New East Digital Archive

Behind the bookshelves: life in Russia’s village libraries

13 January 2022

Russia’s rural librarians are multi-skilled. They cycle from village to village, managing deliveries, holding poetry evenings, crafting holiday decorations, repotting plants, and tending gardens. Most importantly, they also nurture Russia’s decaying countryside communities. Away from the country’s big cities, librarians not only provide books, but a place of respite against the backdrop of economic and social unease.

By capturing these public servants in their natural habitat — the quiet of the village library — photographer Ksenia Inverse weaves a heart-warming and nuanced story of dedication, resistance, and the joys of a seemingly quiet life.

For her series Behind the Bookshelves, Inverse visited an array of libraries in Mordovia, a multicultural region in Central Russia, in 2021. The spaces themselves veered from grand halls in official Houses of Cultures, to small reading rooms in local schools. “In this series, my scientific and personal interests came together to capture these highly personalised spaces, untouched by modernisation,” Inverse says.

With a background in ethnology, Inverse herself was no stranger to field research. First she had to prove she was not a government inspector, then she had to file a shooting request from Mordovia’s Ministry of Culture. Once granted permission, she also had to seek extra approval from a host of municipal culture councils, before being issued with a list of libraries she could photograph.

Having received this further seal of approval, Inverse found that the village librarians she wanted to talk to were prepared to lower their their guard; she was soon drinking countless cups of tea and sharing sweets with them, as they opened up about themselves.

Most librarians work part-time, moving from one library to another. Some choose to become librarians as a career, while others come from different backgrounds, such as teaching or programming. The majority are women. “Pretty much everyone [I spoke to] has a hobby: crochet, doll making, papier-machè. Usually they’d give free workshops to share their skills with the kids,” Inverse says.

Librarians are also responsible for beautifying and decorating the library, with most relying on their own skills and limited budget to make the library a cosier place. Many also turn to upcycling, with plastic bottles typically transformed into flower pots. It is also common for librarians to buy presents from their own pocket, in a bid to engage local children in library activities or competitions..

In this way, the libraries reflected the villages they served: something that could also be seen on their bookshelves. Mordovia is home to Russia’s Moksha, Shoksha, and Erzya ethnic groups, all of whom have their own Finno-Ugric language. Each library has a selection of books in these languages, as well as Russian.

Inverse says that while young people — who only learn indigenous languages at school — tend to choose Russian books, older generations will often choose books in their native tongue. Detective stories and dramatic love stories are perhaps the most popular.

Sadly, Inverse had to pause her project when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “These libraries are slipping away. In five years time, many will be closed as the population of the countryside continues to decrease. Those that will remain will most likely be redesigned to a standard template — and definitely lose their charm,” the photographer says.