119 Basarabian Nights: A Memoir of a WESS Librarian in Moldova

By Beau David Case

WESS Newsletter

Spring 1998, Vol. 21, no. 2

Association of College & Research Libraries
©American Library Association

Introduction. Twelve years ago the American Library Association and United States Information Agency (USIA) created the Library Fellows program. Each year libraries from around the world welcome American librarians into their libraries to participate in special projects of the libraries' design; and from 1993-1996 American libraries welcomed foreign librarians. Unfortunately, this truly wonderful exchange program may have come to an end, as Congressional budget cuts prevent USIA from funding the program beyond this year.

The Library Fellows program has brought me to the Republic of Moldova to assist the National Library and the Soros Foundation of Moldova with their creation of a school of management for librarians. During my visit, January through May 1998 (17 weeks in all, or 119 days), I will be holding the inaugural courses of the school. Librarians from across Moldova will learn first-hand American management theory and practice.

Background Information. In August 1991 the Moldova Soviet Socialist Republic officially gained independence and became Republica Moldova. The country, covering 34,000 square kilometers, lies among the Danube, Nistru, and Prut rivers, and shares boarders with Ukraine and Romania. Historically known as Basarabia, this region's history is tumultuous, having been ruled by numerous entities-Moldovan princes, Turkish overlords, Russia, Romania-who continuously exchanged it among themselves for over a millennium.

The capital and largest city, Chisinau, has a population of 735,000. Other major cities include Tiraspol with 194,000 persons, Balti with 157,000, and Benderi with 137,000. Moldova's population of 4.4 million includes 65% Romanians, 14% Ukrainians, 13% Russians, 4% Gagauzi, 2% Bulgarians, and 2% Jews. Ethnic conflicts abound in the country. There are two determined separatist movements, one in the South involving ethnic Gagauzi, and one in the northern territory of Transnistria involving ethnic Ukrainians and Russians. This latter conflict escalated to civil war in 1992, and today a peace-keeping force resides there-the Russian 14th Army, previously under the leadership of now retired General Alexander Lebed.

Under Soviet rule many ethnic Russians emigrated to Moldova's major cities. As a result, today the majority of the urban population speaks only Russian. Moldova's linguistic revolution took place on August 31, 1989, when Romanian (constitutionally called "Moldovan") became the official state language, and was thereafter written in the Latin script. Despite several generations of intense Russification, Moldovans of ethnic Romanian origin nonetheless have retained their cultural heritage. Customs, folklore, food, peasant life, proverbs, religion, and so on-all remain Romanian today.

The national poet of Moldova is the librarian Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889). What Goethe is to the Germans and what Shakespeare is to the English, the short-lived but prolific Eminescu is to the ethnic Romanians. Yet Moldovans differ from Romanians in that they also claim a Russian as their second national poet: Aleksander Pushkin, who was exiled to Chisinau. The national hero of the Moldovans is Stefan the Great (1457-1504), who held back the Ottoman Empire and sustained a sovereign Moldova. Stefan's image adorns the country. The currency displays his image, parks honor him in bronze, and streets bear his name.

Libraries & Librarians. Despite its small size, Moldova is rich in libraries: 3,347 in all-48% academic and school, 46% public, 4% science and medical, and 2% other-employing 5,323 librarians, 99% of whom are women. The three most significant libraries are the National Library, the Ion Creanga National Library for Children, and the Bogdan Hasdeu Municipal Library of Chisinau. The National Library regularly publishes a descriptive directory of Moldovan libraries, most recently Ghidul bibliotecilor din Republica Moldova, Biblioteca Nationala a Republicii Moldova: Chisinau, 1997.

The National Library, founded in 1832, is under the directorship of Alexei Rau, who holds advanced degrees in management, but who is a librarian by profession-change indeed has come to Moldovan libraries. The library collections include three million book volumes, with an additional 13,000 rare books and manuscripts, 27,000 audiovisual materials, 63,000 musical scores, and a special collection of Moldovan illustrated postcards numbering 96,000. 216 librarians serve a body of registered users totaling 17,000, who borrow over one million volumes annually. All Moldovan libraries ultimately report to the National Library.

