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The National Library of Lithuania was founded in 1919, though the idea to establish it had existed long before. For several decades its progress was considerably hindered by the lack of funds and special buildings as well as by the absence of a coherent conception of its aims and functions; not once its very existence was threatened. Probably it is the only large library in Lithuania that changed its name so many times and had to move its book stocks of from place to place so often. Obligated to perform the functions alien to its nature, the Library often had just minimal possibilities to act in its true role as the main library of the nation. In January 1919 the Lithuanian People`s Commissariat for Education reorganized the former Vilnius Public Library (Vilnius University Library until 1832) into the Central Library of Lithuania which started functioning on February 1, 1919. On April 21, 1919, when Vilnius was occupied by the Polish legionaries, the work of this library stopped. The book stocks already acquired remained in Vilnius; soon afterwards this collection became part of restored Vilnius University Library.

The first Director of the Library, Eduardas Volteris, who had moved to Kaunas, once again started accumulating books for the Library. On December 2, 1919, the Temporary Lithuanian Government in Kaunas issued an order to start the activities of the Central State Library. Towards the end of 1919 the Library had already 18 000 units in its stocks. Quite a long time the Library could not work normally because it had no suitable building. At first books were kept in the premises of the Seimas (the Lithuanian Parliament) where a small reading-room was open to visitors from 1919 to 1921. 63 417 books were acquired but only 12 746 of them were catalogued. Unfortunately the book stocks were partly disrupted: in 1923, following the order of the Ministry of Education, 4 248 books from the recently purchased library of Adalbert Bezzenberger, where transferred to Kaunas University; in 1934–1935 more than 34 thousand books (some of them – valuable old editions) where also taken over by Kaunas University. The Library existed just as a place where new Lithuanian publications were available, not as a scientific institution. Nevertheless, even under such complicated conditions the Library`s contribution to cultural life was quite noteworthy.

The Library`s activity could be founded on more stable lines when The Law on State Public Libraries (1936) was issued. The Library was designated to collect and store all lituanistic printed matter published in Lithuania and abroad. But the crucial turning point in the Library`s activities occurred in 1939 with the change of its governing bodies.

Unhappily, the plans and intentions of the new director, Juozas Rimantas, were hindered by the changes in the political and social life of Lithuania. During the period of 1940-1941 the Library greatly expanded its collections but mainly through the flood of numerous Soviet Russian publications; also a part of nationalized book collections was taken over this Library. At the beginning of 1941 the book stocks comprised more than 200 000 units of printed matter. As the number of readers and the Library staff had considerably increased, new premises were allotted.

After the annexation of Lithuania by the USSR in 1940, the scanty contacts of the Library with libraries of foreign countries were cancelled. They were replaced by constantly expanding contacts with the libraries of Russia and other Soviet Republics. In practice the Library started to practically apply the Soviet regulations on librarianship and bibliography.

During the Fascist occupation the recently obtained premises of the Library were occupied by German soldiers. The reading-hall stopped functioning, only part time working hours at the circulation department were preserved. Book stocks were "purged" of publications unacceptable to Fascist ideology. The Library lost about 19 175 valuable pieces during the period of Nazi occupation.

After the retreat of Hitler’s army, the Library moved to the premises of the former Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Crafts (September 13, 1944). As soon as Library settled in the new building, its dispersed stocks were newly assembled and their systematic supplementation with fresh publications was continued; the bibliographic information system was reorganized. For more than half a year the Library was unable to extend its services to readers. Only in 1945 the Circulation Department resumed its work, and the common reading hall was opened. This period of reorganization lasted till 1948.

During the early post-war years, the Library used to receive all publications printed on the territory of the USSR; since 1949 it received the publications in the Russian language only. The book stocks (especially Lithuanian and foreign publications printed between two wars) were greatly damaged by the campaign of "clearing the libraries of ideologically harmful publications". Many books, even old and rare ones, were removed from the Library stocks and destroyed. In 1950, 30 tons (!) of books were taken to Petrašiunai Paper Factory and some other places for recycling, many books were just burned in heating-furnaces at the Library itself. In 1950–1953 also some 33 thousand printed issues were passed to different Vilnius libraries. Many books, including almost all periodicals published in the period of World War II and in the inter war years were transferred to special deposits to make them unavailable to the average reader. Even the Department of Lithuanian philology and history did not function for a long time. Special attention was paid to such forms of library work like mass education and propaganda activities, diverse exhibitions, literary soirees, meetings with writers, scientists and public figures, discussions on books, anniversary celebrations. In 1948 the Library was authorized to supply methodological consultations to mass libraries all over the Republic.

