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Rediscovering Russian National Bibliography (Kirill Fesenko, 2005)

Letopisi – national bibliography indexes – are records of Russia’s publishing activity. They reflect the country’s intellectual output and even its “spiritual powers,” as it was passionately put by S.A. Vengerov, Knizhnaia Palata’s (Russian Book Chamber) first director in 1917. [1] Letopisi come to light in the following way: Russian publishers are obliged by depository law to send a copy of all new publications including serial titles to Knizhnaia Palata (KP) which serves as the main legal deposit for printed documents. Bibliographic records of the processed materials are then published in Letopisi -- ten serial publications containing bibliographic records organized by categories of material: books, periodicals, newspaper and journal articles, dissertations, reviews, graphic publications, maps, music and bibliographies. East View has been distributing these publications for many years and our numbers show that Letopisi have traditionally been among the most popular titles subscribed to by Slavic libraries where they serve as one of the main sources for reference services.

Providing comprehensive coverage of major textual and non-textual printed materials, Letopisi reflect publishing patterns for Russia (see Table 1) and are used for historic and current research in all fields of knowledge. Certain Letopisi features have been known to be particularly useful. For example, Knizhnaia letopis’ currently provides subject access to records for roughly 80-85 percent of all books published in Russia with a press run of over 100 copies, including book series and continuations. However, some materials are included regardless of the press run numbers: research publications (conference materials, publications of research and educational institutions, etc.), literary works and children’s literature. Thus, Knizhnaia letopis’ can be used as a unique source of information on grey literature as well. Letopis’ zhurnal’nykh statei also provides subject access to selected articles from over 3,000 magazines and journals. It is particularly useful as a source of information on authoritative Trudy from the Russian Academy of Sciences and its regional organizations, science and technology research institutions, works published by museums and libraries. Letopis’ avtoreferatov dissertatsii is one of the most comprehensive sources on doctoral dissertations. Letopis’ periodicheskikh i prodolzhaiushchikhsia izdanii (LPPI) is another useful resource uncovering publication history of thousands of Russia’s central and regional newspapers, journals, continuations and collections of work.[2]

Despite the indispensable content of Letopisi, researchers and librarians commonly agree that they are daunting to use in paper format. Most popular Letopisi series covering books, newspaper and journal articles are published weekly and are very time consuming to work with if one needs, for example, to follow a subject over a period of several years or find works by a specific author. They often come late and take a lot of processing time and shelf space. Not surprisingly, in a time of increased reliance on electronic resources, librarians witness decreasing use of paper Letopisi. Providing online access to these records appeared to be an obvious solution for the deficiencies of paper editions.

With these ideas in mind, East View approached Knizhnaia Palata and after lengthy negotiations a contract for Letopisi digital conversion for online access was signed. Giving these rights to another company is not an easy decision for any publisher but two factors in particular played favorably for East View: we had already been partnering with KP on the distribution of Letopisi since the early 1990s and had the necessary experience and a good reputation with other publishers for putting their content online. Our general idea for this project was to create a bibliographic database that would preserve the best characteristics of Letopisi in paper format (TOCs, indexes, regular updates) while supplementing them with various searching and browsing options for easy navigation through the millions of bibliographic records.

Though East View had already been successfully developing large full text databases for newspaper and journal articles, images and statistical tables for several years, this was our first project dealing specifically with bibliographic data. Very soon into the project, it became apparent that building a platform for bibliographic records was a more challenging task in comparison to previous projects. Firstly, bibliographic records are more complex structures than full text documents – they contain more fields (for example, Knizhnaia letopis’ records include 17 fields) which vary depending on the Letopisi type. Secondly, a bibliographic database requires a developed system of access points, whereas in full text databases access to documents is normally limited to keyword searching and browsing of individual titles, issues and articles. Providing consistent access to Letopisi records through the UDC-based (Universal Decimal Classification) subject browse tree is an especially challenging task as subject headings are occasionally updated.

