The National Library of Armenia and the Narrative of a People

IFLA president Barbara Lison pictured on the far left among other distinguished guests at the National Library of Armenia (Photo: National Library of Armenia)

On a late September morning this year, the National Library of Armenia’s large auditorium was filled with over 100 librarians from around the world. They were listening to the words of Barbara Lison, president of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), as she laid out the biggest trends in today’s global library field, both the good (the comeback of physical spaces and focus on information literacy) and the bad (growing privatization of information and deepening social and economic inequalities). Her presentation followed that of another big name in the information worldBrewster Kahle, founder of Internet Archive, who kicked off the session with a speech on the importance of digitization in the fight for universal access to knowledge.

Attendees at the conference “Heritage Preservation for a Sustainable Future” (Photo: National Library of Armenia)

The librarians were all gathered for the conference “Heritage Preservation for a Sustainable Future,” hosted by the National Library of Armenia and dedicated to the 510th anniversary of Armenian printing. The two-day conference featured over 160 guests and speakers from 17 different countries, including the US, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Hungary, France and those of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), among others. It marked the first time a group of information professionals of this size and from such diverse locations had ever come together in Armenia. The goal was to increase ties between Armenia and other countries in the field of library sciences; introduce new topics and highlight the experiences of international librarians; promote the history of Armenian printing; and strengthen mutual relations between libraries of the CIS. 

Dr. Anna Chulyan (Photo: National Library of Armenia)

Since the appointment of the Library’s current director Dr. Anna Chulyan in August 2020, the Library has been taking significant steps toward inserting itself into the global library scene. Presenting at international conferences, serving on library committees, signing memorandums of understanding and implementing more modern practices have all been part of an unofficial campaign to reawaken not only the Library’s involvement in international matters, but also Armenia’s library field in general. The conference, which is planned to take place every two years, is just one indicator of a growing shift within the Armenian library world. Last year also saw the creation of the International Association of Armenian Librarians and Archivists, a global effort to bring together information science professionals and researchers working with or in search of Armenian collections. Dr. Chulyan serves on the organization’s executive board.

The conditions in which Dr. Chulyan took up her role were far from ideal. “I started in August 2020 when the Library was in COVID lockdown, and then on August 19th it reopened,” she explained. “During that first month, I tried to get everyone back to work, of course still keeping in mind the health and safety restrictions. We were in a collapse. The servers had collapsed. The internet didn’t work. Our website wasn’t working. Everything was at a standstill. And then the war started.” 

On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijan launched an offensive against the Republic of Artsakh, hurling Armenia’s military into what has become known as the 44-Day War. In addition to the devastating loss of life and environmental destruction, Azerbaijan’s attack and subsequent capture of territory have meant the undeniable erasure of Armenian heritage sites and cultural materials. The constant threat of further destruction extended beyond Artsakh, into every corner of Armenia proper, including the National Library. “On one hand, you know that this is very emotional and that people are dying. But on the other hand, you’re responsible for collecting and preserving the nation’s cultural materials, and you need to be prepared to evacuate those materials if needed,” said Dr. Chulyan. “We weren’t ready for evacuation. All the plans were old and written on paper. So the first thing we did was change the evacuation plans.” 

This included requiring classes for every Library employee on new evacuation strategies for both themselves and the Library’s materials. The Library’s basements, left in inoperable condition for years, were cleaned out so that people could have space to sit, should they need to hide. 

“In one week, I went to every corner of the Library. Every basement, every room,” she explained.

The Library’s history has evolved over the course of the century, growing from a hodgepodge of Armenian collections brought from other Soviet republics, into what it is today a collection of over seven million items housed among four buildings, the oldest of which was built in 1939 by Alexander Tamanyan, the architect of modern day Yerevan. The remaining three buildings, remarkably different in design and stature from Tamanyan’s, were added during the later Soviet period to support the Library’s expanding collections. While the institution has borne different names depending on the wishes of the ruling regime, it wasn’t until 1991, with the independence of the current Republic of Armenia, that it became the National Library.

Today, the Library wears many hats, performing its duties both as a national institute and cultural heritage preserver, and as a public library that serves hundreds of people a day. As a legal deposit, the Library is required by law to both collect every book published in the Republic of Armenia and also to produce the country’s national bibliography, a comprehensive yearly listing of the nation’s publishing output. In the last few years, the Library has started including publications from the Republic of Artsakh, although ideally it would like to cast an even bigger net, aiming to create a national corpus that includes periodicals, electronically published materials and non-book items from Armenia, Artsakh and throughout the diaspora. One of the biggest hindrances, however, lies in semantics. “Even now, according to Armenia’s laws, it’s not called a ‘national bibliography.’ It’s called ‘Books of the Republic of Armenia.’ The laws in Armenia are falling behind the speed at which we must develop. The field is developing, but the laws make it a bit more complicated to push things forward. So we’re trying to work within them,” said Dr. Chulyan.

