In Support of the Estonian Expatriate Literature Centre

March 28, 2023

Sad news has arrived from Estonia. Cultural workers and individuals associated with the arts are gathering at Toompea to demand social guarantees and proper salaries. The lack of resources within local governments is forcing the closure of many town and village libraries. But cutbacks are also taking place in other libraries. The Estonian Literary Museum’s archival library had to cease research pertaining to the national bibliography because the specialist was dismissed. Now, shocking news has arrived: the Academic Library of Tallinn University is dismissing the last remaining employees of the Estonian Expatriate Literature Centre (EELC) who were involved with the collection. This is taking place due to budget cuts, during which a third of the library’s workers will lose their jobs. The EELC’s unique collection will remain, but as can be read from library director Andres Kollist’s interview with ERR’s Novaator, the centre’s doors will be shut as opposed to open and of course, the further development of the collection can’t take place without proper staffing. The interview can be seen here:

Why should anyone be shocked by this news? Someone you meet by happenstance could easily ask that, but if the importance of the EELC hasn’t been realised by its trustees, there’s a much bigger problem at large. Here’s a reminder as to what’s at stake.

In February 2008, the long-time director and soul of EELC, Anne Valmas, wrote the following in the Canadian-Estonian paper Estonian Life: “As of February 2008, the Estonian Expatriate Literature Centre will replace the Academic Library of Tallinn University’s expatriate literature department. The centre has systematically collected expatriate literature for the past twenty years. The unique collection began in 1974 when a special archival department was developed as part of the Soviet Estonian Academy of Sciences Library. The collection featured literature banned at the time for Estonians living in the homeland, including works written and published by Estonians living abroad.”

The collection, which wasn’t accessible by most during Soviet times, opened to the public in the latter part of 1988. The (at the time) department of expatriate literature aimed to collect and comprise an as complete as possible collection of literature of diaspora Estonians. Rare publications with a small print run, ephemera, pamphlets of various organizations and more were also collected. Hugo Salasoo’s collection of special outtakes written by Estonian academics, which was gathered for the Estonian Archives in Australia, was also given to the department’s collection. Lists of publications that were missing from the library were printed in diaspora Estonian newspapers, and responses poured in from members of these Estonian communities. This was how unique small publications, such as publications from refugee camps with a small print run, were collected.

By 2000, it had become the most complete collection of expatriate literature in Estonia, the development of which was aided by diaspora Estonians. They would even bring print materials to Estonia in the bottoms of suitcases or send them in via mail. As of 2019, the collection featured 38,297 informative materials, 25,291 books and 9,607 annually published newspapers and magazines, serial publications, cards, sheet music, academic special outtakes, and much more.

The collection has been actively used by compilers of academic works, especially biographical lexicons, employees of museums, other libraries and publishers, historians, literary scholars, and university students. They have all been assisted by the centre’s employees, who have helped them orientate in the unique collections and databases. The centre’s employees have created the following important databases: VEPER, the biographical database of diaspora Estonians; VEART, the database of Estonian expatriate periodicals, from which you can find articles published in leading diaspora Estonian newspapers; VEILU, which contains information about fictional works by diaspora Estonians that have either been written in another language or have been translated. In 2005, the collection “The Complete Index Of “Eesti Kirik” 1950- 2000” of the magazine “Eesti Kirik” was published, which is available in the database KIRIK. EELC has also been the main digitiser of diaspora Estonian newspapers, available here: https://dea. Work progressed thanks to competent workers and grants from the Compatriots Program of the Republic of Estonia’s Ministry of Education and Research, which allowed for the use of contracted additional employees to create databases and digitise newspapers.

This was at the height of the EELC. In addition to Anne Valmas, four individuals worked at EELC in 2008: head bibliographer Aita Kraut, senior bibliographer Eve Siirman, senior bibliographer Kristina Räni, and senior librarian Juta Laasma. The numbers started to dwindle after that, and, as is evident in Andres Kollisti’s interview, only two individuals are tied to EELC’s collections presently; one has a 70% workload and the other 60%. Both are being dismissed from their positions. One of the former employees of the centre is currently employed in the service department but has other duties.

EELC’s collections and the academic work that has been accomplished there, along with the creation of digital resources, has been a self-evident source of information for not only professionals who work with diaspora Estonian topics but also the general circle of heritage enthusiasts both in the homeland and especially in communities across the world. I’ve pridefully explained to diaspora Estonians the importance of and fantastic work done at Estonian historical memory institutions to preserve and circulate the heritage of Estonians abroad. Anne Valmas was the epitome of perseverance and dedication for the younger generation. It’s unfortunate and painful to watch her, and her colleagues’ creation fall into the cruel hands of fate. It seems that even a historical memory institute can fall prey to complete memory loss. EELC’s collections were created but were guarded by the repressive Soviet institutions not to provide the public access to an essential piece of our shared memory. In a free Estonia, will the collection now, once again, be under lock and key? How can we look those volunteers in the eyes that have collected their heritage in diaspora communities and sent it for safekeeping in Estonia, knowing that there are safe places and professionals who stand for the fate of the collections?

Everyone involved with historical memory institutions in Estonia and abroad knows and realises how difficult it is to work towards goals in the wake of a lack of funding. The humanitarian field is under attack in the West as well. A few years ago, VEMU/Estonian Museum Canada saved boxes worth of Estonian literature, which the Toronto Public Library was discarding, along with several other foreign language collections. The status of the book is changing, as well as libraries and the duties that they are faced with. There is never enough funding for culture and academics anywhere, but we must stand for our national culture and heritage. A crisis doesn’t appear over the course of one day. The state of the EELC hasn’t been anything to boast about for a while. But the centre closure is too drastic; it’s impossible not to react, especially now that the Estonian government has realised how crucial it is to be in contact with Estonians abroad to keep us united as one. The diaspora Estonian heritage, created in large part thanks to voluntary work, deserves to be regarded with respect.

A break in continuity in the work and research of historical memory institutions is dangerous. That gap could become permanent if the baton of knowledge isn’t passed on. It is devastating to see the disappointment and hopelessness in the eyes of those to whom their job isn’t just a job but a mission; I know that sparkle in the eyes of my colleagues in Estonia. If the Academic Library of Tallinn University wants to maintain its academic status, it should examine the choices made. Engaging and dealing with diaspora Estonian topics on the highest academic level should be a priority to strive for and work towards. In a time when Estonia’s eastern neighbour is attempting to establish its historical discourse with all its might, both on the battle- and information fronts, we should be especially determined and diligent with our own historical memory work.

On behalf of the NGO Baltic Heritage Network, Piret Noorhani 28.03.2023