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Information Please

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"The Soviet people did not want bread; they wanted information!" Helen Teplitskaia slaps the table to make her point. "The easiest way to control people is to deny them access to ideas, to limit what they can hear and see, prevent them from reading books and magazines that do not follow Communist thinking.

"But," she adds, "you cannot prevent ideas from happening or information from being shared."

For years a top librarian in the Soviet library system, Teplitskaia aided that systemized censorship, meeting regularly with Communist Party officials to make sure that "revolutionary" material was being withheld from the public.

An odd job, she admits, for someone with two strikes against her in that society--she was Jewish and not a member of the Communist Party. But she was good at her job, she says, and her success gave her a chance to work from within.

By the time she left Leningrad two years ago to seek medical help in the U.S. for her young son, she had already introduced some important changes.

Surrounded today by books she could never see in her hometown of Leningrad (now renamed Saint Petersburg), Teplitskaia is an information-services librarian at the University of Illinois' Library of the Health Sciences.

Now her goal is to create a direct link between librarians in the U.S. and the former USSR, allowing them to share books and materials that would be made available to the public. She is working with the American Library Association, headquartered in Chicago, to establish this relationship, which would be the first of its kind. The project has been slowed because of the recent overthrow of the Communist government.

"Right now because of the crushing of the whole system, you can hardly predict what is going to happen," she says.

A short, thin woman, Teplitskaia pauses between thoughts to puff on an ever-present cigarette. She runs her fingers through her dark hair as she contemplates answers. She selects her words carefully, still adjusting, she says, to the fact that "in America there is no censorship like we had. You will never know that censorship.

"Even Xerox machines were under strictest control in the Soviet Union because they could reproduce materials," she says of the job she held overseeing 140 Soviet libraries. "There was practically no desktop publishing available, not because Russia couldn't afford it. Russia is a wealthy country. Millions were spent on God knows what--Soviet cosmonauts were the first in space. Because there was little computer technology doesn't mean there was a lack of know-how or technology available. They didn't want the computer systems to be widely available because they didn't want information out of their control."

Teplitskaia, who is 36, became a librarian by accident. Her mother, a musician, insisted that she be proficient in English. Teplitskaia wanted to use her language skills in some sort of job, but school teaching was about all that was offered.

"I didn't want to teach," she says. "I loved art. I wanted to go to the university to see what I could do with my English. But my parents told me, 'Helen, don't try to go to the university. We are Jewish. Your chances of getting in are practically equal to zero.'

"But I loved books. I was reading all the time. Sometimes I was walking down the street with my book open. That doesn't mean I saw myself as a librarian," she says.

The university in Leningrad had openings in its librarian program, and Teplitskaia figured that if she was accepted she could parlay that education into something interesting.

"Competition was scary," she says. "Nine candidates for any one space in the college. Chances were little I would pass the exams and enroll at the first attempt." But she did pass and discovered she enjoyed learning how to put together a bibliography, organize a library, find material quickly.

Upon graduation, she was invited to become a bibliographer at one of the medical libraries in Leningrad. Promoted after three months to chief bibliographer, she gave lectures to medical students on how to use the library.

Her success ended in 1980 when her parents emigrated to the United States and convinced her to follow suit. "At that time, leaving the USSR was really hated," she explains. "But my mother talked about this free society where you could talk and discuss whatever you want without any danger of being imprisoned because you have different opinions. I thought this was where I wanted to go, too."

At the time Teplitskaia's son was three months old, and she wanted to wait a while before taking him on such a long journey. "I said good-bye to my mother at the airport. I thought I would see my parents in four or five months. But I did not see them for eight years. I was refused visa."

Being a refusenik meant Teplitskaia could not keep her job at the medical school library. "I couldn't work in the school where Marxism/Leninism was really one of the top priorities. Because I wanted to emigrate, I couldn't work teaching medical students."

No other library would hire her, she says, because "being a refusenik means that this person is not reliable in a political sense. So nobody wanted to risk."

Around the same time, her husband, who was a psychiatrist, left her and their son. "He was having a hard time being married to someone who wanted to leave," she explains. "He did not agree with my decision."

Unemployed and a single mother, Teplitskaia lived for years teaching English to the few Soviets who would come to her home. Her mother shipped not only clothing and supplies to her but also an occasional packet of rubles she sent through the refusenik underground network.

The rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet program of perestroika changed Teplitskaia's life dramatically. In 1985, she learned from a friend that the downtown Leningrad library system was looking for a chief methodologist--the same thing as an executive director--and her application for the job was accepted.

"Libraries in Russia were so political that every teeny-tiny change in minor plans of the Communist Party had to be immediately reflected in the libraries," she explains.

"A big part of my responsibilities was advising on how to follow this course. It was obligatory that I would attend the meetings of executives in the Communist Party in this area."

The Soviet Library System was established in 1920 by V.I. Lenin, whose wife, N.K. Krupskaya, was an eminent library theoretician. In Lenin's view, libraries existed to promote Communist ideas through education and political enlightenment.