The Library also houses and maintains the Union Catalog of Armenian Libraries, a joint catalog of the holdings of 22 participating libraries around Armenia, on their servers. Beyond these functions, as the nation’s library, it bears the responsibility of leading Armenia’s library field, setting its standards and implementing systemic changes. This includes holding frequent seminars and training sessions for the country’s librarians on topics ranging from media literacy to user services to implementing the newest scholarly research tools. 

Despite everything taking place within the walls of the Library, its physical landscape has not evolved at a pace appropriate for everything required of it. Aside from small touch-ups, the Library has not undergone any major infrastructural changes in decades. Outdated electrical wires need replacing; heating and cooling systems necessary for proper temperature control of materials need to be installed; and building infrastructure needs to be redesigned to handle the increase in technical equipment. The Library’s digital holdings, which have increased rapidly since the boom of the digital era, are sitting on a cluster of servers most of which are a decade old. “We are ready to put everything online, but we don’t have that ability,” said Dr. Chulyan. 

The Library is still moving forward. In 2022, with $100,000 in support from the Armenian Educational Foundation, the Library was able to modernize technical equipment for its staff, including new computers, printers and scanners. Through a grant from Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), they’re in the process of upgrading their institutional repository to the DSpace platform, on open source software for preserving and sharing institutional output. The Library houses a wealth of dissertations, conference proceedings, research publications and digitized materials that it wants to make as widely accessible as possible. In recent years, the Open Access and Open Science movements, dedicated to making scientific research freely and openly available to all levels of society, have dominated the discussion within the academic and institutional library fields, a sort-of pushback to the restrictive requirements of for-profit research publishers. The Library has embraced the ‘Open’ movements as part of its institutional priorities, recognizing the importance of a more inclusive approach to information access, particularly to scholarly materials.

Inside the National Library of Armenia (Photo: National Library of Armenia)

Many national libraries around the world have also embraced this practice, recognizing that if they want to remove the stigma of the ‘institution’ and remain approachable to their body of users, they must proactively welcome all community members. For the National Library of Armenia, this means not just telling the narrative of Armenia, but of all Armenians around the world. One of the Library’s strategic priorities is the inclusion of more publications from the diaspora, taking the idea of the institution and transforming it into a home one for all Armenian stories to live under one roof. In early 2022, the Library received a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to translate its website into Western Armenian, a welcoming gesture for Western Armenian speakers who have moved to Armenia over the last few decades from countries like Syria and Lebanon. With the change, the library aims to also strengthen its connection with those Armenians living outside Armenia, using its online presence to extend its reach into diasporan communities.

“Our priorities should always take into account that if there are three million people here in Armenia, there are seven million in the diaspora. And we need to do what we can to make sure that the new generation of diasporans don’t forget their heritage,” said Dr. Chulyan.

In fact, borders haven’t meant much in regard to recent demographics of Library users. Its location on Teryan Street, surrounded by five major universities, means that on a daily basis it welcomes a mix of Armenian, Indian, Iranian and Russian students a far different snapshot from the homogeneity Armenia has typically been associated with. Recent world events in Ukraine, Russia, Iran and the Middle East, coupled with its central location between the global East and West, have meant that diversity is upon Armenia and the National Library. 

The Library is also working toward being a more inclusive space for the thousands of young people who are now struggling with disabilities as a result of Azerbaijan’s continued attacks. During the 2020 Artsakh War, Azerbaijan’s use of white phosphorous, an internationally banned chemical weapon that burns the skin and eyes, left many soldiers blind or visually impaired, and was a driving force behind the Library’s efforts to join the Accessible Books Consortium’s Global Book Service, an online catalog that allows participating libraries and organizations serving people who are print disabled to share copies of accessible format books. This means the Library will be able to give access to foreign-language materials and also provide Armenian-language materials in accessible formats to others. The program is a service of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and supports the goals of the Marrakesh VIP Treaty, an international agreement that ensures ease of exchange and use of accessible format materials across borders without copyright restriction. Armenia ratified the treaty in June 2022. 

Now, thanks to financial support from WIPO, five National Library of Armenia staff members are undergoing training to produce accessible format books, an immensely important step in a country in which societal taboos, combined with a severe lack of disability-friendly spaces, often force those with disabilities to remain indoors, either from the stigma of socially-induced shame or the limitations of physically getting around, or oftentimes both. 

