Staff Interview Series: Joe Lenkart

For another installment of our staff introductions, I interviewed Joe Lenkart, Interim Manager, Slavic Reference Service (SRS) and the Reference Specialist for Central Asia. Among other accolades, Joe was presented with the Outstanding Academic Professional’s Award from the University of Illinois’ Library in August.

Joe Lenkart has a Masters in Library and Information Science and a MA in Russian and East European Studies. Although he completed his undergraduate studies majoring in Chemistry, his academic and professional interests shifted towards history after attending a lecture on the Eurasian Steppe. Joe has also furthered his scholarly pursuits by volunteering in the Peace Corps. He was stationed in Smolensk region of western Russia.

Image from Russian satirical journal.

What are you most excited about working on here at the IAS Library? Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
I am naturally excited about working in the same area that I went to high school. We are in a very unique place. Every summer we have people from all over the world coming here to use our collections. This is a tremendous honor for the State of Illinois and the University Library. It is also a morale booster and a treat because, as a manager of the reference service, I feel good about the audiences we serve.

In terms of future undertakings, we have a collection maintenance project that will involve reorganizing the Slavic microfiche collection, and we will unveil a portals database for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. This is a fully annotated, searchable database. Academic portals in Russia and Eastern Europe are much different because they are repositories for academic content and the community aspect for conducting research. These innovative resources have no equal in North America.

Please describe your typical work day at the library.
I arrive at approximately 7:45 am and I don’t leave until around 5:00 pm. In addition to working with the ILL department, we provide citation verification services, and answer international phone, chat, and email reference inquiries. For our funding agencies, we prepare specialized research guides. This workload continues despite additional projects.

What are your Slavic research and collection development interests?
I am really interested in the indigenous peoples of Siberia – ethnology of these ethnic groups, and specifically their religious identities. These resilient groups have been subjugated very harshly, and yet they have left behind a rich legacy.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments as a librarian, or any other field prior to your appointment as a librarian?
The recent academic professional award; but more importantly, the Slavic Reference Service gets regularly mentioned by national libraries. We are known as a reliable service and that is the proudest accomplishment.

What attracted you to the field of Library Science and your area of specialty?
For this field you must have an overdose of curiosity. It is a field for curious people and it was a perfect fit for me, having worked as a page at the Champaign Public Library and a clerk at the Douglas Branch. While working as a graduate assistant at the Undergraduate Library, I applied for another assistantship in the Slavic Library. After I was granted the assistantship, I was trained in general and specialized reference. The attraction to the profession was based on my admiration for my colleagues in the Undergraduate Library and the Slavic Reference Service [past and present]. My colleagues are hard-working and above all, they are selfless and extremely generous with their time.

Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? What languages do you speak? Etc.
I will use a Bob Dylan line to answer that question: “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so, I’m on my way home.” I can work with Russian, Turkish, Farsi, and took two years of Hebrew. I took Farsi at Indiana University, Central Eurasian Studies. I also took Spanish for five years during my undergraduate years.

Do you have any career advice for someone interested in librarianship, specializing in Slavic Languages and Literatures?
My best advice is to get your hands dirty. Get to know the physical setting of your workplace. I would recommend that before graduating with a degree in library and information science, you must have your toolkit ready to go for your area of service. You have to adapt with these sources and try to use them on a daily basis. Get back to basics. Theories come and go, but what remains is work. You have to like the daily work of libraries. You have to be willing to spend hours (days) on a reference question. If you cannot do this part, unfortunately, you will need to focus on research.

What is your favorite thing to do in the Champaign-Urbana area?
My favorite thing to do is spending time with my kids in Homer, Illinois.

What is your favorite place you’ve visited, local or anywhere in the world?
My favorite places I’ve visited are Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Most of my graduate career was spent studying these places. It was a real treat to see the places that I researched. For example, the famous Russian geographer Nikolai Mikhailovich Przheval’skii grew up in the village in the Smolensk region of Russia, where I was stationed during my volunteer work with the Peace Corps. I also went on an excursion to the town of Karakol (in Kyrgyzstan) where Przheval’skii died.

If you could have a signed copy of any novel or non-fiction what would it be and why?
If I could have something signed, it would be Great Expectations by Mr. Charles Dickens and The Red Badge of Courage by Mr. Stephen Crane. The characters in these novels made a strong impression on me.

What movie and/or book are you looking forward to this academic year (2013-2014)?
I am definitely looking forward to the Star Wars revamp. I’m a huge fan of science fiction films and, of course, the Walking Dead.

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Staff Interview Series: Dmitry Tartakovsky

Today, as part of our ongoing staff interview series, I am pleased to introduce you all to Dmitry Tartakovsky, the South Slavic specialist in the International and Area Studies Library’s Slavic References Service. When I first began here at the International and Area Studies Library, I quickly realized how big and how busy the Slavic References Service was. I was immediately curious about the people working in the Slavic Reference Services and was happy to interview Dmitry so that I and the rest of the Glocal Notes community could get to know him.

