People's Libraries and Reading Rooms

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

People’s Libraries and Reading Rooms


(narodnye biblioteki i chital’ni), generally accessible, free educational institutions in prerevolutionary Russia intended for use by the broad, working strata of the population (such as workers, peasants, or artisans).

These institutions were established and maintained by zemstvos (district and provincial assemblies), municipal dumas, cultural-educational societies, cooperatives, peasant communes, and private individuals. The first people’s library was opened by the St. Petersburg Committee for Literacy in 1861 in the village of Viazovka, Saratov Province. In the 1870’s and 1880’s approximately 100 people’s libraries came into being in villages in Viatka, Perm’, Moscow, and other provinces. The first people’s library in a city was established in Tomsk in 1884; people’s libraries were subsequently organized in Odessa, Tbilisi, Kharkov, and other cities. Operating in Moscow were the Turgenev People’s Reading Room (established in 1885) and the Ostrovskii People’s Reading Room (1888); St. Petersburg had the Pushkin People’s Reading Room (1887).

The tsarist government hindered the development of people’s libraries by imposing numerous restrictions on their work. In 1890 the government promulgated Regulations for Free People’s Libraries; people’s libraries were to include only those works that appeared on lists approved by the Ministry of Public Education. According to contemporary accounts, only one-tenth of all the literature published in Russia that was approved for acquisition by lending libraries found its way into people’s libraries. People’s libraries were not allowed to acquire the works of V. G. Belinskii, N. A. Dobroliubov, M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, and many other writers. The policy of the Ministry of Public Education regarding people’s libraries was characterized by V. I. Lenin as “... an outrageous policy of benighting the people, an outrageous policy of the landowners, who want the country to become barbaric” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 24, p. 270).

The revolutionary Social Democrats utilized people’s libraries for the political enlightenment and education of the masses, organizing underground holdings of Marxist literature. The events of the Revolution of 1905–07 compelled the government to abolish the 1890 Regulations, and the people’s libraries were granted the same rights as the lending libraries. By 1914 there were 12,600 people’s libraries and reading rooms, with holdings of approximately 9 million volumes; these were usually small libraries, each having from 300 to 1,000 books. As before, the libraries’ activities were under the surveillance of the tsarist government. After the October 1917 Revolution, people’s libraries and reading rooms became public, or popular (massovye), libraries.


Stakhanov, S. Narodnaia biblioteka-chital’nia i ee posetiteli. Moscow, 1900.
Zviagintsev, E. Pravovoe polozhenie narodnykh bibliotek za 50 let. Moscow, 1916.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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