Ukrainian Libraries Sequester the Origins of Written Language and History

Often a fixture of childhood or a place of refuge during adulthood, libraries around the world share the pungent smell of binder’s glue, the brittleness of worn texts, and the familiar silence of learning. Yet, reading was once the sole intellectual providence of religious men, and like other regions of the world, in Ukraine the relationship between faith and written language spawned this country’s first libraries.

With the adoption in 988 of the Greek Orthodox faith in the Kyivan Rus, the geographical precursor to Ukraine and its surrounding environs, libraries first emerged within the boundaries of churches and monasteries. Yaroslav the Wise, a committed learner, established the largest library of the region in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. Building the collection with titles in astronomy, geography, history, philosophy, and law was central to Yaroslav the Wise’s mission yet, the Saint Sophia Cathedral library also became famous for writing, printing, and binding its own books. Indeed, these handmade books crafted in the St. Sophia library seeded the early collections of other libraries in Ukraine.

Intense strife through the centuries took a heavy toll on early Ukrainian libraries. Wars and fire decimated collections until only single copies of original manuscripts remained. Still, libraries achieved considerable prominence by the 16th century as monastery and church collections were absorbed into libraries in Kyiv and Lviv and funded by the wealthy. Occupation in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century under the Austria-Hungarian Empire ironically fed the spread of reading rooms. Nearly seventy-five percent of Ukrainian localities in western Ukraine constructed some sort of library during the years some recognize as the Eastern European period of Enlightenment.

With the arrival of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, libraries in Ukraine took a back seat to those concentrated in Moscow and Leningrad. Ironically, this concentration of resources in the power centers of the Soviet regime did little to deter the establishment of Ukraine’s largest library, the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. Built in 1918, the Vernadsky Library is a Mecca for any bibliophile, and today, contains more than 15 million books, magazines, maps, sheet music, manuscripts, fine arts materials, newspapers, and unusual documents. A repository for the most complete collection of Slavic writing and the documents of Ukrainian leaders, the library receives over 160,000 new items annually. Christened a United Nations depository in 1964, the library holds all English and Russian language publications generated from the world’s central diplomatic body.

The library may have grown from modest beginnings, but today, over 45,000 libraries exist in Ukraine. Open to all who walk through their learning doors, the sanctity of both Ukraine’s ancient and contemporary libraries continue to delight young children and to offer adults intellectual and emotional solace on days when only a book will soothe a beleaguered soul.