The National Library of Lithuania was founded in 1919, though the idea to set it up had existed long before. For several decades lack of funds and venues hindered its progress as well as a lack of a coherent conception of its aims and functions. It’s very existence was threatened more than once.
It’s probably the only large library in Lithuania that changed its name so many times and had to move its book stocks of from place to place so often. Obligated to do the functions alien to its nature, the Library often had just minimal possibilities to act in its true role as the main library of the nation.
In January 1919 the Lithuanian People`s Commissariat for Education reorganized the former Vilnius Public Library (Vilnius University Library until 1832) into the Central Library of Lithuania which started functioning on February 1, 1919. On April 21, 1919, when Polish legionaries occupied Vilnius, the work of this library stopped. The book stocks already acquired remained in Vilnius. Soon afterwards this collection became part of restored Vilnius University Library.
A difficult start for the National Library of Lithuania
The first Director of the Library was Eduardas Volteris. He had moved to Kaunas, once again started accumulating books for the Library. In December 1919, the Temporary Lithuanian Government in Kaunas issued an order to start the activities of the Central State Library. Towards the end of 1919 the Library had already 18 000 units in its stocks. For a long time the Library could not work normally because it had no suitable building. At first books were kept in the premises of the Seimas (the Lithuanian Parliament) where a small reading-room was open to visitors from 1919 to 1921.
From the 63,417 acquired books only 12,746 were cataloged. The book stocks were partly disrupted. In 1923, after a directive from the Ministry of Education, 4,248 books from the recently purchased library of Adalbert Bezzenberger, were moved to Kaunas University. In 1934–1935 more than 34,000 (including some valuable old editions) where also taken over by Kaunas University. The Library existed just as a place where new Lithuanian publications were available, not as a scientific institution. Nevertheless, even under such complicated conditions the Library`s contribution to cultural life was quite noteworthy.
The Library`s activity could be founded on more stable lines after issuing The Law on State Public Libraries (1936). The Library was designated to collect and store all Lituanistic printed matter published in Lithuania and abroad. But the crucial turning point in the Library`s activities occurred in 1939 with the change of its governing bodies.
Unhappily, changes in the political and social life of Lithuania hindered the plans and intentions of the new director, Juozas Rimantas. During the period of 1940-1941 the Library greatly expanded its collections. This was mainly through the flood of many Soviet Russian publications. A part of nationalized book collections were also taken over to this library. At the beginning of 1941 the book stocks comprised more than 200 000 units of printed matter. As the number of readers and the Library staff had considerably increased, new premises were allotted.
After the USSR annexed Lithuania in 1940, the scanty contacts of the Library with libraries of foreign countries were canceled. They were replaced by constantly expanding contacts with the libraries of Russia and other Soviet Republics. In practice the Library started to practically apply the Soviet regulations on librarian ship and bibliography.
During and after the German occupation
During the Fascist occupation the recently obtained premises of the Library were occupied by German soldiers. The reading-hall stopped functioning, only part-time working hours at the circulation department were preserved. Book stocks were “purged” of publications unacceptable to Fascist ideology. The Library lost about 19,175 valuable pieces during the period of Nazi occupation.
After the retreat of Hitler’s army, the Library moved to the premises of the former Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Crafts (September 13, 1944). As soon as Library settled in the new building, its dispersed stocks were newly assembled and their systematic supplementation with fresh publications was continued. The bibliographic information system was reorganized. For more than half a year the Library was unable to extend its services to readers. Only in 1945 the Circulation Department resumed its work, and the common reading hall opened. This period of reorganization lasted till 1948.
During the early post-war years, the Library used to receive all publications printed on the territory of the USSR; since 1949 it received the publications in the Russian language only. The book stocks (especially Lithuanian and foreign publications printed in the inter-war period) were greatly damaged by the campaign of “clearing the libraries of ideologically harmful publications”. Many books, even old and rare ones, were removed from the Library stocks and destroyed. In 1950, 30 tons of books went to the Petrašiunai Paper Factory and some other places for recycling. Many books were just burned in heating-furnaces at the Library itself.
In 1950–1953 also some 33,000 printed issues moved to different Vilnius libraries. Many books, including almost all periodicals published in the period of World War II and in the inter war years were transferred to special deposits to make them unavailable to the average reader. Even the Department of Lithuanian philology and history did not function for a long time. Special attention was paid to such forms of library work like mass education and propaganda activities, diverse exhibitions, literary evenings, meetings with writers, scientists and public figures, discussions on books, anniversary celebrations. In 1948 the Library was allowed to supply methodological consultations to mass libraries all over the Republic.
The catalogs of the books stocks were considerably revised. Many publications placed there between the wars were removed and new publications systematically inserted. Nevertheless a relatively good bibliographic information system was developed.
In 1951 new library regulations were adopted, granting the Library the status of main Library of Lithuania.
With the changes in the political situation, the Library started to recover its contacts with libraries abroad. The Inter library Loan Department expanded, skills of the Library staff members improved. Principles of research work were introduced into the Library`s activities. Due to the intensive growth of book stocks and the increasing number of readers and staff the Library once again faced the problem of lacking space. It was decided to transfer the Library to Vilnius, where a special building would be constructed to meet its needs. In 1963, within a period of 4 months, more than 2 millions of publications, both cataloged and un-cataloged, were moved to Vilnius. On the 6th of December the Library started operating in Vilnius.
The Library was the initiator of many innovations. It was the first Library in the USSR which started applying teletype communication in inter-library loans and for bibliographic information. For transmission of the newest bibliographic surveys of books all over the Republic the Library supplied its premises with automatic telephones. It established a special department for automation and mechanization of different library processes, reorganized the system of inter library services. A Room of Fairy Tales opened with a puppet theater that enjoyed popularity among children readers. In 1965 a branch of the Library opened in Palanga. It served as a summer reading hall greatly appreciated by guests of the resort.
Still, the activities of the Library in the nineteen sixties and later decades must still be investigated thoroughly. This period partly coinciding with the years of so-called stagnation is still waiting for an independent historical evaluation.
After restoration of independence
The National Rebirth of 1988, new democratic tendencies that shattered official dogmas in many spheres of our life, also affected libraries. The National Library of Lithuania conducted a fundamental revision of books and periodicals removed from the Library books stocks in the post-war period. Books “purged” during the rule of Stalin and Brezhnev were stored in special confidential deposits. They were unavailable for readers without special permission.
These deposits included many books published in Lithuania before 1940 and books by Lithuanian emigration; also books published in the Soviet Union and abroad and prohibited by the Communist authorities for their “subversion”. In 1988 the book stocks of the Library amounted to 5 million volumes. The initiative of readers increased immensely. The Library mounted a number of meetings and events dedicated to important cultural personalities who started the National Revival movement in past years. These meetings enjoyed such great popularity that often only a part of the people willing to attend the event could take part in it. The Library staff felt a great responsibility fostering traditions always inherent in the best Lithuanian centers of cultural and aesthetic education.
On March 11, 1990 Lithuania restored its independence. The Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania together with the nation opened a new page in its history.