ukraine via Facebook, where many are active and interested in being promoted outside their home cities. Bookwanderings was promoted on Facebook (the library gained 1,000 new followers), and the events were broadcast live on social networks, where a total of more than 17,000 viewers joined. The library also got local media interested in the events.

“Honestly, I didn’t think the media would support our project so much,” librarian Taradymenko says. “Thanks to Bookwanderings, we all got acquainted with journalists” and now regularly give interviews at other cultural events.

Many who attended said they found out about Bookwanderings from social networks or from a story on TV or radio, she adds.

The logistics of such an event were far from easy, from arranging transportation for writers around the region to finding replacements for authors who fell ill a week before their appearance. Librarians had to learn new skills on the fly, and crisis management became part of their routine.

Writers who take part in the library’s events promote Lavrenyovka and Kherson as a cultural center on their social networks, changing the perception of the entire region in the process. Yaryna Katorozh, a Lviv writer, took part in “Book Nicholas” back in 2017 and since then has returned twice to Kherson, fascinated by the energy that Lavrenyovka creates.

“The library already has a very loyal audience,” she says.

But we met some for the first time, which indicates good promotion. I have traveled to many cities in Ukraine and visited many libraries, and my impressions have been varied. So I can say that Lavrenyovka is one of those [places] where you can see that people work hard, creating an increasingly interesting and deeper cultural space in their library.

No sure thing

Hanna Paniuta, a librarian from the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, says the Lavrenyov Library’s innovative approach and diverse range of activities have made it well known even outside the Kherson region. “At Lavrenyovka, the librarians have created a comfortable and positive space with a welcoming atmosphere,” she says.

Not every library can achieve that, for various reasons. As Paniuta points out, Lavrenyovka’s regional status means a larger budget and a staff of 40. “We, in our library, for instance, have only four librarians. It is above our capability to hold an entire festival on our own.”

While impressive, many of Lavrenyovka’s activities remain fragile, depending on the passions of a single person or a single grant to keep going – even a successful program like Bookwanderings. In Ukraine, local governments cover the financing and maintenance of libraries, and even in regional centers, these allocations are usually minuscule, only about 0.4 percent of a typical local budget.

That translates into small salaries for librarians, among the lowest in the state sector, and the reality that libraries can rarely afford to use their funds for anything beyond the essential. To earn a bit of additional income, libraries may charge people for computer usage, internet access, or copy services. In Lavrenyovka’s case, the library makes money through guided tours and summer kids’ programs, as well as print and copy services. Everything else is free.

The library also remains very dependent on volunteers, and while the staff is grateful for the help, not all professionals are able or willing to work for free even if they enthusiastically support Lavrenyovka’s mission.

Even with all the innovation, the number of visitors fluctuates. “People go their own way as their needs come and go. Someone needs a book, someone needs to work on a computer. That is why we like to hold mass events,” Ihnatova explains, “to attract more people to us.”

The pandemic changed Lavrenyovka’s plans and forced it to delve deeper into online opportunities. The staff needed to be more active in posting content for readers to enjoy while socially distancing, keeping the clubs running virtually, or creating presentations for students of schools and colleges studying remotely. In September 2020, the library also held its first online festival, last year’s edition of “Discover your book.” This presented fresh challenges, requiring new skills from the staff, but at the same time opening up new opportunities. The online format allowed people who would not normally come in person to Kherson to participate, and for everyone to safely experience the festival from their homes.

As urban expert Vlad Samoilenko noted, in order to bring people back to them, libraries need to adapt to new realities and develop. To survive, they need to change. Adapt or die – evolution, it turns out, works with libraries as well.

The existence of Lavrenyovka is no miracle and its librarians are no superheroes. Responding to the needs of the community has been its guiding principle. Deputy director Ihnatova believes that it is all about listening to what people are saying, to what colleagues are saying, to what is being said at schools.

When you listen, Ihnatova says, the answers to what to do next come on their own.

Maryna Smahina is a Ukrainian journalist, translator, and novelist. She is a senior editor at Rubryka, the first Ukrainian news site specifically for solutions journalism. This article was originally published by Transitions Online. A version of this article originally appeared in Rubryka. Reprinted with permission. 

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