Dmitry Tartakovsky, the South Slavic specialist at the International and Area Studies Library.

Could you tell me a bit about your background?

I was born in Kiev, now Ukraine but then the Soviet Union. My parents and I came to the U.S. as refugees in 1978. We spent the first year in Baltimore, the second in Chicago, and then moved to Skokie (outside Chicago) where I established some stability. After Niles North High School, I attended Bradley University in Peoria for my Bachelor’s, then Arizona State University for my Master’s and UIUC for my PhD. All of my degrees are in history.

What attracted you to librarianship?

When I started the history program here many years ago, I took an assistantship in Slavic cataloging at the Slavic Library, when it was managed by Bob Burger and employed dozens of people. I was trained by Ed Napier. Much later, when I was completing my PhD, there was a place for me as an academic hourly at the Slavic Reference Service working for Helen Sullivan. I enjoyed reference the most, because each query was like a puzzle, and completion was doubly satisfying because we would later usually receive grateful replies from our patrons.

What area did you decided to specialize in and why?

I was always fascinated with Russia and Eastern Europe because of roots my there. This is what led me to pursue history of the region, in order to understand where I came from and why I ended up here. It was natural that if I offered anything to library science it would be in this region since it is the region I know well culturally and linguistically.

How many languages can you speak and did you learn them as an adult?  

I am a fluent Russian speaker, which was my first language (I began learning English at age 8). As an adult I learned Macedonian, which I still speak well after living in Skopje for more than two years during the 1990s. I also learned Yiddish, which I needed for my dissertation research, and Romanian, for the same reason. I can speak some Yiddish, but my Romanian is mostly limited to reading and listening comprehension. I can get by in other south Slavic languages like Bulgarian and Serbian, but I have not really studied them formally.

What career advice would you give to someone who is interested in librarianship or someone who wants to specialize in your area of interest?  

Honestly this is a question I am not very qualified to answer, since I never planned to be a librarian and it happened to me accidentally. Also, it is also not likely to be a field I will remain in much longer. From what I have seen, it is important to acquire specialized skills while also being knowledgeable about different aspects of librarianship, including cataloging, reference, digitization, etc. As in any field, it is helpful to read what people are publishing in order to know where the field is headed. This will certainly aid in landing a job.

In terms of specialized regional knowledge, I would make sure I understand that this is no longer what moves the field, not like it did when I went to graduate school. It seems to me that librarianship is no longer as focused on area knowledge as before, rather technical knowledge is considered paramount. Nevertheless, if one is interested in being a Slavic area reference librarian, an area studies degree is very useful, and obviously language skills are central, so actually living in the region is very helpful in additional for formal language training.

What are your proudest accomplishments as a librarian?

I was able to do several things. I explained the importance of the work of the Slavic Reference Service (SRS) to an audience of State Department officials a couple of summers ago. I have been able to contribute to the collection of SRS online reference guides. I have helped hundreds of scholars and students of the region over the more than two years I’ve been here. I have also had the opportunity to teach three courses on the region for REEEC, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, with which our staff at the SRS works closely. Mostly, I have had the pleasure of working with some great librarians, including Helen Sullivan, Joe Lenkart, Jan Adamczyk, Larry Miller, and Ula Biegaj.

What is something at the International and Area Studies Library that people should know about? 

This is an easy one for me—the Slavic Reference Service is without question the most unique and recognized aspect of the IAS library. The SRS is known internationally because of its nearly forty years of specialized service in assisting patrons with their research to an extent that literally no one else in the world offers. This was made possible due to the funding of the Department of State through Title VIII grants, which the SRS has received annually for more than thirty years, but which are likely now finished. Without this funding, it is unlikely, to my mind, that the SRS will be able to focus on research queries and guides like in the past.

What are your research or collection development interests?  

My research interests are within my field of history. I am interested in nationalism in Eastern Europe in the interwar years, particularly among the Jewish minority, and the impact of different political systems on the development of modern national identity.

When you’re not working, what hobbies do you have? What do you like to do around the Champaign-Urbana area?  

I spend a lot of time with my son Alex. He likes swimming, climbing and going to the mall. Between him and work I don’t have much free time, but I enjoy watching movies, reading, going out to eat, playing softball, biking, and hanging out and drinking with good friends.

Describe a typical day at your job. 

I usually handle immediate emails and issues when I first arrive, such as queries from patrons here at UIUC and at other institutions, which we receive primarily via email and assistance requests from the ILL department. If there is time left after handling these questions I work on research guides. Lately I have not had much time for guides because I have taught two classes this last fall and one last spring. The summers are busy for us with the Summer Lab, when scholars from all over the world come to use the fabulous Slavic and East European collection here at UIUC. Summer days are therefore very hectic and not similar to the rest of the year. Next year I will not be teaching so I expect I will get more work done on writing research guides, at least until August, when my contract expires.

We hope that this interview has been helpful in getting to know Dmitry and some of the services available at the International and Area Studies Library and the Slavic Reference Services.

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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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