Visiting Russian Libraries for the Blind & Observations about the Emerging Russian Maker Culture

By Abigale Stangl 

In the beginning of October,  I had the privilege to visit Moscow and Ufa, Russia as part of our Lab’s outreach efforts about the Tactile Picture Book Project, by invitation of the United States Embassy in Moscow.

In the Department of State, there are approximately 30 Information Resource Officers who are Foreign Service Specialists dedicated to providing online resources and information to diverse audiences in order to promote a better understanding of U.S. society, values and policies. I was invited by the U.S. Information Resource Officer in Moscow and the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate inYekaterinburg, Russia to visit the Ural region, and speak to the Bashir Regional Library for the Blind about emerging assistive technologies to support people with visual impairments, in particular 3D printing.

The goal of the U.S. Speaker Program is to provide the opportunity of citizen-to-citizen contact with Russian audiences, with the main goal of sharing professional experience of U.S. Speakers with Russian colleagues and discussing important issues of mutual interest. Through the U.S. Speaker Program, Russian audiences are offered a unique opportunity to engage and share experience with invited U.S. Speakers and receive training and ideas necessary to expand their professional knowledge and expertise. During their trip to Russia, Speakers make presentations, conduct trainings, workshops and master classes on subjects varying from rule of law and economic development to health care and the arts. Russian audiences are offered unique platforms to engage and share experience with invited US Speakers.

Two woman standing in front of a book shelf talking.
Magia Krause and Elena Zakharova at the Russian State Library for the Blind.

With the support of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow Magia Krause, the U.S. Information Resource Officer, and Anna Poplavko a Program Coordinator at the Embassy arranged a 10-day program for me in Moscow and Ufa. While the primary aim of my trip was to attend the 80th anniversary celebration of the Bashir Regional Library for the Blind, my trip commenced with a visit to the Russian State Library for the Blind (RSLB) in Moscow.   Elena Zakharova, the Deputy Library Director of RSLB welcomed us and showed us around the library. The Library is equipped with a children’s book collection, an audio transcription service, braille transcription service, classrooms for teaching people with visual impairments digital literacy skills, collections of music and books, and many other resources and services. On their website, it indicates that they are “a scientific and methodological center for 72 specialized libraries for the blind of the Russian Federation.”

A book page made of felt, ribbon, embroidery, and other fabric. The page on the left is a representation of a yurt. There is a rug, a horse, and grass. A yurt is a canvas tent-like dwelling that can be moved.
A hand-crafted tactile book at the Russian State Library for the Blind.

As I was preparing to present to a group of 40 librarians about our work at CU-Boulder and about 3D printing, more generally, I noticed a collection of beautiful hand crafted tactile picture books. Similar to the American Printing House and the Typhlo and Tactus tactile picture book competitions, the RSLB runs an annual competition to help create a supply of tactile books. Elena mentioned that in Russia mass produced tactile picture books are very limited (I never learned who was responsible for the design and production). Some of the tactile books in their collection were made of foam, others were hand woven, or made of felt—I gifted them their first 3D printed book prototype, which was created by Caleb Hsu. Each of the books had an audio recording to complement the touch graphics. Elena mentioned that the materials that they develop in house are created in partnerships between a librarian (as the crafter), teachers (and their students), and psychologists (consulting).

During my presentation, many of the librarians sat listening intently, as each presentation slide was translated from English into Russian. Afterwards, Elena urged her librarians to continue to look forward, learn about new technologies, and to continue to develop creative materials to support children’s literacy. Several of the librarians raised concerns about the lack of multiple colors on the page and the rough edges of 3D printed books; I described that 3D printers can have multiple extrusion heads and are able to print more than one color. I also explained that there are various materials that are 3D printable and in time there will likely be more. Another librarian urged that we make the graphics bigger and said “these images are still for the sighted.” Grateful for this feedback, I reminded the audience that we are still in the early stage of this research and depend on librarians, teachers, parents, and other caregivers to provide feedback to our early prototypes, and better yet help us explore the potential. I hope that the librarians at RSLB will follow-up on resources I provided about TinkerCad and other 3D modeling applications, and join our effort to create a library of 3D printable tactile pictures (which currently resides on Thingiverse) .

A man standing beside a small personal scale 3D printer, sitting on a desk with a lot of wires and other crafting tools.
Vladimir Kuznetsov at MISIS demonstrating a custom built 3D printer, which can be converted into a desktop laser cutter.

