Arnold McMillin: The Francis Skaryna Library as Experienced by a Long-time User

I first visited the Library, then housed on the first floor of Marian House in 1963, soon after I had started doctoral work on the history of the Belarusian (then known to my supervisor, Professor Robert Auty, as White Russian) literary language in the 19th century. At that time there was a true Belarusian community in Finchley, with four houses, a number of priests, and many post-war emigrants and their children. Before long the ebullient Guy Picarda, was sent by the priests, who had somehow heard of my research interest, to see who I was and to invite me to visit the Library.

Prof McMillin, Guy Picarda and boys from the school managed by Fr Alexander listen to Professor Reginald de Bray, 1960s

Bishop Sipovich was always a welcoming presence in Finchley, but the Library itself was at that time in the hands of Fr Haroshka, a man of alarmingly austere manner that belied a very kind heart. He took an active interest in my work, where as a complete rookie I needed all the textual and other advice I could get. The warm welcome I received at that time in Finchley stood me in good stead when in 1965 I paid my first visit to Miensk, where also I found generous help and kindness.

The Library’s initial stock consisted mainly of the private collections of Fr Haroshka, the Bishop, and the still young Fr Alexander who, recently returned from studies in Rome, was director of a boarding school for the emigrants’ children in one of the houses, teaching them at weekends and in the evening the rudiments of Belarusian language and culture, as well as, I think, mathematics, whilst they spent weekdays at a local church school. At that time, there was an annual course of six lectures on Belarusian topics given by Belarusian and British scholars whose work, often researched in the Library, later became articles for the early issues of the Journal of Belarusian Studies, which first appeared in 1965.

Over the years Fr Alexander, amongst other things, the de facto librarian, did sterling work by travelling to America and other countries encouraging emigrants to help the Library with books and donations of money, not least by remembering it in their wills. The collection prospered and grew until one fine day it fell through the floor into the chapel below. In a relatively short time the chapel was restored and the collection of books, newspapers and journals moved across the road into a specially adapted house, where it resides to this day. One thing that over the years had been a drawback for all users of the Library has been the lack of a catalogue (card or electronic). For many years information could only be obtained from Fr Alexander, who willingly helped in locating particular items, but this method could obviously not last. Now the collection, like many libraries everywhere, is outgrowing the space to hold it, let alone development and expansion.

The Francis Skaryna Library had provided invaluable basic resources for the majority of my books and other publications until the beginning of the present century, when the supply of contemporary literature to the Library dwindled, so that for my last book I decided to rely entirely on my own resources for primary materials. Nonetheless the collection of periodical publications has always been and continues to be uniquely valuable. Like many other academic visitors, I have always tried to fully acknowledge the help it has given me throughout my career. Authors great and small visiting the Library or simply sending their works with dedications create in themselves a lively picture of this institution’s role for over fifty years.

Emeritus Professor Arnold McMillin

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