I turned to Moscow-based literary scholar, Vladimir Georgievich Krizhevsky, to answer your questions. Please see his answers under your questions, and if you need further clarification, please let me know:
Did lending libraries exist in Russia (Leningrad, in particular) during the Soviet years?
“Yes. There was a massive library system, and not only in Leningrad. Every town was in a region, and each region had its own library. The libraries had tables, each one with a lamp on it. Each major city also had its own library.”
If they did, who ran them?
“Some were founded by Tsar Alexander III and Nikolay II. There were organizations called “Zemstvo,” funded by the Tsar and with a mandate to operate the libraries independently. Some cities even funded their own libraries. There was one called the Imperial Library in St. Petersburg on Fontanka. The Imperial Library was founded in the 18th century. At the start of the 19th century, Peter the Great appointed famed songwriter Mr. Krilov as the director of this library, from whose lyrics we get many Russian aphorisms in use today. Today that library is called The Saltykov-Shchedrin Library. Saltykov-Shchedrin was a regarded satirist, beloved by Lenin himself for his satire on the Tsar.
The library system was thought up by an expert council of librarians in the Soviet time, and in fact, the two greatest systems in the Soviet Union were the systems of musical education and the library system.”
Who could borrow from them?
“One of the most important principles of the system was that it was free to go to the library. You had to register, and you were only limited by age (people 16 and over could go to adult libraries) and education (as a student, you couldn’t go to some of the rooms designated for scientists or specialists).
If you were registered at the library you had a membership, which allowed you to borrow books. If you lost the books you would get a fine, but a very symbolic one.”
Were they attached to schools and universities?
“In the Soviet time, there were two other libraries, called Republican Libraries. The Lenin Library in Moscow which is now the Russian State Library. There were also libraries in universities, such as the Moscow State University library.”
Specifically, I am wanting to know how a resident of Leningrad would learn about Australia in 1985. (I’m a novelist, Australian, my latest novel has a character born in Leningrad in 1959.)
“He could go to the regional library and sit in the reading room to read about Australia. The librarian would go to the geography section and give him books on Australia. If those were too general, he could go to the subject-specific library. For example, Leningrad had a huge ethnographic institute, named for Miklukho Maklay, that was for students and scholars. The Saltykov-Shchedrin [Library] had everything. There were several libraries which had to receive three copies of every single book published in the country. This was a requirement for publishing any book in the country.”