Directly after the presentation at RSLB, we went to the National University of Science and Technology MISiS, and hung-out in the first Russian FabLab under the direction of Assistant Professor Vladimir Kuznetsov, with the support of Timothy O’Connor, Vice-Rector of Academic Affairs. Vladimir showed us around their new space and told us of the University’s new Master’s Degree Program “Materials & Technologies of Digital Production”.  Later, during my presentation to a group of 50 students, professors, and other community members, I presented the opportunities of using new digital technologies to make things that can have a real impact in people’s lives and the use of 3D printers as a means to critically inquire into social issues. I challenged people to see 3D printing as disruptive technology—which is not just changing the way we manufacture and produce, but how we can create new networks and social value.

According to Vladimir, right now the MISiS and the FabLab are focusing on creating its space and moving to “2.0”, meaning that it is starting to build its own fabrication tools. Upon reflection, I realized the true significance of these efforts—the act of creating environments to support project-based learning is the most fundamental example of Critical Making and evaluating how emerging technologies can transform education—and the significance of the first FabLab in Russia. Vladimir and his colleagues are also in the process of organizing Russia’s first ever Maker Faire, with support from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, to occur in the spring.   I feel very fortunate to have met Vladimir Kuznetsov, with the support of Timothy O’Connor and hope to continue collaborating with making transformative spaces and practices.   I also hope that a partnership with MISiS, RSLB and the American Center at the US Embassy might form to provide librarians with the resources and support to learn how to 3D model and print. In the partnership I envision, university students might further learn about meaningful applications of the technology, and the Information Officers can continue to support digital literacy.

Ufa

A view of the Moscow skyline. In the foreground of the image is a big building and in the horizon there are multiple buildings rising into the sky.
The Moscow skyline from the MISIS.

After three days in Moscow, filled with sightseeing and visiting RSLB and MISiS, I boarded a plane to Ufa, where I would attend the Conference on Library Services for the Blind in Multiethnic Regions, with library directors from across Russia. I was picked up from the airport by a kind and gregarious children’s librarian from our host library, the Bashkir Regional Library for the Blind, and brought to our hotel where I met the other librarians and we began a tour of Ufa.

A yurt made of canvas and plastic with wave symbols and flower symbols on the surface.
A Bashkir Yurt.

Transitioning from Moscow to Ufa gave me a glimpse of the diversity of Russia. Moscow is a large bustling metropolis with roadways filled with traffic, eight lane roads circling the Kremlin, large cement-block apartment buildings spanning miles, bright multi-colored and golden churches interrupting the grey sky, and with a statue on nearly every corner. I saw much juxtaposition, but left with just a slight sense of the city. Ufa, a city 850 miles from Moscow with 12 million people fewer, felt much more accessible. Driving down the main street, October Prospect, I began to see the “Multi-Ethnic” influence of the city. The region is made up people from more than 100 ethnicities; Tatars and Bashkirs make up nearly half of the million inhabitants. Mosques and churches alike lined the streets and rise into the grey sky. We went to several Bashkir monuments and a great conference halls, which overlooked a great river valley. A fairly wealthy city, Ufa is home to a long history of culture and a prosperous industrial landscape that formed as a result of WWII.A Bashkir Yurt in Ufa.

First thing the next morning I met a representative from the Russian Ministry of Culture, and my host Slavyana Sagakyan, the Director of the Information Resource Center at the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg who instigated my visit to Russia.   They shared with me information about the day’s program and the effort it took to arrange my program in Russia. Slavyana shared that part of her job is to arrange programs to create understanding about Russian and American culture, and to do this she often works with libraries. However due to frequently changing political priorities, partnerships sometimes change and programs with invited speakers are cancelled. In turn, I feel extremely grateful that the Ministry of Culture, the Bashir Library, and other governmental proponents saw the value of sharing information about accessible media and emerging technologies for the blind.

Three people standing in the entrance of a room, holding gifts as symbols of their greetings. The Director of the library is dressed in a traditional Bashkir gown.
The Director of the Bashkir Regional Library for the Blind and her colleagues welcoming guests.

Upon arriving to the Bashir Regional Library for the Blind we were greeted by the Library’s director, who was dressed in traditional Bashir dress. Upon our arrival, her Chiefs of Staff held out cups of honey tea, and the others participants directed us to tables filled with cakes made of the sweet, abundant, regional honey. Sixteen librarians from around Russia and I were given a tour of their library, their transcription services, and my favorite—the children’s library space, which was adorned with tangible objects, a ball pit, and hand made tactile picture books. My favorite book (header image) had dolls dressed in traditional Bashir clothing, which I un-Velcroed and moved along the landscape depicted in felt and other sewn materials.

We departed for a grand conference venue for the main conference, where throughout the day we heard about different services offered to people with visual impairments around Russia. Some people spoke more theoretically about the need to ensure access and celebrate culture, others discussed the challenges of actually transcribing content across communication mediums—verbal, visual, and tactile. Since I don’t speak or understand the Russian; when I got on stage for the plenary talk, I crossed my fingers that I would present something relevant to the previous conversation. In attendance were the regional librarians and university students. I amended my presentation to focus on our work at CU to help build a culture of digital designers of tactile picture books, and to understand and share the craft practices and materials specific to different cultures through our work. I also discussed the opportunity for 3D printing to create social value and bring more awareness to the need for accessible information.

