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Digitization Gives Slavic Materials New Life

Cartoon from flyerNovember 25, 2014—The thrill of an unearthing a long-forgotten treasure in the stacks is a private joy for most, but library staff get the added thrill of bringing the materials to a wider audience through digitization, as Slavic librarian Anna Rakityanskaya well knows.

Rakityanskaya recently spearheaded a project to bring unique materials online after making her own discovery: a collection of ephemera showing the political and cultural life at the end of the Soviet Union in the late '80s and the dawn of the new Russia in the early '90s.

“I recalled one box from the collection out of curiosity from the Depository and I thought it was very interesting, it’s so alive,” she said. The ephemera collection had been minimally described, materials placed in boxes in random order and housed in remote storage, making spontaneous discovery unlikely; Rakityanskaya worked to reorganize the collection’s several thousand pieces into seven distinct sub-collections and created detailed bibliographic records for each, enabling them to be better located by search.

In order to facilitate the discovery even further and provide greater access for teaching and learning, Rakityanskaya arranged for the whole collection to be digitized—a decision supported by the faculty and funded by the grant from the Harvard College Library. Four out of seven sub-collections are now fully scanned and available for use.

Among the recently digitized treasures: campaign materials from several parliamentary elections, including the 1995 election in which 43 political parties participated (the collection has materials from all of them); flyers from the streets of Moscow and photographs taken during the 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt; materials from the political campaign surrounding the 1993 Constitutional referendum and materials from the 1999 Moscow mayoral elections. Next to be digitized are ephmera sub-collections providing cultural, religious and business context for events in Russia in that era as well as materials from the other Soviet republics (later, countries of the former Soviet Union.)

Another recent project by the Slavic Division deals with the Slavic Poor paper collection (pre-1922 books), which needed to be preserved as well as digitized. For both the ephemera and the print books, the library digitization services also provide OCR (optical character recognition) which renders a machine-readable text version for easier consumption.

Scroll down to see a brief slideshow of selected materials the Slavic Division has recently made more widely available online via digitization.


“For me it’s very important to open the hidden collections,” said Rakityanskaya. “What’s the point of accumulating materials if no one can use them?” Above, a handwritten flyer from the Soviet coup d'état attempt in 1991.

Rakityanskaya solicited votes from Slavic Department faculty to make a digitization plan that brought the most highly sought materials online. Above, a flyer for the “Our home is Russia” party, one of 43 that participated in a 1995 parliamentary election.

A “Women of Russia” movement flyer from the same political race features a photograph of a woman posing with clowns.

In contrast, the “Beer lovers’ party” flyer features an all-male cast of caricatured lager-swillers.

Above, a 1920 Ukrainian text from the Slavic Poor paper collection.

A Polish book from the Poor paper collection features stylized text and illustrations typical of the 1920s, when it was published.