Claudia Balaban directs the National Library for Children, founded in 1944. The Library has three branches, with a total of 300,000 volumes and 9,000 audiovisual materials. Registered users number over 11,000 and librarians 55. A forthcoming article of mine describes this library in greater detail.

The Municipal Library of Chisinau, founded in 1944, is directed by Lidia Kulikovski. 46 branches hold a total of 1.7 million volumes, and maintain a staff of 314 librarians. Registered users number 188,000, accounting for 4.7 million loans in 1997! Some of the branches are specialized libraries, including twelve devoted solely to children's materials, one to art, and one to music. The system also boasts "minority" libraries. The most significant is the Yitzik Manger Jewish Municipal Library, founded in 1991, which also serves as a cultural center. The library of fifteen librarians, headed by Anna Batzmanova, houses 40,000 volumes, and has 10,000 registered users. The library recently published two fascinating books: Rosh Hodesh and the Jewish Library (1996) and Guide to Bessarabian Jewry and its Contribution to Moldovan Literature, Culture and Science (1997). Other minority branches exist for Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and Gagauzi. Ms. Kulikovski will present a paper on minority services at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington.

The change of government brought reciprocal change in libraries. For example, prior to 1989, Moldovan library collections as a whole were 95% Russian-language. Today the figure is approximately 30% due in part to the elimination of materials (Soviet government documents from a depository library program), but mostly due to aggressive acquisitions and large gifts from Romania and elsewhere.

There are several differences between American and Moldovan libraries. First is automation. Few Moldovan libraries incorporate this new technology. Most of the PC's that do exist were donated by the Soros Foundation, and automation typically only involves small acquisitions and cataloging systems. Public libraries use the U.K. product Tinlib and academic libraries use the Netherlands product Vobis-both of these systems offer a Romanian-language interface. Another difference is that Moldovan libraries maintain bibliography departments responsible for creating local bibliographies and indexes of books and periodicals on all subjects. Finally, many Moldovan libraries produce their own impressive publications, such as informative magazines and scholarly reference works-a practice which most American libraries, sadly, have abandoned. Despite the differences, the single most important aspect of libraries is identical in both countries: excellent service to users.

The new school of management in which I teach is the vision of Alexei Rau. Rau's goal is to "transfuse the mentality" of Moldovan librarians. 45 years of Soviet library centralization has left its stain on Moldovan libraries, most notably apathy on the part of library managers, and subsequently, their employees. Quite simply, they resist change and the improvement it may bring. But other forces are at work as well. Of chief significance is the economy, or lack of one. Moldova is a poor agricultural country-once the breadbasket of the entire Soviet Union. Today the government budget is small, and among the hardest hit are librarians, who make approximately 40 U.S. dollars per month. The poverty level, calculated by the federal government itself, is 110 dollars per month. The irony is that all librarians are federal employees. Needless to say there is a lack of motivation among librarians. Rau's goal is for the new school to train library managers (directors, assistant directors, and department heads) in contemporary, but proven, management techniques-empowering staff, shared decision-making, quality management, non-financial motivation of employees, etc.-all of which will help ease the administrative stalemate in Moldova's libraries.

I have already begun to see some success. First, at the National Annual Library Science Conference, one of my "students," a municipal library director, presented a paper on new pay services in her library. I had spent one class discussing similar marketing and pay services ideas. Moreover, she quoted my warning to the librarians: "libraries are not football matches, and we cannot expect readers to pay admission" (quite apt for Europe this year). Second, I had spent another class discussing Ohio State University's requirement that every student in their first semester enroll in a library skills course taught by librarians. In a paper by another of my director-students, she announced that her university was implementing a similar program! Rau's dream may be realized sooner than he expects, for although adversity nags Moldovan librarians, they nonetheless are attracted to this career (as are we Americans), and most important, earnestly strive to offer the best possible materials and services to their users.

Contacts. For further information about USIA, visit the homepage of the American Embassy of Moldova (http://usis.moldnet.md). For more information on the Library Fellows program, contact April Brinkmeyer abrinkme@ala.org. And finally, for additional information about Moldovan libraries or about Moldova itself, contact Beau Case case.42@osu.edu.


Return to WESS Newsletter
WESSWEB | WESS Newsletter Editor