Another winter Sunday evening has gone by and has been just a little greyer now that the BBC’s dramatisation of War and Peace has finished. Like most people who know and love the book, I watched through my fingers at times, and could go on at length about what was good and what was less good – why is Natasha so hard to get right, to take just one example. And also like anyone who knows and loves the book, I was reminded of when I first read it. In the long hot summer of 1976 I was about to go to university to read Russian, and sitting in the garden reading one of the best novels ever written was the perfect preparation. I still have the edition I read then. It was the Rosemary Edmonds translation in an edition published to accompany the last BBC dramatisation from 1972, with Alan Dobie as Andrei in full military uniform on the cover. Now War and Peace is heading back up the best seller charts again, and this time the edition that everyone is buying is the much older Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, but with Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James on the cover.
What does this have to do with libraries? Well, like many specialist British librarians of my generation my career in libraries has been entirely driven by my knowledge of another language – in my case, Russian. There was nothing deliberate about this. The fact that I learned Russian at all was a matter of pure chance and the educational trends and cultural landscape of the time. I was not a naturally brilliant linguist who chose to add it to a portfolio of languages. Instead I had no choice but to learn it from my first year at my otherwise quite unexceptional local state grammar school. It was taught there, as at many schools in the 1960s and 1970s, because it was thought to be important to the national interest. In his book The Russian language in Britain: a historical survey of learners and teachers, (Bramcote Press, 2008) James Muckle describes this period thus:
“For ten years numbers of schools and higher education establishments where the subject was taught increased exponentially. Teaching materials burgeoned, exchanges with Russia became easier than they had ever been within living memory, scholarly activity increased in language, literature and area studies”
Muckle cites a 1963/64 survey which indicates that at least 454 schools were teaching Russian in the UK, and a few, like mine a few years later, were introducing it at the age of 11. This growth had followed the publication in 1962 of the Annan report on the teaching of Russian in schools, which had stressed the importance of education in the Russian language to meet the national need. Support for the teaching of language has always been subject to strategic priorities and political whim, but with Russian in particular popular engagement with the culture has also always been a factor. Literary authors such as H. G. Wells and Virgina Woolf in the early twentieth century were stressing the importance of reading the works of the great Russian writers in the original, following a wave of translations into English of the Russian classics. A later generation, intensively trained as part of their National Service by the Joint Services School for Linguists, carried over the influence of the language and culture to their work. They included major figures such as Michael Frayn, Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett.
We know that language learning in schools and universities in the UK has suffered a sad decline in the last few years, largely as a result of government policy. It is also a truism to say that we live in an increasingly global and interconnected world, and a world dominated by an explosion of information. Academic research is becoming more international too, and new centres of excellence are being established in universities across the world. Without librarians in the UK skilled in languages other than English our libraries will become narrower and our academic communities potentially more cut off. Where is the next generation of area specialist librarians to come from? The old route of moving into the profession with a language degree is becoming less and less possible, and area librarianship is now hardly ever taught as part of professional training. Fortunately our libraries have always benefited from the successive waves of migration that have brought colleagues from other countries with professional and language skills into our libraries. They enhance our libraries – and our lives – but they also have their own career aspirations which might well take them away from a focus on their country of origin, even if they remain in libraries. It would take another enormous swing in educational policy in the UK to prioritise once again the teaching of a wide range of languages in schools, but that is the only way that language can once again be the foundation of a career in libraries. Maybe the sudden fascination with War and Peace will help kick start a revival in Russian language learning – we can but hope.