The Summer Research Lab on Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia Turns Forty this Year!

Ralph Fisher and Larry Miller in the Slavic Library celebrating Fisher’s 90th birthday, April 5, 2010. Photographed by Alisa Kolodizner.

Ralph Fisher and Larry Miller in the Slavic Library celebrating Fisher’s 90th birthday, April 5, 2010.
Photographed by Alisa Kolodizner.

Summer 2013 marks the fortieth anniversary of the UIUC Slavic Research Lab (the SRL).  Originally housed in the Slavic and East European Library, the SRL now takes place annually in the International and Area Studies Library.  Established in 1973 and funded through the UIUC Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC) initially with the generous support from the Center’s Doris Duke grant, other private foundations, U.S. Departments of Education and more recently the State Department, the Lab has lent an invaluable service to the Slavic scholars for forty years and counting.  In the words of Ralph Fisher, the founder of the Lab and first Director of REEEC (1958-1988), the goal of the SRL was to provide a “relaxed, non-exclusive atmosphere where dissertation-stage students and young instructors could mingle easily with senior scholars”(Fisher 165).  Additionally, as Larry Miller has pointed out, one of the unique features of the SRL has been its ability and willingness to provide services to independent scholars who would normally not have free open access to a major research collection (Interview with Larry Miller).

Professor Fisher and his colleagues could not have imagined just how successful the SRL would become.  In its first year the Summer Lab attracted 44 participants, however by the mid 1970s over 200 scholars were attending the Lab annually.  Researchers came from 608 institutions in U.S. and Canada and 26 other countries. More than 36.7% of visitors had come to the Lab more than once (Choldin and Stuart 34).  The range and accessibility of Slavic materials available in the Library and the presence of 12 full-time Slavic staff members in a centralized location ready to help were the main factors responsible for this high attendance.

The Slavic Reference Service (the SRS) developed under the guidance of Marianna Tax Choldin (The SRL Director 1981-1987) and was officially launched in 1975 to accommodate inquiries coming from the Slavic scholars attending the SRL and others from all over the United States.  By 1980 the SRS (currently funded through a Title VIII grant from the U.S. Department of State) received 5,800 inquiries annually (Interview with Larry Miller).

A unique feature of the Slavic Reference Service was its role in developing the collection by purchasing on microfilm those materials requested by the SRL participants unavailable in the U.S. directly from Soviet and European libraries.   This free service both assisted the participants of the Lab and enriched the library collection all at the same time.  Slavic and East European collection in UIUC today is thought to be the largest Slavic collection west of Washington, D.C.   However, above all else, the Summer Lab owes much of its success to the partnership between the Russian, East European and Eurasian Center and the expertise of a talented and dedicated staff of Slavic reference librarians, whose helpfulness the SRL participants continue to praise.

The reference librarians who support the SRL are well known for their dedication to the Lab and the SRS.  Through the years, these librarians willingly refrained from taking vacation during the time of the Lab (Fisher 165).
In 1970 Larry Miller and Fred Ryan organized a six-week Summer Institute for training fifteen librarians in the “Development and Administration of Slavic and East European Library Resources” funded through the U.S. Office of Education (Larry Miller). This unprecedented workshop, a kind of precursor to the Summer Lab, enabled librarians from various institutions all over the United States to acquire specific skills that they would later implement in their own institutions, thus for many years shaping the trends in Slavic librarianship (interview with Helen Sullivan).  In addition to the specialized Slavic Reference Service and regular workshops for Slavic librarians, the SRL and REEEC organized various events and conferences throughout the years, including the long running Ukrainian Studies Conference.  One of the best-known conferences is the Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum.   This year’s theme was “Early Russian Itineraries:  Movement and the Space of Russian Empire.”


Professor Brian Boeck (DePaul) presenting at the Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum (top left); Ralph Fisher and Professor John Randolph talking to the participants of the Fisher Forum (top right); Dmitry Tartakovsky working with Dr. Uryadova (bottom right); Isolde Thyrêt (Kent State) and Rodney Bohac (Kent State) on the left with Ines Garcia de la Puente (Universität St. Gallen) and Kristina Kuentzel-Witt (Universität Hamburg) (bottom left).
Photographs courtesy of REEC.
Arranged by Elizabeth Svoboda

The makeup of the SRL participants has evolved over the years.  While historians and other humanities specialists continue to be well represented, the Lab also attracts many researchers specializing in Economics, Government Policy, Communications and Public Health Issues in Russia and Eastern Europe.  The Lab “still provides a highly successful service model,” enjoying a well deserved reputation for excellence among Slavic area scholars (Interview with Larry Miller).

Works Cited:
Marianna Tax Choldin and Mary Stuart. “Resources For Cooperative Reference: The University Of Illinois Slavic Reference Service as a Model.” RQ, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Fall 1981), pp. 34-39.\
Ralph Fisher.  “Swimming with the Current”.  Russian History/Histoire Russe 21.2 (Summer 1994): 149-170
Interview with Helen Sullivan.
Interview with Laurence Miller.
Overview of the SRL (2013)
2013 Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum.  “Early Russian Itineraries:  Movement and the Space of Russian Empire.”
Ralph T. Fisher Papers, 1937-2005, University of Illinois Archives

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