Library's a lifeline to Russian culture

Needed lifeline to Russian life

Service: A Pikesville librarian uses books and his knowledge of the language to help immigrants.

January 27, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

When the time came to elect a language class at Dumbarton Middle School in 1971, Monty Phair's love of James Bond movies prompted him to choose Russian over Spanish or French.

He and his friends formed the "007 Gang," walking down the halls in trench coats and dark glasses. Inspired by From Russia With Love, Phair stuck with Russian classes at Parkville High School until 1975.

Today, that exposure has become a lifeline for scores of Russian immigrants who rely on Phair to recommend lawyers, doctors and - most of all - books.

Phair, 47, is the spirited curator of the Pikesville library's Russian language collection. He helps Russian-speaking patrons navigate not just the Dewey Decimal System, but life in this strange new country.

On his desk behind the stacks, Phair keeps an abbreviated "yellow pages," a three-ring royal blue notebook filled with information he has compiled on Russian-speaking service providers, from delicatessens to mechanics. Next to his Parkville High Russian textbooks, he also keeps Russian medical dictionaries, to help patrons explain when they're not feeling well.

At the center of Phair's work are the library's Russian books, magazines, newspapers and videos. He is trying to build a collection that reflects the size and diversity of the area's Russian population: About 5,400 Pikesville residents, or one in five, are of Russian ancestry, according to census figures. Jewish Family Services estimates that 10,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have resettled in Pikesville, Reisterstown, Owings Mills and surrounding communities in the past 25 years.

The Pikesville library's Russian collection has 2,500 items neatly stacked on four tall bookshelves and a newspaper rack near the science fiction section and children's corner. Nearly 90 percent of the collection is checked out each month. The community is large enough to also support a Russian-language book store across the street.

"These people read like crazy," said Phair, spectacled with thick brown hair and a mustache. "One of the nicest things we can do for them is give them something to read."

The collection includes Russian and translated works, Jewish and Muslim texts, cookbooks, children's books and child-rearing guides. It has the collected works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Tanya Grotter, a Russian parody of the Harry Potter series. Items Phair can't keep on the shelf include mystery novels, videos on U.S. citizenship and tapes on learning English.

On a recent Friday, 74-year-old Marta Sapozhnikova checked out five books, including a translated Sandra Brown novel and a history volume on the Trojans. She lives alone, she explained in Russian to Phair, so she has lots of time to read.

Phair is passionate about making sure the collection has something for everyone. A few weeks ago, an elderly Russian couple complained that the library should only carry classic literature. But Phair has seen the good that other kinds of books can do. Many a patron has improved language comprehension by reading Danielle Steel in Russian first, then English.

Phair, a Catonsville resident and 25-year veteran of the county library system, is of Irish and German descent. His wife, Daria, is also a librarian. He began using his Russian on the job in 1986, when he was working at the Randallstown library and the Russian collection consisted of about 40 books imported from the Soviet Union. Content came censored, and paper quality was "dismal," he recalled.

Today, the Randallstown and Reisterstown libraries maintain substantial Russian collections, though not as large as Pikesville's. Other county library branches have collections in Spanish, Korean and Chinese.

Pikesville used to get new shipments of Russian books and videos annually. Now there are shipments every month, and Phair dutifully compiles a list of the new titles on his Russian word processor.

Still, it is hard to keep ahead of the most voracious readers. Jane Tuder, 52, said she has read nearly everything the library offers. Her husband, Gary, asked Phair for more Tom Clancy and John Grisham.

Over the years, Phair's job has expanded far beyond that of a traditional librarian. He has helped car accident victims find lawyers. Once, after helping someone find a Russian-speaking accountant, he found a bottle of vodka left on the shelf in gratitude. Then there was the time when a woman who spoke only Russian realized she had locked her keys in her apartment and began to panic. Phair calmed her down and called her landlord, who let her inside.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, part of Jewish Family Services, offers extensive resettlement assistance - including help finding housing and applying for citizenship - to area Russian Jews during their first year in the country, said Ellen Rosen, the society's supervisor. Nevertheless, she said, immigrants can always use more people like Phair.

"It's such a big adjustment," she said.

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