The catalogues of the books stocks were considerably revised. Many publications placed there between the wars were removed and new publications systematically inserted. Nevertheless a relatively good bibliographic information system was developed.

In 1951 new library regulations were adopted, and the Library was granted the status of the main Library of the Republic.

With the changes in the political situation, the Library started to recover its contacts with the libraries abroad; the Interlibrary Loan Department was expanded, skills of the Library staff members were being improved. Principles of research work were introduced into the Library`s activities. Due to the intensive growth of book stocks and the increasing number of readers and staff the Library once again faced the problem of lacking space. A decision was made to transfer the Library to Vilnius, where a special building would be constructed to meet its needs. In 1963, within a period of 4 months, more than 2 millions of publications, both catalogued and un-catalogued, were moved to Vilnius. On the 6th of December the Library started operating in Vilnius.

The Library was the initiator of many innovations. It was the first Library in the USSR which started applying teletype communication in interlibrary loans and for bibliographic information. The Library supplied its premises with automatic telephones for the transmission of the newest bibliographic surveys of books all over the Republic. It established a special department for automation and mechanization of different library processes, reorganized the whole system of interlibrary services. A Room of Fairy Tales was established with a puppet theatre that enjoyed popularity among children readers. In 1965 a branch of the Library was opened in Palanga, which served as a summer reading hall greatly appreciated by quests of this seaside resort.

Still, the activities of the Library in the nineteen sixties and later decades have not been thoroughly investigated yet. This period partly coinciding with the years of so-called stagnation is still waiting for an objective historical evaluation.

The National Rebirth of 1988, new democratic tendencies that shattered official dogmas in many spheres of our life, also affected libraries. The Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania conducted a fundamental revision of books and periodicals removed from the Library books stocks in the post-war period. Books "purged" during the rule of Stalin and Brezhnev had been stored in special confidential deposits unavailable for readers without special permission. These deposits included many books published in Lithuania before 1940 and books by Lithuanian emigration; also books published in the Soviet Union and abroad and prohibited by the Communist authorities for their "subversion". In 1988 the book stocks of the Library amounted to 5 million volumes. The initiative of readers increased immensely. The Library mounted a number of meetings and events dedicated to eminent cultural personalities who started the movement of National Revival in past years. These meetings enjoyed such great popularity that often only a part of the people willing to attend the event could take part in it. The Library staff felt its great responsibility fostering traditions always inherent in the best Lithuanian centres of cultural and aesthetic education.

On March 11, 1990 independence of the Republic of Lithuania was restored. The Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania together with the whole nation opened a new page in its history.

Names of the Library

1919 Central Library of Lithuania
1919–1936 State Central Library
1936–1940 Central Library of Lithuania
1940–1941 Central State Library of Lithuanian SSR
1941–1944 Central Library of Lithuania
1944–1950 Central State Library of Lithuanian SSR
1951–1988 State Republican Library of Lithuanian SSR
1988–1989 Martynas Mažvydas State Library of Lithuanian SSR
May 30, 1989 Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania

Library Managers (till 1939) and Directors *

1919–1922 Eduardas Volteris
1922–1935 Andrius Škėma
1935–1939 Juozas Avižonis
1939–1950 Juozas Rimantas
1950–1952 Danielius Čepas
1952–1958 Juozas Urbanavičius
1959–1976 Vaclovas Jurgaitis
1976–1982 Jonas Baltušis
1982–2004 Vladas Bulavas
2004–2010 Vytautas Gudaitis
2010– Renaldas Gudauskas

 *Antanas Trumpickas (in 1952), Peisachas Freidheimas (in 1958-1959) and Algirdas Plioplys (in 2010) were acting as authorized Directors of the Library