Tomsk State University: TSU won an international grant to save rare books

The Research Library of Tomsk State University and the Faculty of Historical and Political Sciences will scan and introduce to the scientific community 78 rare and small-edition books published in 1597–1916 in the Church Slavonic Cyrillic alphabet. These books are a part of a TSU Research Library collection from an Old Believers’ community. This collection is of great research interest for historians dealing with the Russian history of book publishing and Siberian peasant reading culture.

Old Believers are a Russian religious group that dissented from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. Dissatisfied with the reforms of the patriarch Nikon and facing persecution, some of them found refuge in the deep forests of the taiga, where they lived in closed communities (skits).

The project “Taiga Old Believer Skit as a Keeper, Restorer and Reader of Old Cyrillic Books” will be financed by the Endangered Archives project of the charitable fund Arcadia and curated by the British Library.

“Before we publish the scanned books online, they should be given a proper bibliographical description,” explains Elena Dutchak, head of the project, doctor of sciences in history, and professor at the Faculty of Historical and Political Sciences. “Our team has a great deal of work to do. We need to reconstruct the history of every book and the reading and restoration practices of Siberian peasant monks.”

The whole collection comprises 246 books: handwritten and old printed books published by the Old Believers. In early 2000, “The Skit Library” was gifted to the TSU Research Library by an Old Believers’ community out of respect to TSU archeographers. In 2015, the handwritten part of the collection was scanned and introduced to the scientific community with the support of the Endangered Archives program, and the program curators appreciated the quality of descriptions and scans.

In 2021, the Research Library of the Tomsk State University and the Faculty of Historical and Political Sciences received a grant to digitalize the remaining printed part of the collection. The new project “Taiga Old Believer Skit as a Keeper, Restorer and Reader of Old Cyrillic Books” will preserve, describe, and publish online 78 books of the 16th–20th century. Scanning the books is not the only important result of the project. The Skit Library is a unique book source for studying Russian publishing history and Siberian peasant reading culture.

“The books were published in small batches, and half of them have fake information on the date and place of publishing. Almost all books have traces of keepers’ and readers’ notes, the earliest in the 17th century, the latest in the last quarter of the 20th. This research is going to be very interesting,” notes Elena Dutchak.
The important part of the project is related to conservation. The books have traces of damage due to adverse storage conditions: In the skit, they were kept on the streets, in unheated rooms, and in holes below the ground, for safety. Consequently, they need to be prepared for scanning and then preserved in proper conditions by the restoration team of the TSU Research Library.

In February 2023, after the project is finished, the collection (both handwritten and printed parts) will become available online on the British Library website as well as on the online repository of the TSU Research library and PRO Siberia portal.

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