Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cool Conference on (Slightly Geeky) Latvian Stuff

How does a community preserve its history? That was the basic question posed at the Second Latvian Archive, Library, and Material Culture Conference. While the title of this event is enough to put many people to sleep, the conference was fascinating and incredibly relevant for most Latvian- Americans. Because - really - when your grandmother, who had been active on the boards of two different organizations and a member of many more, and an avid reader, passes away, do you have any idea what to do with all of her old papers, books and Latvian knick-knacks? Yeah - I didn't think so! Although the conference touched on many more in-depth (and - for many of us - not-as-relevant) topics, the issues raised and various resources mentioned were generally very interesting.

The first day was most interesting, as that took place at the Library of Congress in downtown Washington. I rode Metro to Union Station, then walked several blocks to the Library's Madison building, which is just one of three building the Library occupies near the Capitol. It was September 11, and it was sobering to see all flags at half-staff. I was working in DC, just a few blocks from the White House, on that day, and I - like all Washingtonians and New Yorkers - remember the events all too well.
Union Station with flags at half-staff

Lovely fountain at Jefferson building
The Jefferson Building is the original and best-known LOC structure; the Madison building is modern and not as lovely, although the sixth floor room in which we met had large windows and some great views of DC. The conference was kicked off with opening remarks by a whole slew of dignitaries and VIPs. I was most excited to hear the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, speak. His area of expertise is Russia, and it turns out that he was one of the first Americans to visit Soviet-occupied Latvia in 1958. We were further welcomed by Ambassador Razāns, Rep. John Shimkus of the Baltic Caucus, John Medveckis who is both Honorary Consul for Latvia in Pennsylvania and a trustee of the LOC, Jānis Kukainis of the World Federation of Free Latvians, and American Latvian Association Chair Anita Bataraga.
Dr. Billington, Librarian of Congress
Rep. Shimkus

The meat of the conference began with the keynote speaker, Grant Harris, Head of the Library's European Division. He spoke a bit about the Library's history, its collection policies (the idea that they might have everything ever published is a myth!), and items in its collection related to Latvia. The basic take-away was that if you are doing any research on Latvia, the Library is a wonderful place to find materials. Just by searching "Latvian" in the Library's catalog, I came up with over 6,000 items, and that does not include periodicals!
Grant Harris
The rest of the day included lunch (the LOC cafeteria was surprisingly good, and not too expensive), and a couple of sessions on various collections and archives both here and in Latvia. For example, the University of Washington, home to a Baltic Studies program, has a collection of 1,200 pieces of Baltic music, including 730 choral scores. The presenter, Heather Garbes, said "the Baltics are hot right now." As examples she mentioned the fact that last year thirty students had studied Lithuanian at UW, and that works by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds is incredibly popular among choirs around the world. (My personal favorite Ešenvalds piece is Dvēseles dziesma, i.e. The Soul's Song.) Latvians might be interested to hear that later when I asked Heather what her favorite Latvian choral piece is, she instantly answered: Saule, Pērkons, Daugava.
Being as erudite as they are, Cory & Linda discuss Latvian art.
I was glad to have lunch with my old friend Liga.
Another speaker, Elga Zālīte of Stanford, spoke about the personal archives of Rev. Zariņš, who was minister in the New York City Latvian Lutheran congregation for fifty years. He was instrumental in helping many Latvians as they arrived in the U.S. from displaced persons camps in Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For example, the notes he kept in his calendars indicate that he personally met many incoming ships in NY harbor - sometimes even twice in one day. Apparently, Rev. Zariņš' many letters and other papers offer a rather detailed glimpse into the lives of Latvians as they sought to take refuge and build new lives in America.

One of the Library of Congress research center's is The American Folklife Center, and Ann Hoog showed us some interesting things from their collection. Imagine my surprise when up on the screen popped up photographs from my Latvian Saturday school back in 1982, when I was already a student there! It had been a part of a larger project funded by the Center, and she mentioned that the collection contained quite a few photographs, with names listed. The few she showed did not picture me (or my mom, who was a teacher at the school, nor my younger sister who was also a student at the time), but I recognized at least a couple of my former teachers, and Ann said there are many more and that I'm welcome to stop by and look at them sometime.