After the talk, many of the students wanted to talk, maybe because they were inspired to make, or maybe because they had never met an American before. Very few people spoke English, but those who I got to know throughout the conference were very kind and curious. Throughout this trip, I felt that my role was to be part representative of the Tactile Picture Book Project, and part a representative of the U.S.A. Just as many people I met had never met an American, I have had very little exposure to Russian culture or history. Because of this trip I now understand a bit more about this great nation–great in size and resources, but also great because of the people I met.

During the conference a great celebration of the library’s 80th anniversary took place. In the evening, representatives from each library went up to the stage and presented the Director with a present for the library. Ceremoniously the director accepted each gift, and cued music or a short traditional Bashir performance. After many hours of celebrating, we returned to the hotel where a reception was set up. I found out that a Russian reception means plates filled with meat salad, beets, and pickles, and glasses filled with bottomless vodka, rounds of cheering and singing, dancing to 80’s music (which was not chosen because of the 80th anniversary), and individual salutes and shots to acknowledge each other.

A woman holding a puppet of a mouse with three heads.
A librarians demonstrating teaching materials at the library.

The next morning we gathered to visit another regional library, dedicated to children’s literacy. The library director greeted us with a table full of honey-sweetened and savory pastries and tea, and nearly 15 librarians provided us with a tour of their library and services. They showed me costumes, nesting dolls, and a variety of other playful props for their children’s programs. We saw these props being used when a group of children came in for a literacy program. In Russia there are separate boarding schools for the blind, for the visually impaired, and for the sighted. The program was designed for a group of 5-7 year old kids who have visual impairments, but are not blind. During the literacy program, the librarians led the children on an imagined adventure around the world. They traveled around the world learning about great architecture. At certain destinations the children participated in designing building, creating ruins, or capturing flowers (boys catching boys) to plant in their gardens.

Four kids putting round objects on a stick, an activity that is symbolic of building.
Children with visual impairments building a structure.

After showing the kids the 3D printed books, I asked them what their favorite books were—they readily told me “Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles”, “My Little Poney”. American classics. Several kids also mentioned Russian classics at the prompting of the librarians. I told them I was from the U.S.A. and that we too had bears in our mountains. One kid asked “how do you protect yourself from the bears?” I started running around screaming and punching, and they all started laughing. Another girl asked how I make my books, and I told her about how I used a computer to design the book—like an architect designs a building—and then printed it out.

Nineteen people standing in rows.
A gathering of librarians and colleagues in attendance.

When the kids left, I presented our work to teachers and librarians who asked more probing questions about the quality of our prototypes and provided suggestions for how to improve them. I provided a quick demo of TinkerCad, answered questions about 3D printing, and encouraged them to try modeling. This was the first time all of these teachers and librarians heard about 3D printing, and like many of the American teachers and librarians I have met, there is a level of skepticism, yet excitement about the possibilities. After the talk at the library, Slavyana and I discussed how to arrange opportunities for librarians to have hands on experience with 3D printers—as they are rare in Ufa. (For example, there are none listed on 3dHub in Ufa, and in Moscow the cost of printing via 3dHub is high.)

Five people standing. I am holding a book in my hand.
My wonderful hosts presenting me a beautiful book of Bashkir folklore.

As my time in Ufa was nearing an end, I visited a mosque, and purchased several nesting dolls, jars of honey, and a bottle of vodka—all signifiers of my whirlwind trip and quick glimpse of Russian culture. When saying goodbye to Slavyana and Dina and my other new friends, I was also gifted a book of Bashir folklore with beautiful, screen-printed images designed by a local artist. During one of my library tours I noticed his original artwork hung on the wall and mentioned how much I loved his work. The Director of the Bashir Library found me a copy of the book and gifted it to me upon my departure.

I was thrilled to be invited as a representative of the U.S. and the opportunity to share our work on making more accessible materials through the affordances of 3D printing. I am not sure how I am so lucky to have such an opportunity land in my lap, but I hope my efforts have helped to create a community of digital makers of accessible materials, and that each person I met feels more knowledgeable about personal fabrication, and the power of making their ideas come alive.

I want to thank the U.S. Embassy and Magia, Anna, Andre, Elena, Vladimir, Tim, Dina, and Slava for making my time in Russia so enjoyable and comfortable. I also want to thank Meryl Alper and Kylie Peppler for connecting me to the US Embassy in Moscow and for all of the amazing work they do to empower people to gain digital literacy skills and to become makers!

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