An International Conference on the Baltic Archives Abroad

July 27, 2009

On July 7th-10th, 2009, an international conference on the Baltic archives abroad was held at the Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu.

This conference was a continuation of a previous conference held in the summer of 2006. The contacts made at the 2006 conference resulted in the founding of a new organisation in January 2008: the non-profit association Baltic Heritage Network. The aim of the Baltic Heritage Network is to develop co-operation between the different national and private archives holding cultural treasures of the Baltic diaspora, and to ensure their accessibility to the public, their preservation and their study.

The aim of the previous conference was to give information on the occurence and condition of the cultural heritage of the Baltic diaspora. The conference held this year centered on what has been preserved in the different communities, who has researched the materials and how they have been used, the accessibility of the different archives, their content and how to make them more accessible in the future. The conference was organised by BaltHernet in cooperation with the Estonian National Museum, the Estonian Literary Museum and the Estonian National Archives. The event was supported by the Compatriots Program (Ministry of Education and Research, Estonia).

102 participants from 13 countries attended the conference (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Brasilia, Australia, Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Great Britain, USA, Russia).

During the four-day conference, 29 different presentations were given by representatives of memory institutions and universities in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, USA, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Germany and Russia. These presentations reflected the perspectives of archivists as well as those of librarians and researchers.

The main organiser of the conference was the chairman of the board of the non-profit organisation Baltic Heritage Network, Piret Noorhani, Estonian Diaspora project leader at the Estonian National Museum. Ms. Noorhani’s opening presentation covered the internet portal created in 2007 after the previous conference,, which focuses on information regarding the cultural heritage of the Baltic diaspora. Two summer schools for archive workers and volunteers of the Estonian diaspora have been held, as well as seminars for voluntary workers in Estonian archives in Germany, Sweden and Canada, and discussions have been held in Latvia and Lithuania. The financial support for this work is provided by the national Compatriots Program, which has given support to Estonian memory institutions as well as Estonian archives in the diaspora. An overview of the Compatriot Program’s archival competition was given by Jaak Viller, department head at the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research.

Next followed a book presentation by Mai Madisson and Priit Vesilind, When the Noise Had Ended: Geislingen’s DP Children Remember. Quite a few books have been published about Germany’s largest refugee camp; many of these publications have been written by graduates of Geislingen Eesti Gümnaasium (The Estonian Gymnasium in Geislingen). The presenters focus on the memories of refugees who were only of nursery school-age at the time.

Baiba Bela from the University of Latvia talked about the writing of life stories; this theme was continued on by Tiina Kirss from Tartu University and Arvydas Pacevičius from Vilnius University. Anu Korb of the Estonian Literary Museum dwelled on how Siberian communities receive collected lore in the form of printed material based on their own oral as well as photographic contributions. Anne Valmas, head of the Centre of Estonian Exile Literature at the Academic Library of Tallinn University, took the audience back in time as she described the activities at the former Restricted Access Department at the Library at the Academy of Sciences during the years of 1974-1989, when strict secrecy restricted the access to and usage of Estonian exile literature. The holdings of the Archival Sector are the base of the present-day Centre for Estonian Literature Abroad at the Academic Library of Tallinn University. Rutt Hinrikus from the Estonian Literary Museum gave an overview of the research on the history of Estonian exile literature, which was greatly obstructed due to important material being kept away in restricted-access departments for half a century, as well as the lack of access to source material. So far, a voluminous reference book, “Eesti kirjandus paguluses 20. sajandil“ (Estonian Literature in Exile in the 20th Century) Tallinn, 2008, has been published to fill this gap. Marcus Kolga from Canada presented a collection and research project of the private and archival film footage of the Estonian diaspora in Canada. The Estonian community in Canada has plenty of film footage which is of great importance to Estonians in Canada as well to the Estonian culture as a whole. The most valuable footage is being digitized for the Canadian and Estonian national archives.

Several presentations dealt with researchers’ experiences and impressions of using archives in different countries and memory institutions – finding the right archive, the right collections and knowing the conditions of use isn’t always an easy task. This subject was dwelt upon by doctoral student Kaja Kumer-Haukanõmm from the Centre for Estonian Diaspora Studies at Tartu University, Hauke Siemen, doctoral student at the University of Hamburg, and Tiina Tamman, doctoral student at the University of Glasgow. The speakers considered BaltHerNet an important place for Estonians in developing mutual communication and for the gathering of archive-related information. Leili Utno and Alīda Zigmunde’s speech concerned the State Historical Archives of Latvia as a source of Estonian educational history.

Maie Barrow, archivist at the Estonian Archives in Australia, spoke of the growing interest towards archives, an interest which inspires the small group of volunteers to arrange and describe archival collections. The archives are frequented by Estonians visiting Australia, as well as by local Estonians who come in search of material about their ancestors. The archivists themselves carry out very important work as they present the history and culture of Estonia to Australian society through various exhibitions. Enda-Mai Michelson-Holland continued on this theme, and spoke of the Estonian Archives in the U.S. , located in Lakewood. Estonians in America also come looking for their roots in Lakewood as well as in smaller archives situated in libraries. In 2006, two-thirds of the materials from the Estonian Archives in the U.S. were transferred to the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The storage conditions and accessibility at the IHRC are excellent, but the Estonian archives still await arrangement and description.Daniel Necas talked about the storage conditions in Minnesota and their cooperation with the Lakewood archives. The archive of Estonian artist Edmund Valtman was of particular interest. The IHRC received one part of the artist’s papers from Lakewood, and the other from the testament executors.

Ain Dave Kiil spoke about one of the oldest Estonian communities in Alberta, Canada. This year will see 110 years since the arrival of the first Estonians settlers. At present, more than 1000 digitized documents and photos documenting the history and culture of Alberta’s Estonians are available at Ann Tündern-Smith from the Estonian Archives in Australia introduced researchers to what information regarding Baltic heritage one can find in Australian memory institutions. Terry Kass has researched the fate of Alfred Julius Sickler, who is known as the first Estonian-born person to gain citizenship in the colony of New South Wales in 1859.

Maija Hinkle informed about the formation of a diaspora museum and research centre in Latvia, whose aim will be to preserve, interpret, research, and present the Latvian diaspora’s life and history of the past two centuries. Linas Saldukas, representative of the Lithuanian Emigration Institute, presented the most important research works conducted at the institute, using diaspora archives and literature. Unfortunately, there is presently no diaspora museum or research centre in Estonia today which could facilitate the focusing, preservation and accessibility of corresponding information in a single institution.

Kersti Lust from the National Archives of Estonia introduced information on a database containing information on records concerning Estonia and Estonians in Russian and Latvian archives: Veronika Mahtina from the Estonian Cultural Society of Saint Petersburg spoke about the Estonian Saint John’s church in Saint Petersburg, which was of great importance to the Estonian culture. An informative overview is given in Mahtina’s recent bilingual (Estonian and Russian) publication “Eesti Jaani kirik Peterburis“ (The Estonian Saint John’s Church in Saint Petersburg). Peeter Väljas from the Estonian National Archives spoke about the archive of sisters Rutt and Elga Eliaser, where the fate of an educated Estonian family is documented.

The presentations at the conference were varied and interesting. All speakers were listened to attentively and any discussions generated followed avidly throughout the conference. The cultural heritage of the Baltic diaspora is situated in different memory institutions all over the world. An urgent task is the gathering of information about their various locations into one place. The portal is meant to help researchers find these interesting records.

The next conference will be held in 2012. A summer school will be held in the coming summer.

Anne Valmas