In 2022, after the death of Armenian-American librarian and scholar Gia Aivazian, Dr. Chulyan was contacted by her estate to inform her that Aivazian had earmarked a portion of her will to the National Library of Armenia. After presenting several different options to the family, they chose to use the money for the creation of an Assistive Technology Lab. The lab, which is slated to open in 2023, will be a fully accessible reading room with services, resources and equipment for all community members, regardless of disability.

“In Armenia, we don’t have the infrastructure for people with special needs. We don’t have ramps or elevators and bathrooms that fit wheelchairs. We’re trying to move in that direction. Last year we were able to renovate one of the bathrooms to be disability-friendly. But what we shouldn’t be doing is creating separate, isolated spaces. We should be thinking about how to attract and bring people with disabilities into the common, shared space. In Armenia, people with disabilities sit at home; they don’t go out. I want to bring those people to the Library, so that they feel good here,” said Dr. Chulyan.

The development of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for the Armenian language is another way in which the Library has been prioritizing making itself and its resources more accessible. Over the last year, the Library has been working with Portmind, an AI technology and data science company, to develop the needed tools for Armenian-language materials to be machine-readable, vastly expanding possibilities for editing, searching, scanning, data mining and extraction of Armenian-language texts. For those who are blind or visually impaired who rely on text-to-speech technology, this greatly expands the amount of Armenian-language materials available to them. “Thanks to OCR, the language corpus vastly improves. Translators can use it, researchers can use it, the quality of Google Translate improves. This is how we can elevate the Armenian language into the international arena,” said Dr. Chulyan.

Looking forward to 2023, the Library’s strategic orientations and priorities are immortalized in the name of its September conference. “After the war, ‘Heritage Preservation for a Sustainable Future’ became the Library’s mission,” said Dr. Chulyan. As the biggest collectors of Armenian printed heritage from around the world, the digital preservation and worldwide dissemination of Armenian culture during a time in which the very existence of the Armenian race is being threatened is not just a practical maneuver, it’s a revolutionary one. Delivering the conference closing remarks, Dr. Chulyan looked out into an audience of information specialists from every corner of the world. Some were Armenian, and some were not. “The soldiers standing on the border need to be sure that they aren’t there in vain,” she said to them. “This is our battlefront, where we fight.”

The Armenian diaspora has played an indisputable role in that fight, doing their part to enrich the library’s collection with unique printed materials. “I always get emotional about how strongly people believe that their country should preserve these materials. People come to Armenia with their suitcases filled with books and magazines and newspapers and gift them to the library,” said Dr. Chulyan. “Our database of Armenian periodicals is fantastic. There are materials there that, if they don’t physically exist in Armenia, we have the electronic copies of and make them accessible.”

Dr. Anna Chulyan with Garo Derounian of Beirut’s KOHAR Library, who donated 14 books to the National Library of Armenia. (Photo: National Library of Armenia)

She continued, “Armenia must be a place where every Armenian all over the world knows they have a homeland and knows that their heritage is being preserved. Now that print has changed to other forms, we need to prepare to modify our preservation methods and priorities for this brave new world. Many say that Armenia is finished, but I believe in our future.”

Laurie Alvandian

Laurie Alvandian

Laurie Alvandian is an Armenian-American librarian and library advocate based in Yerevan. She is the president and co-founder of Open Book Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting literacy and access to information in Armenia through educational programming related to books, libraries and library resources, reading, languages and the literary arts. She currently works as a lead specialist in the National Library of Armenia’s International Relations Department. She earned her master's degree in information and library science from Pratt Institute in 2012.
Laurie Alvandian

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  1. Fantastic article, Laurie. Thanks for shining a spotlight on the National Library of Armenia, which is so much more than a house for our national heritage. We have a lot of work to do. Kudos to Anna Chulyan’s leadership, and the librarians–including you–who are taking charge and pushing the work that needs to be done forward. We’re ready to do our part to help. Our heritage is in existential crisis–we need to do all we can to preserve and build it, and also make sure it is not erased. Libraries and archives are at the heart of the story. We need to all recognize that and help them thrive and survive.

    • Very well said Ani jan! Thank you so much for always being ready to support, in so many ways!

  2. Thank you, Laurie, for this informative article. Thank you for the leadership of Dr. Anna Chulyan. I am a firm believer that Armenia and the diaspora are one unit and they must work together to preserve and enrich our cultural heritage. We are living in an age of information and collaboration, exciting times for our profession. Well done Laurie, and I am looking forward to the next conference.

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