Homeland Estonians Lend Their Helping Hand at the Immigration History Research Center in Minneapolis

May 22, 2009

In March 2009 two employees of the National Archives of Estonia – Gristel Ramler and Birgit Nurme – described the archival materials of the Estonian Archives in the United States at the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) in Minneapolis.

The project was financed by BaltHerNet in the framework of the Compatriot Program (project “Archival Assistance for Communities of Foreign Estonians and the Memory Institutions of New Homelands”). The project was supported also by IHRC and the Estonian Archives in the United States (EAU). The ultimate objective of the project was to start long-term co-operation for improving the accessibility of the EAU materials. Negotiations started in the BaltHerNet Summer School of 2008 where also Elizabeth Haven Hawley, the Director of the IHRC, participated.

The EAU is a central organization in the United States that is engaged in the collecting and preserving of foreign Estonian cultural heritage and history. The mission of the organization is to research and introduce Estonian culture and the background of foreign Estonians. The archive consists of three larger collections: the archival collection, the archival library, and exhibits.

The archival collection preserves the archives of organizations and private persons, pamphlets, handwritten music notes and audiovisual materials. Worth of mentioning is the microfilmed catalogue with the names of approximately 30,000 Estonians, held in the German war camps, and the microfilmed collection of newspaper clippings regarding 1,300 Estonian officers who served in the Estonian, German or United States army or elsewhere.

In 2002 a major undertaking was finished as approximately 30,000 photos in the archives were organized and described. The photos were organized according to organizations and persons and content lists were added to the collection. As at 2002 the archive contained over 350 funds.

The archival library holds a thorough selection of books and journals in Estonian, foreign-language literature on Estonia and other Baltic States, and the works of Estonian writers and composers. The library catalogue was started already in the 1970ies, and, at present, is constantly being updated.

The archive also has a thorough collection of items with cultural value: medals, marks, stamps and works of art.

The foundation meeting of EAU was held in 1969. It was decided to establish the Estonian Archives in Lakewood, New Jersey. The archive building was finished in the neighborhood of the local Estonian Church of Holy Spirit in 1972. A few years later the archival materials concerning the German war camp period, collected by Ferdinand Kool, were moved in. These documents represent the foundation of the Estonian Archives.

Due to shortage of storage space approximately one third of the archive collection was deposited into the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota in 2003. To date this collection forms about one tenth of the IHRC funds and is one of the largest sets. The IHRC in Minnesota is one of the largest research centers in this field. The archive collection located at the center is one ofe the largest in the world and contains materials for Finnish, Latvian, Ukrainian, Italian, German, and other communities living in the United States. As the materials have been prepared in different languages and in different contexts, the IHRC closely co-operates with different communities and has set up the Friends of the IHRC Society, the president of which for the current year is Kalju Kubits, the representative of Minnesota Estonians. Due to the need for translations, knowledge of context and know-how, the IHRC is very interested in increasing co-operation between memory institutions of different countries. Many volunteers help with the daily archive work and participate in special projects.

The IHRC was founded in 1965 and bears its current name from 1974. Its premises and archive collection reside in the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. The building was finished in 1999 and its storage space and research hall are used, in addition to the library itself, by 14 different research institutions with archives. The modern underground depository room (which in places reaches the height of 30 meters) provides excellent storage condition.

Preparations for the project “The Funds of the Estonian Archives in the U.S. – Description and Making Them Available in the Electronic Search Engine on IHRC’s Website” began in December 2008. In a few months about 150 archive descriptions were worked out, information was collected under these creators regarding the availability in Estonia and elsewhere and negotiations were held with the IHRC.

During March Gristel Ramler and Birgit Nurme systematized and described 101 personal archives in Minneapolis. For accelerating the expected result some of the archives were described in English already in the input module of the IHRC database. Supplementary information was entered into the database concerning similar archives in Estonia and elsewhere, entries were updated, lists of documents and other stored materials were added, dates and periods were specified, languages appearing in the archive were listed, biographies of the archive founders were added, and so on. Work with the already existing archive descriptions shall continue for quite some time – in co-operation with G.Ramler and B.Nurme one IHRC volunteer is translating the previously compiled longer descriptions from Estonian into English. Before this data is disclosed on the Internet it is reviewed by the IHRC members and the EAU representatives.

At the proposition of Elizabeth Haven Hawley, the Director of the IHRC, G.Ramler and B.Nurme made a presentation for the employees of the research center, the university library employees and the friends of IHRC during which they introduced the information system AIS of the National Archives of Estonia, the digital sources’ web interface Saaga and the virtual research hall VAU.

In the nearer future the researchers and other interested persons can get acquainted with the electronic database on the IHRC website and in VAU, the virtual research hall of the National Archives. As the Minneapolis materials contain unique information on the history of Estonian emigrants, the faith of Estonians during the Second World War and Estonia and Estonians prior to 1940 (not to mention the rarities and documents), it is necessary, in the longer perspective, to disclose information on these funds. This shall be a long-term process because, in addition to the item-level descriptions, the majority of the materials must be previously systematized.

Birgit Nurme
Gristel Ramler