Teplitskaia contends that the Soviet Union is the world leader in the average numbers of books, libraries, and librarians per citizen. According to statistics kept by the American Library Association, in 1990 there were 326,000 libraries in the Soviet system, which held 5.6 billion items and employed 480,000 librarians and other staff members.

However, she is quick to note, what was available to the Soviet people was of such poor quality that many citizens stopped using the system. Libraries deteriorated over the years because there was too much emphasis on stocking bookshelves with political propaganda, and not enough funding of new books and materials.

Many of the items in the libraries were kept under lock and key. "Books and especially journal articles and newspapers from abroad would be imprisoned. There was a very limited list of people who had access to these resources. You had to get a special permission to get access. Only around 1987 or 1988 did these doors start opening," Teplitskaia says.

The materials most heavily banned dealt with business, sex, religion, philosophy, and politics. "The books allowed had to be approved according to the Marxist/Leninist theory of development."

In 1988 Teplitskaia made her first visit to the United States to see her parents, who were living in Chicago. During her few weeks here, she toured a number of libraries and made contact with the American Library Association. From the ALA she got the idea to reestablish professional library associations in the Soviet Union: they had flourished under the czarist rule.

"Lenin and the other revolutionaries didn't want any independent library societies, because they [the societies] did not follow the thinking of the new regime," Teplitskaia explains. "But under perestroika, it was possible to create a professional library association."

Working for more than a year to develop a constitution and bylaws, Teplitskaia received permission from the Ministry of Culture to create the Leningrad Library Society, which Teplitskaia hoped would be used to pump energy into the library system by making librarians feel that what they were doing was important to educating the Soviet people.

There were more than 500 librarians at the society's first meeting in May of 1989. "Everyone had ideas on how to improve the system," she remembers. "It was very exciting."

Recalling the moment, she muses: "Here I was at the very top of my career, being very successful, being absolutely happy with what I'm doing. I was able to do things that I never dreamed to be doing, improving the whole library system. It was one of the most happiest periods in my life."

And once again, that success was about to be disrupted.

At the end of 1989, Teplitskaia learned that her son needed medical attention for a condition she does not like to discuss. The best care was available in the United States, but the treatment would take a year to complete.

By now remarried to an artist/designer, Teplitskaia decided in early 1990 to leave her job for a year and travel to the U.S. with her son and husband.

"We just locked the door in our apartment and we didn't think about leaving forever. We brought our suitcases, but everything was left in Leningrad, including our cars."

Unwilling to rely on her parents for support, Teplitskaia applied for a work permit but found that no library would hire her. "My degree was not valid here. Ninety-nine percent of libraries will hire you only if you have a degree from an ALA-accredited school."

So she took the first job offered her, as a clerk in a medical supply company, earning $5 an hour. Because her husband spoke no English, he remained unemployed.

"My heart was in Russia," she admits. "I was thinking Leningrad, badly missing my friends, my colleagues. I was thankful to God that at least I was making this $5 per hour that I'm able to rent an apartment and buy some food. But to me it was a disaster."

Getting any job in a library became her goal. "Being a librarian had become part of me, like washing," she says. She contacted the American Medical Association and asked if they accepted volunteer interns in their library. "They told me to just come in, and so I did. It was exactly what I needed--to learn the American library system."

Through her contacts at the AMA, she applied for a job as a library clerk at a local medical institute. The job lasted only a week. Due to a conflict of personalities, Teplitskaia was fired--a week before her son's surgery.

Again through AMA contacts, she applied for the position she now has at the University of Illinois Library of the Health Sciences. Three days after her son's surgery she spent a day in interviews, which eventually led to her being hired in the summer of 1990.

That summer she contacted the American Library Association to learn what type of information it had about the Soviet library system. "I was surprised to learn that the ALA sends librarians to developing countries to share knowledge, but had no committee on improving relations with the USSR."

In January of 1991, Teplitskaia delivered a proposal to the ALA midwinter conference, which was being held that year in Chicago, to establish a committee that would work to create direct connections between U.S. and Soviet library associations. By now there were library associations in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Leningrad, and Moscow.

And by now Teplitskaia had made a decision to stay in the United States and apply for permanent residency. The ALA not only approved her proposal, but appointed her to chair the new committee.

Teplitskaia has spent the past year contacting as many libraries as possible in the U.S. and former Soviet Union to learn how many would be willing to participate in an exchange of information. "The range of libraries wanting to participate is incredible. They want to establish library to library, librarian to librarian, direct communications, share material, books, learn state-of-the-art technology, how to apply it, what computer system to use," Teplitskaia explains.

She has already organized librarians in Los Angeles and Saint Petersburg to promote a library cooperation program, and is now developing a computer data base for a program that can be used to link the U.S. and the Commonwealth of Independent States (of which Russia, her former homeland, is the largest member).

Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists, Teplitskaia finds her goal a bit harder to achieve. She must contact each former Soviet state directly, a time-consuming task given that she is doing this project on a volunteer basis.

And she is searching for sources of funding to initiate widespread projects. For now, she has been a liaison and clearinghouse of information for librarians from both countries.

"I know politically everything is in chaos throughout the whole of former Soviet Union," she says. "And that is why now is the best time to develop these direct links. The people are desperate for information. This is the most exciting time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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