Reflections on the Founding of REEEC

This is a re-posting of an article published in the Illinois International Review. International Programs and Studies (IPS) commissioned the article in honor of Ralph Fisher’s recognition in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Centennial Gallery of Excellence for establishing the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC), and creating a wonderful legacy for international studies and area studies centers at the University of Illinois. To view the original article, please see http://international.illinois.edu/iir/Spring2014/reflections.html.

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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.

When Ralph Fisher, the founder of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC), first came to the University of Illinois in 1958, Illinois was not a major center for Russian and East European Studies.  In his memoir, Swimming with the Current (1992), Fisher remarks that in a 1956 U.S. State Department publication identifying the country’s academic centers on the region, “Illinois had not even been listed among the also-rans.”  In fact, other Midwestern institutions like the University of Chicago, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin were “far ahead.”  According to Fisher, “there was no obvious, altruistic-sounding sales pitch for adding a Russian center in east-central Illinois.” From these humble beginnings, Fisher built Illinois into one of the most important academic and research centers for Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia, not only in the U.S., but around the world.

Larry Miller, the Senior Slavic Bibliographer and Collection Development Officer at the University of Illinois Libraries, affirms the significance of Ralph Fisher’s legacy. He was the first Slavic librarian at Illinois, who came to Champaign-Urbana in 1959, fresh out of the Indiana University library school, where he received a degree that combined library science and Slavic Studies.  One of the main reasons why Miller came was that Fisher needed a Slavic librarian to catalog all the Russian books he had purchased, a build-up of the Russian collections that was completely his initiative and enthusiastically supported by the University Library.  At his job interview, Miller was impressed with the people and the staff, which resulted in him accepting the position.  He began his Illinois career as the Slavic cataloger in the cataloging department.  During his two years as a cataloger, Miller cataloged books from Russian libraries.  In his third year, he became the acting head of Slavic acquisitions, which meant that he was also a member of the Center’s executive committee.  At that time, the head of acquisitions was also a part of the executive committee.1960-1961 was the first academic year for the Russian and East European Center.  From its inception, it emphasized an interdisciplinary curriculum.  It offered an undergraduate major and a graduate certificate.  The Russian Department, which worked closely with the Center, was able to offer a master’s degree.  Additionally, the Center ensured that the Library became a world-class institution.  The Library budget and staff of Slavic specialists continued to grow.  Dmytro Shtohryn, a specialist in Ukrainian Studies who continues to contribute to the field today, was hired in January 1960.  The allowance for Russian acquisitions increased to $34,000, which resulted in the ability to purchase more texts and add to the Library’s collection.

Dr. Ralph Fisher was honored as one of 25 prominent people in the College of LAS Centennial Gallery of Excellence.

Dr. Ralph Fisher was honored as one of 25 prominent people in the College of LAS Centennial Gallery of Excellence. Photos courtesy of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center.

From 1959 to 1987, Fisher was director of the Russian and East European Center.  In Swimming with the Current, he humbly states that he “might more precisely have been called ‘facilitator’ or ‘promoter.’”  He describes his role as “that of helping others to do what they wanted to do and responding to their encouragement and appreciation.”  Nevertheless, his leadership was crucial to the Center’s growth.  “Our Center had smooth sailing with our university administration,” he mentions in his memoir.  He points out the helpfulness of administrators like President David Henry, Provost Lyle Lanier, and Deans Jack Peltason and Bob Rogers.  “From my standpoint, they were near-perfect bosses: They understood what our Center needed; they encouraged and supported us within their means, and at the same time they gave us a long leash.”

Throughout his career, Fisher knew the importance of an outstanding library for research and scholarship.  He was a huge supporter for the Library and knew how important a wealth of academic resources was for the Center.  He persuaded the Center’s executive committee to champion the Library. Miller remembers that Fisher could be very convincing and firm in his passion for the Library.  Robert Downs, the dean of the University Library at that time, was amazed at the level of support among the faculty.  He was very happy to support Fisher’s efforts to grow the reputations of both the Center and the Library.  In his interactions with Dean Downs, Fisher had a solid commitment from the University Library to build major collections in order to attract students and faculty, collections that would rival Columbia, Berkeley, and Harvard.  He wrote hundreds of proposals and reports to seek funds for both the Center and the Library.  He would discuss with Miller, who was responsible for writing the Library portion, what should go into the proposals in terms of the Library’s needs.  He constantly urged Miller to take advantage of special opportunities that would come up to buy books and add to the Library’s already impressive collection.  According to Miller, having Fisher’s enthusiastic support was a “dream come true.”  Fisher’s good professional relationship with Dean Downs and his active fund-raising led to the University of Illinois hosting the Midwest Slavic Library Conference in 1964.  By that year, Illinois already had the largest Slavic collection in the Midwest, a feat accomplished in less than 6 years.

Fisher smiles for the camera with Department of History Chair Diane Koenker and history Professor Mark Steinberg.

Fisher smiles for the camera with Department of History Chair Diane Koenker and history Professor Mark Steinberg.

