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

May 13, 2010

Co-operation between the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) in Minneapolis, USA, the Estonian National Archives and the Baltic Heritage Network began at the Baltic Heritage Network summer school in 2008 where the Director of the IHRC, Ms. Elizabeth Haven Hawley, participated.

Within the framework of the current project, fonds of the Estonian Archives in the US (EAU) held at the IHRC are being arranged and described. The aim of the project is to facilitate and increase the usage of the Estonian archival collections at the IHRC and the study of (émigré) Estonian history and culture through increased awareness. The project is supported by the Compatriots Programme and the IHRC.

The EAU is an American Estonian organisation which aims to collect, preserve and help raise awareness of the cultural heritage of (émigré) Estonians. It contains a large and valuable part of the documentation concerning the Estonian community within the USA . The archive consists of three main collections: the archives, the archival library and museal objects. In 2003, an agreement was made and nearly a third of the EAU’s archival materials were deposited at the IHRC because the EAU archival repository from 1972 lacked sufficient space for the records. The EAU collection currently comprises a tenth of the Center’s materials, but it is hardly systematised and descriptions are very brief. The lack of information on the Estonian archival material held at the IHRC inevitably hinders opportunities for research. The Minneapolis fonds contain completely unique documentation about the history of the Estonian émigré community and from the point of view of Estonian history research, it is vital that information about the contents of these fonds is made public.

The first stage of the description and arrangement started in March 2009, when Gristel Ramler and Birgit Nurme from the Estonian National Archives worked through 101 personal fonds out of approximately 300 of the total 580 EAU fonds at the Centre. The co-operation was mutually appreciated, and this led to the decision to continue the project.

In 2010, Kristel Tammik and Margit Laanemets helped out at the IHRC. Just as the project the previous year, the preparations were already begun in Estonia. Since we described personal archives in 2009 we now decided to take a look at the organisational archives. Using the names of the fonds and existing information, we chose those which had the potential to be the most interesting to researchers. During the course of the preparatory work more than 50 archival contributors were described. The descriptions usually had to be specified and completed using the archival records at the Center. At the end of our month-long stay, our work had yielded 113 descriptions of EAU organisational fonds, among which were lists of volumes, the history of the archival contributors, time span, languages, references to related subjects, and so forth. The information is being reviewed by staff at the IHRC and will be published on their webpage and hopefully in the future also accessible in the National Archives’ virtual reading room VAU.

The EAU fonds at the IHRC are very special in more than one way: they are unique both in terms of their quantity, their contents, their arrangement and as a whole. Often, basic arrangement work had to be carried out in the archives as boxes often contained records which lacked a comprehensive system. At times fonds hade to be merged with one another, separated, rearranged or have their names changed, since the records of one archival contributor could be divided between two (or more) fonds and records of several different archival contributors at times shared the same fonds.

Having said this, it does not in any way lessen the value of the EAU fonds. The smallest fonds can contain wholly unique information on topics which up until now have been unknown to us, such as the activities of Estonians in America already before World War II (for example, the fonds of the Boston Estonian Society, the Baltimore Estonian Society, the newly formed fonds of the Estonian –American sports club and others); large fonds can contain box after box of unarranged records but extremely interesting and informative correspondence (as in the case of the fonds of the university corporations Filiae Patriae, Fraternitas Liviensis and Raimla). It is particularly important to note that the organisational fonds which have been worked through so far only contain a few instances of parallel archival information in Estonia (for example, the Estonian League of the West Coast, ERA.5015).

The fonds described so far are mainly those of educational, cultural, political, youth and local organisations which tell of the arrival of the Estonians in the USA and their cultural, political and community activities in organisations in the USA as well as in worldwide Estonian and Baltic organisations, their mutual communication and their correspondence with other Estonians in exile. The fonds span the time between the beginning of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, but the majority of records stem from the years 1950 through 1980.

We would particularly like to emphasise the extent of the correspondence in the fonds we have worked with, even though letters of organisation(s) and private letters and topics can be mixed up. Future researchers would do well to take the fact that the borders between personal and organisational archival fonds at times can be rather provisional into account. This stems from the relations of the particular organisations with their leading figures and the history of the formation of the fonds, when a very active member of an organisation may have given whatever amount and kinds of records he had in his possession at the time over to an archival institution. Organisational records can also be found in personal archives. One should also take into account the fact that the activities of organisations which were legally independent were often inseparably intertwined with each other in terms of both contents and organisation, such as the local Estonian society, Estonian house, complementary school and so forth.

Apart from the fonds mentioned above, there are other very interesting memories and manuscripts about the history of the Estonians. The latter can mainly be found in different personal fonds but also in fonds of different organisations. They mainly focus on life and events in Estonia (for example, the coup d’état attempt on the 1st of December 1924, and the ‘silent period’) and the institutions (such as the police and military schools), the flight and to a smaller extent also life in the US.

It should be mentioned that the EAU fonds in addition to the US materials also contain interesting records on the Estonian diaspora in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, etc.

In two years, 214 fonds out of approximately 580 have been described and systematised. In order to attain a complete view of the fonds and make them accessible for researchers, it would most definitely be necessary to continue the work with them.

Kristel Tammik
Margit Laanemets