It took our development team six months to build “Version 1.0” of the Russian National Bibliography database. During the design and prototyping process, one of our main concerns was to keep the interfaces and navigation simple, yet comprehensive enough to allow for advanced usage and future scalability of the platform. When the database was completed, it included 1.3 million bibliographic records from all Letopisi series starting from 1998, which were available for searching and browsing in Russian and transliteration. Simple and advanced search interfaces allowed limits on search results using Boolean logic, date and type of publication, subject and record fields (see Figure 1). The database also provided cross-Letopisi subject, author and serials indexes for viewing records by 635 subject categories, over 600,000 authors and 3,700 serial titles (see Figure 2).

The Russian National Bibliography database was first presented at the last year’s AAASS conference in Toronto where it was received very positively by librarians and end users. We encouraged recommendations for improvements, which grew as more librarians were testing and subscribing to the database. Among the most pressing suggestions were the following: to convert abbreviated serial titles to full names for easier keyword searching; to add more subject headings to individual records and to the subject browse tree for better subject access; to improve navigation for the author and serial titles lists; to provide access to individual Letopisi issues and others. Some of these ideas required interface changes while others called for a closer look at the structure and contents of KP’s bibliographic records.

The first problem that we dealt with was abbreviation of serial titles. The serial titles as well as publisher names and places of publication are abbreviated by KP’s staff to make the records shorter for publication in the paper Letopisi. In an online environment these abbreviations present a clear problem for keyword searching. East View’s programmers designed a converter that read all abbreviations and replaced them with proper title names from its dictionary. All new record feeds are now processed by the abbreviations converter before they are uploaded to the database. The next task was to add more subject terms to the individual records in order to provide more meaningful subject descriptions and to improve the efficiency of keyword searches. While researching this issue, we made an interesting discovery – KP’s catalogers assign UDC numbers and their combinations to records for books, newspaper and journal articles, reviews, dissertations and maps. These numbers, when combined using logical operators and auxiliary terms, reflect various subject relationships for a particular work. Though UDC numbers and their combinations are available with records in the paper Letopisi, they are normally ignored as their meaning can be uncovered only by trained library personnel with the knowledge of UDC compound numbers. This is another shortcoming of bibliography “on paper” which is easily resolved by the electronic format. Our development team has come up with a converter which translates the UDC numbers and their combinations back to the natural language in Russian and English. These subject headings have added significant information to the descriptions of original Letopisi records and are now available for keyword searching in both languages in the subject field (see Figure 3). We plan to further improve access to individual records by translating auxiliary terms used with UDC numbers (language, form, place, persons and personal characteristics, time, ethnic grouping and nationality, etc.), adding UDC categories used in TOCs for paper Letopisi to individual records and more headings to the subject browse tree.

Among other planned improvements is an easier interface for author and serial titles indexes and browsing of individual Letopisi issues. We also plan to start adding book annotations to Knizhnaia letopis’ records. Interestingly, the annotations database has been maintained by KP for many years but this information has never been added to bibliographic records in paper Letopisi for economic reasons. In regard to the new content for the Russian National Bibliography database, East View and KP are working together to make current Letopisi records available to subscribers up to a month sooner than the paper editions. More retrospective records will become available to users as the result of ongoing and future digital conversion projects. Eventually, we would like to integrate the Russian National Bibliography database with our other full text databases so that bibliographic records can be linked to the available documents they represent.

Despite the technical complexities of this project, the ease of finding records in the Russian National Bibliography database is already an improvement over the hard copy editions of Letopisi. It is currently used by several libraries in the US and UK and the amount of support we receive from Knizhnaia Palata, librarians and end users is very encouraging. Online access to electronic Letopisi records has opened up valuable content in a completely new way which will likely turn Letopisi into one of the most popular information resources. Improved access to these authoritative records will facilitate research in the area of Slavic studies and can potentially lead to increased usage of library collections.

Notes:

[1] As cited in B.V. Lenskii. Knizhnyi mir segodia i zavtra. Doklad. Desiataia Mezhdunarodnaia Nauchanaia Konferentsiia po Problemam Knigovedeniia. Moskva: 2002; p. 6.

[2] For more information on Russian national bibliography see excellent web site by Helen Sullivan, Slavic reference librarian at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: http://www.library.uiuc.edu/spx/class/nationalbib/natbibrussia.htm

 

​Kirill Fesenko

Director of Online Publishing

East View Information Services