News & Events

Slavic Reference Service: Aiding Campus and the World

From left to right: Joe Lenkart, Olga Makarova, Katherine Ashcraft, and Serenity Stanton Orengo from the SRS


If CIA analyst Jack Ryan of the eponymously named novel and film series actually existed, there’s a good chance he might have used the Slavic Reference Service (SRS) on the University of Illinois campus.

The fictional Ryan—whose expertise in Russian history and politics made him a valued resource in global gamesmanship—would have relished tapping into the expertise that SRS offers.

And expertise it is. Established in 1976, the SRS provides year-round research support to a panoply of patrons from around the world—including students, faculty, visiting and independent scholars, and participants in the Summer Research Laboratory (SRL), which has been welcoming researchers to Illinois for the last 50 years.

In the decades prior to SRS’s founding, the Cold War accelerated the U.S. government’s need for regional expertise on Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia; hence, collections at Illinois and around the nation blossomed with federal and state support. (Currently, the Slavic and East European Collection is one of the largest such repositories in the Midwest and at a public U.S. university.) By 1976, “there was a growing need for a research service that directly worked with SRL scholars,” said Joe Lenkart, head of the SRS. “But then once the service started . . . gaining some momentum, it shifted to having this national and international role.”

SRS, a component of the International and Area Studies Library, offers assistance typically found at each of the university’s libraries as patrons seek help in finding sources, navigating databases, and perusing the on-campus collection. But with the unit’s international contacts, expertise in regional languages, global reputation, and awareness of geopolitical changes, it also provides a deep well for scholars to draw from. Is a scholar most comfortable with English-language resources? How can a comment tucked into a memoir be verified? If the University of Illinois does not have the item sought by a researcher, who or what institution does?

“You have to know,” Lenkart posits as an example, “what are the major libraries in Poland? What do they have [in their collections]? . . . What’s in Kraków at the Jagiellonian University Library versus what’s in Warsaw at the National Library?

“You have to know what sources are needed for this particular project. And so that’s where we call it ‘specialized.’ It’s really reference work, but in a highly specialized environment.”

The unit also verifies citations, offers duplication and publishing consultation services, and provides access to SRS-curated digital collections—among them the Blondheim Judaica Digital Library (named after UI professor David S. Blondheim), Russian Books of the 18th Century, and Central Asian Memoirs of the Soviet Era. Staff members’ engagement can run from as little as a few moments to answer a question to as long as it takes to shepherd through a book contract.

In addition to offering consultations and instructional sessions, SRS also hosts webinars and conferences, including the revival this fall of the Dmytro Shtohryn International Ukrainian Studies Conference, held since 1982 in honor of Shtohryn, a driving force behind the Ukrainian Studies program at Illinois. As one of the pioneering group of Slavic librarians on campus, Shtohryn built the Ukrainian Studies collection from the ground up and worked tirelessly to bring together students, scholars, archivists, and librarians. For information on supporting this transnational effort, led by SRS librarian and conference director Olga Makarova, see “The Library Is Looking For.”

It’s all part of what Lenkart and Makarova see as SRS’s continual adaptation to the needs of patrons and the duality of the unit serving both an external and internal public. “There are not very many services on this campus that have that,” said Lenkart, who proactively seeks ways to maintain the service’s relevance and financial health. And while the SRS staff is small in number, “what our users or patrons will appreciate about us is that we will go to as close to the ends of the Earth as possible” to solve their research questions. Since the SRS is only partially funded by a federal grant, contributions are welcomed to maintain its suite of services at Illinois. Visit to make a gift.

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