The National Library of Russia in St Petersburg (known as the Imperial Public Libraryfrom 1795 to 1917; Russian Public Library from 1917 to 1925; State Public Library from 1925 to 1992 (since 1932 named after M.Saltykov-Shchedrin); NLR), is not only the oldestpublic library in the nation, but also the first national library in the country. The NLR is currently ranked among the world’s major libraries. It has the second richest library collection in the Russian Federation, a treasury of national heritage, and is the All-Russian Information, Research and Cultural Center. Over the course of its history, the Library has aimed for comprehensive acquisition of the national printed output and has provided free access to its collections. It should not be confused with the Russian State Library, located in Moscow.
The Imperial Public Library was established in 1795 by Catherine the Great, whose private collections included the domestic libraries of Voltaire and Diderot, which she had purchased from their heirs. Voltaire's personal library is still one of the highlights of the collection.
The idea of a public library in Russia emerged in the early 18th century but did not take shape until the arrival of the Russian Enlightenment. The plan of a Russian public library was submitted to Catherine in 1766 but the Empress did not approve the project for the imperial library until 27 May [O.S. 16 May] 1795, eighteen months before her death. A site for the building was found at the corner of Nevsky Avenue and Sadovaya Street, right in the center of the Russian Imperial capital. The construction work began immediately and lasted for almost fifteen years. The building was designed in a Neoclassical style by architect Yegor Sokolov (built between 1796–1801).
The cornerstone of the foreign-language department came from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the form of Załuski's Library (420,000 volumes), nationalized by the Russian government at the time of the partitions.
The Polish-language books from the library (numbering some 55,000 titles) were returned to Poland by the Russian SFSR in 1921.
For five years after its foundation, the library was run by Comte Marie-Gabriel-Florent-Auguste de Choiseul-Gouffier. The stocks were arranged according to a specially compiled manual of library classification. In 1810, Emperor Alexander I approved Russia’s first library law stipulating, among other things, that two legal copies of all printed matter in Russia be deposited in the Library.
The Library was to be opened for the public in 1812 but, as the more valuable collections had to be evacuated because of Napoleon’s invasion, the inauguration was postponed for two years.
Under Count Alexander Stroganov, who managed the library during the first decade of the 19th century, the Rossica project was inaugurated, a vast collection of foreign books touching on Russia. It was Stroganov who secured for the library some of its most invaluable treasures, namely the Ostromir Gospel, the earliest book written in Russian language, and the Hypatian Codex of the Russian Primary Chronicle