Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri Libraries on Borrowed Time

Even finding the book you want can be well-nigh impossible in Azerbaijan’s crumbling library system.
By Nigar Musayeva
Irina Sevastyanova held a disintegrating book in her hands and took off her glasses in a gesture of despair.

The Mamedkhan Library in central Baku, where she works, used to be one of the most popular in Azerbaijan. Now its crumbling walls, worn linoleum and Soviet-era furniture stand in testament to years of neglect. In the reading room, the chairs are rickety and varnish is peeling off the desks. In autumn and winter, the lack of central heating forces staff to use electric heaters just to stay warm.

All across Azerbaijan, libraries have suffered a decade and a half of chronic under-funding. Some have closed, and those that survive find it hard to make new acquisitions because fewer books are published than in Soviet times, and they are more expensive. The declining number of readers complain that when they do go to the library, they cannot get the books they want.

Leading academics and writers warn that the collapsing library system has alarming implications for the future of educational standards.

“The local authorities give us money only to buy new books – and not very much at that,” said Sevastyanova. “For the whole of last year, for example, we received just one million manats.” That sum is the equivalent of around 200 US dollars.

Sevastyanova, who earns just 160,000 manats, 35 dollars, a month after 30 years as a librarian, says she has to use some of the money to buy light bulbs and other essentials to keep the library going.

“As a result, my salary is only enough to pay for my journey to work,” she said.

Azerbaijan officially has more than 9,000 libraries, but almost all are in a desperate state.

The national Scientific and Technical Library recently moved from its central Baku building to more cramped accommodation in a remote location. The old library building has been taken over by the Bank of Baku. The former Lenin Library has closed as a public institution, and is now a presidential library.

Latifa Mamedova, who heads the office in charge of libraries at the Azerbaijani culture ministry, blames the libraries’ funding problems on the fact that while they are formally under her ministry’s control, they are financed out of the budgets of local government authorities and the cultural centres they run.

However, in response to repeated requests for information, neither local authorities not cultural centres were able to explain to IWPR how the funding for libraries works, and this correspondent was simply passed from one department to another.

Public libraries cannot make purchases from bookshops or direct from the publishers. By law, they have to acquire new books from a government-run distribution centre, which charges more than the market rate, and in addition cannot provide them with books in Russian. The lack of new Russian-language stock is a problem both for native speakers and the many others who read the language, despite the increasing use of Azerbaijani.

In January 2004, President Ilham Aliev issued orders for a range of literary classics, reference books and encyclopaedias to be published and distributed to libraries around the country.

All these books are in the Latin script used for Azerbaijani, which has gradually come into use since the country became independent in 1991. The downside is for younger readers educated using the new alphabet, the vast stock of books written in the older Azerbaijani script based on Russian Cyrillic is becoming inaccessible.

The one library in the country that is still full of visitors is the Akhundov National Library. Like others, it comes in for its share of criticism for its cold reading rooms and readers’ complaints that they can never find the books they want.

But library director Kerim Tairov says the fact that it comes under a different funding mechanism means it has virtually no financial problems. In September, it even doubled the wages it pays librarians.

“The reason is that our library is directly under the financial control of the ministry of culture,” he explained. “The ministry does everything it can to provide us with what we need, and international organisations also help.”

Dinara Bairamova, a 20-year-old literature student at Baku University, said it is a struggle to find the books she wants in the city’s libraries.

“When the teacher sends us to look for one book or another in the library, we get very unhappy because we know in advance that we’ll have to kick up a fuss,” she said. “Sometimes you get the impression that the librarians deliberately think up reasons not to hand the book over. As a result, before you find the book you want, you quarrel with them and end up in a bad mood.”

Not many people actually want to become librarians. Of the 95 who graduate from Baku University every year, very few actually take up the profession. The pay may be poor, but it is still comparable with other public-sector jobs. The real drawback may be that libraries offer few opportunities to make money on the side.

As a result, most librarians have worked in the job all their lives and are now close to retirement. “I carry on working mostly out of inertia and to see what will happen,” said librarian Yelena Selimova. “Sometimes I think that our libraries are living out their last days and they will soon stop existing altogether.”

Social change has also affected the way people use libraries. Young Azerbaijanis who can afford to use the internet can get around the lack of books, while according to writer Natik Rasulzade, poorer people are reading less anyway.

“How can we even talk about libraries if half the population have the internet, and the other half have no time for libraries as they spend all their time and energy trying to feed themselves and their children?” asked Rasulzade.

He added, “In recent years there’s been a strong decline in interest in education, culture and art, and this is having a very negative effect on the public’s intellectual standards. Virtually no books are published, and those that do come out don’t get read.

“Different times, different habits.”

Nigar Musayeva is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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