In Larry Miller’s words, the relationship between the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center and the Library is an “ideal relationship, for sure.”  In 1966-1967, the Center’s executive committee asked Miller to organize a course in Slavic bibliography because students were unsure of how to use the Library’s amazing collection.  The first course took place in 1967 in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) and was a success.  The course indicated how much the Center appreciated the Library’s collection and the importance of students knowing how to use such a remarkable resource.

However, the Center did not only have strong connections to the Library, but also to other departments around campus.  Starting in 1963, it sponsored undergraduate majors in Russian language and area studies, and East European and Russian Studies, along with a graduate certificate in Russian language and area studies with the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.  From 1961 to 1971, the Center and its affiliated departments graduated 586 undergraduate students, 206 master’s students, and 49 doctoral students.  The Center’s wealth of scholarly resources helped its different departmental affiliates to attract and retain top faculty.  By 1971, the Center had around 38 faculty members whose teaching concentrated on or incorporated Russia and Eastern Europe.  Some of them are still teaching at Illinois today, including Keith Hitchins (history) and Peter Maggs (law).

Fisher, Steinberg, and Prof. Donna Buchanan.

Fisher, Steinberg, and Prof. Donna Buchanan.

Real cooperation between the Library and the Center began in 1970.  The Slavic Division was formerly part of the Special Languages Department of the University Library.  In 1970, the Slavic collections moved into room 225 of the Main Library, which became the Slavic and East European Library.  In his memoir, Fisher calls it the “most momentous single event of the early stage of our Center.”  For the first time, all the staff working on the region was combined in one room.  There was a circulating collection and a display of current periodicals.  The Library became a gathering place, leading to a closer relationship between the librarians and the faculty.  1970 was also the year that the Library conducted its first major outreach activity: a government-funded 6-week course to train Slavic librarians.  There were 15 librarians in that inaugural class. Furthermore, 1970 was the first year that the Library gave full service to scholars studying the region.  It developed a reputation for being very helpful.  The University of Illinois had a better, more accessible setting for visiting scholars than other research libraries, an essential component being the friendly and knowledgeable library staff.  The renowned Slavic Reference Service (SRS), founded by Marianna Tax Choldin in 1975, developed from this close relationship between the librarians and scholars worldwide.

One of the most fruitful and long-lasting partnerships between the REEEC and the Library was the Summer Research Laboratory (SRL), which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013.  Miller calls it a “highly successful program” that has expanded rapidly.  From its beginning in 1973, it was open to what Fisher describes as “any qualified professional with a reasonable-looking research project, up to the limit of the funds we could find for housing.”  In particular, Fisher sought out “those many people who, although well trained, were teaching in small institutions or had heavy teaching loads or had been out of academic life for a while.”  One of SRL’s goals was to create a “relaxed, non-exclusive atmosphere where dissertation-stage students and young scholars could mingle easily with experienced scholars.” During the lab’s first year, 44 scholars attended.  Last year, more than a hundred attended.  Scholars receive intensive individualized help from the librarians, who are in contact with them not only for the duration of the lab, but throughout the year.  Research undertaken at SRL has appeared in many prestigious scholarly journals.  Many authors have and continue to acknowledge SRL in their publications.  To provide even more resources for scholars from all over the world, the SRS developed as a broad reference service for anyone who needed help in finding books or citations.  “It became the centerpiece of everything,” Miller said.  The SRS was able to attain materials that were missing from North American libraries.  It could obtain microfilms of books for free from major Russian libraries.  Visiting scholars would form discussion groups, where librarians would give them background information.  The focus on the individual scholar, who could be a graduate student or a senior faculty member, was truly what distinguished SRL and SRS from other programs and services, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Even 40 years later, Larry remarked that the program remains “very unique.”  It has only added to the Center’s stellar reputation.

In conclusion, Larry Miller noted the strengths of the very close relationship between the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, and the Library, which began under Ralph Fisher.  Together, they collaborate for the Title VI application to the U.S. Department of Education to continue funding the excellent services and programs the two organizations offer.  The expanding SRL, the outstanding SRS, and the expansion of the International Reference Service to other areas are a testament to the strong ties between the Center and the Library.  The recently formed International and Area Studies Library works with all the area studies centers to arrange special programs, outreach, and cultural events.  However, Miller praised the immense degree of cooperation between REEEC and the Library.  REEEC has “by far the most productive Library-Center partnership,” fueled by “much more intense connections.”  A highlight of the 2013-2014 academic year was the visit of Zeljko Komsic, the Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The International and Area Studies Library served as the reception location, where members of the Illinois community had the opportunity to meet with President Komsic.  According to Larry Miller, the connection between REEEC and the Library is a “model for other centers to follow.”

In fall 2013, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences honored Ralph Fisher for establishing and developing REEEC, an exemplary area studies center praised both on campus and around the country.  His legacy lives on in the Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum, a colloquium bringing world-renowned scholars to the Illinois campus during the summer, as well as all the programming that REEEC supports.  In the conclusion of Swimming with the Current, Ralph Fisher notes his amazement at the success of REEEC.  “I see most of all the role of good people and luck.  We had no grand design.  We depended heavily on the good will of others.”  That good will has continued to this day.

Stephanie Chung, Ph.D. Student, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

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