The Library of the Polar Commission.

(Historical essay)


The library of the Polar Commission is a unique collection of books about the polar regions. This collection is kept in the cartographic department of the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The activities of the Polar Commission and its library are closely linked and it is impossible to consider them separately. First of all we shall say a few words about the main tasks of the Polar Commission and the results of its activity.

 At the beginning of the 20th century many representatives of different nations tried to reach the North Pole. Russian scientists and travellers were among them. At that time two big expeditions had been carried out: The Russian-Swedish expedition of measurement of spheroid meridian on Spitsbergen and the Russian A. Toll's polar expedition. In 1912-1913 three polar ship expeditions were organised in Russia under the leadership of G. Sedov, V. Rusanov and G. Brusilov. The goal of all of them was to reach the North Pole. These expeditions were unsuccessful and many members of these expeditions perished. The Russian government spent a lot of money to help and save the expeditions. Therefore Russian scientists who studied the Polar regions decided to organise a centre which could co-ordinate the polar investigations in Russia.

 In 1914 the Permanent Polar Commission was founded. The establishing meeting of the Commission took place on the 1st of December 1914 in the Conference Hall of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The task of this Commission was to co-ordinate scientific and practical activity in studies of the Arctic and the Antarctic. The head of this Commission was the President of the Imperial Academy of Sciences Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich Romanov. The staff of the Commission numbered 25 members. Among them we can mention director of the Main Astronomical observatory O. A. Backlund, director of the Botanical museum J. P. Borodin, director of the Geological and mineralogical museum V. S. Vernadaky, director of the Nicolay main geophysical observatory B. B. Golytsin, academician A. P. Karpinsky, vice-president of the Russian Geographical Society. M. Schokalsky and others. Such a representative staff of the Commission shows the scientific significance and wide range of tasks of the Polar Commission. During the first sitting the scientists discussed the necessity to establish a special library, which could present most widely scientific literature devoted to the polar regions. The basis of such a library was the book collection of A. Toll's polar expedition, four maps of the Arctic Ocean, published by the Hydrographical department of the Marine Ministry in St. Petersburg, and other materials. In the first years of the library's existence different methods were used to acquire literature: library gifts, buying, exchange of special literature with libraries of foreign institutes, that studied the North.

After 1917 the Polar Commission got the status of a state organisation and existed as a part of the Academy of Sciences and was subsidised by the Committee of public education.

In 1918 all the libraries in the country were nationalised, and the Polar library was no exception. But it was still a part of the Polar Commission. At this time some well known polar investigators, members of the Polar Commission, were forced to emigrate. Dr. Leonid Breifuss is an example. He was a member of the Polar Commission since 1914 and the owner of a very good private library. It included many scientific books, Russian and foreign, about polar regions. In 1920 L. Breitfuss emigrated to Germany and presented approximately 300 books to the Polar library. Among these books we can find the unique volumes with F. Nansen's, R. Amundsen's and J. Hjort's autographs. These volumes were given to Dr. Breitfuss by the authors as presents.

 In 1925 a great part of the book collection, which belonged to the famous Russian geologist J. P. Tolmachov, member of the Polar Commission since 1914, joined the library too. Besides, the library has got many books from the well-known expert of polar history T. Schidlovsky.

 But not only books from private collections were placed in the library's fund. In spite of the hard time Russia was living through, in 1918-1919 the library could buy books, thus in 1919 the library bought 108 volumes.

The Government of the Soviet Republic paid attention to the Polar Library and got some information for practical use of natural resources of the Russian North.

 During the following years the collection was increased thanks to the help of different organisations - the Main Hydrographical administration , the Russian Geographical Society, Sovnarchozts (Councils of National Economy) in different parts of Northern Russia. In the archives of the Academy of Sciences among the archive documents of the Polar Commission we can find a lot of letters, in which a librarian asked to send books from Moscow, the Far East, from scientific organisations in Petrograd-Leningrad. And as a rule it got the necessary publications. Such activity helped the library to collect a rich collection of polar literature during a rather short period of time. The Polar Commission got some money from the Academy of Sciences , and it was possible to use a certain sum of money to buy old books in bookshops of Leningrad. In the list of books, which were bought by the library, were publications that dated back to 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

In the archives of the Library of the Academy of Sciences we can look through 8 big manuscript volumes with the title "I. A. N. (Imperial Academy of Sciences) Permanent Polar commission" which was established before 1917. In these volumes were used 4 types of registration of books. On each volume the following figures are written: I(oktava)II, II1, II2, II3 (folio), III, III1 (periodical publications), IV(grossfolio), cipher on the on the library books had the following form: PKI/415, where PK was for Polar Commission, figure I - size, 415 - place in the size. All the books had a stamp "The library of Polar commission". All these documents show a very accurate system of book registration. This system was used until the end of the library's existence.

 In the 1920s the library had 700 publications, 200 maps, a collection of photographs from different polar expeditions. Every person, who had a recommendation from one of the members of the commission, could borrow books from the library. It was open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. During the whole period of the library's existence its librarian was E. M. Pomortseva. She knew many foreign languages. She was well informed about new scientific investigations in the Arctic and Antarctic, not only in the USSR, but also in other countries. She knew many Russian scientists and their interests. Most of the readers were polar investigators from Petrograd-Leningrad and scientists from different scientific fields. For example among them were the biologist, academician N. Vavilov, the geologist and director of the Arctic Institute Dr. R. Samojlovich and specialists from Moscow and other towns.

 In 1920s-1930s all the libraries of the different research institutes were united in the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. They were situated in Leningrad and organised as parts of the Library of the Academy of Sciences. The library of the commission was part of the Central library too. All the titles of the books from all these libraries were united in the General catalogue of the Library of the Academy of Sciences.

 Every year the Polar library was informed by the Central library of the possibilities to order periodical polar magazines not only from the USSR, but from foreign countries as well. In the beginning of the 1930s the Polar library got 1530 rubles in currency from the Academy of Sciences. Besides, the Polar Commission and its library had rather good contacts with different foreign institutes and actively exchanged polar scientific publications with them. For example, the library got books from Greifswald Geographical institute in Germany, from the Meteorological institute in Denmark and other places.

In 1930s the members of the Polar Commission published "Trudy poljarnoj komissii" (Transactions of the Polar Commission). They were used to exchange publications with libraries in Denmark, Norway, the USA and other countries.

 In reports of the library we can read that in 1935 the collection had increased by 615 publications including 355 volumes and 249 periodical publications. The polar collection was very popular among Russian scientists, in the same year the library had been visited by 900 persons.

 As to the contents of this collection, we can say that the larger part of it was devoted to hydrometeorology, on the second place in quantity, were different reports from polar expeditions, and in equal measure were books on polar geology, geography, ethnography, history, zoology, economy and cartography, mostly in Russian, but also quite a few in English, German, Norwegian and other languages. The fact that there existed in this collection publications from the 17th, 18th and the 19th centuries, and books with autographs from well known polar scientists like F. Nansen and R. Amundsen make this collection unique. From the very beginning this library had many maps of polar regions. Now there are several maps kept in the cartographic department of the Library of Academy of Sciences.

The Polar Commission and its library were known in scientific circles because the information about them was published in the reference book "All Leningrad and Leningrad region in 1930". During the whole period of the Polar Commission's existence its members did a lot to co-ordinate the investigations in the Russian Northern regions, realised both by academic and non-academic institutes; they helped to work on the scientific material, compiled geographical, ethnographical, geological and other maps of the Northern regions of the USSR. Academician A. P. Karpinsky was the president of the Polar Commission, its 50 members were famous scientists in this country, for example academicians V. J. Vernadeky, V. L. Komarov, A. N. Krylov, N. N. Nasonov, O. Ju. Schmidt, N. M. Knipovitch and others.

In 1935 it was planned to reorganise the Polar Commission and transfer its main office to Moscow, but the library stayed in Leningrad because of the lack of free space for books in Moscow.

 In Moscow on the 26th of July, in the meeting of the Commission of reduction, the scientific commissions of the Academy of Sciences and most of the commissions which worked in important fields of science (genetics, physics) were abolished, among them the Polar Commission. The members of the Polar Commission were quite anxious about the fate of the library. In a letter, written on September 25, 1936 by the vice-president of the Commission N. N. Matusevitch to the secretary of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the importance of the library was explained and it was pointed out that the best thing to do was to put this collection into the main fund of the Library of the Acaderay of Sciences in Leningrad.

On October 7 of the same year E. M. Pomortseva, the librarian of the Polar library, transferred the whole collection of books, maps, photographs, catalogues, bibliographic information on polar investigations into the possession of the Library of the Academy of Sciences.

From the end of 1936 the library of the Polar Commission remained in this library as the collection of polar literature. Unfortunately, not all the books, maps and photographs have been preserved from that period. In 1986 this collection was transferred from the department of foreign literature to the department of rare books, and some years later to the cartographic department of the Library of the Academy of Sciences. This transfer was fortunate because in 1988 there was a big fire in the library. The larger part of the department of foreign literature was completely destroyed by the fire, including the former location of the collection of the library of the Polar Commission.

In our time it is possible to use the catalogue of this collection and read its books in the cartographic department of the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Everybody is welcome.

Translated to English by the author