Ginta Zalcmane of the National Library of Latvia informed us of several current and a couple of potential new projects. One interesting website hosted by the Library is called Zudusī Latvija, or In Search of Lost Latvia. Anyone can upload an old photograph and description, and others using the site can further enhance the description if they happen to know more. The site already contains many lovely old photos which let us learn more about life in Latvia in earlier times. I, too, have decided to add some of my family's old photographs to the site this fall. She also mentioned the website Periodika.lv (praised by several researchers over the course of the conference), which contains over 100 newspaper and magazine titles. For anyone wishing to find information about past events either in Latvia or in Latvian communities around the world, this is an incredibly useful resource. A quick search turned up a number of articles in Latvian-American publications written by my father or by me, as well as articles which mentioned numerous members of my family.

Later in the afternoon we were treated to a visit to the Map and Geography Division where we were able to examine a number of rare historical maps of Latvia. The funniest thing was the LOC employee who scurried around excitedly snapping photos of us looking at the maps -- apparently it is rare for them to have such a large group of people who are so interested to see a part of their collection. We were also given a short tour of the public part of the Jefferson building, which is absolutely stunning. If you are ever in DC, I highly recommend visiting!
Just one map of Latvia we were able to scrutinize.
Conference attendees examine historical maps of Latvia in Map & Geography Division
The top part of a patriotic map of Latvia created in Western Europe after WWII.
Overlooking the Jefferson Reading Room.
Thomas Jefferson's library: some are the original books he owned!
After our tour, some friends and I took Metro to Dupont Circle, where they were staying, then ate dinner at Zorba's Cafe, which I also highly recommend. Fully satiated with Greek food, we headed to the Embassy of Latvia for an art exhibit opening and reception. Art on exhibit were prints by Latvian-American artist Janis Šternbergs, who came to the U.S. and made Kentucky his home. He is not well known in the Latvian-American community, but Sarma Liepiņš is a fan, and collects his art, so the exhibit was curated by her. Then I dragged my tired self home, as I had another full conference day to look forward to.
Prints by Janis Sternbergs
Old and new friends
On Friday we were hosted by the Embassy, and we heard a number of additional interesting talks. Cory McLeod works at the advertising agency Olson in the Twin Cities. The agency did a pro bono project for the Riga Ghetto Museum in which they created a map of the ghetto so that one can take a virtual tour of the ghetto using modern-day Google street view, while hearing memories from survivors. The map is chilling, but unfortunately it is a painful part of Latvian history, and it is interesting to see modern technology used to make history more understandable.

The most practical session in some respects was presented by Dace Ķezbers of Chicago and Sarma Liepiņš of Boston. Both often get called upon to help sort through belongings of Latvians who've passed away, and they had some rather useful tips. Sarma said that one should keep an eye out for small containers, such as little boxes and tins. She said those sometimes contain surprising or meaningful items: sand or small amber pieces from Latvia, ashes of a deceased relative, or even gold teeth. Sarma estimated that a gold tooth can be worth around $600 nowadays. Dace also mentioned leafing through books, as occasionally those contain items of note - either the author's or someone else's signature(s), old event programs, photographs, or even money.

Representing the Latvian National Archives, Inese Kalniņa, informed us about resources available from their website, such as the genealogical research site Raduraksti, which one of my cousins in Latvia has used to find quite a bit about my maternal grandfather's side of the family. (However, I will mention that my efforts to find information about my father's side of the family were quickly thwarted when I realized how difficult it was: information is handwritten, often in German and using strange abbreviations, etc.) The archives also possess an enormous card catalog about Latvian displaced persons in post-war Germany that was organized by the Red Cross, but my understanding was that this wealth of information is currently being digitized, and it will be a while before it is available for research use.

Dinner involved a group of twelve conference attendees and presenters returning to Zorba's where we quickly commandeered an entire corner of the second floor dining room for a filling Greek dinner.

Saturday was a short day, with only a couple of hours of discussions and workshops at the Latvian church hall in Rockville. Cory showed us how we could - if we had the time and resources (seeing as the software has to be purchased at $50/month) - create an app, which was interesting, but not something I plan to do anytime soon! Additionally, I participated in a small work group in which we discussed recommendations to be made to the American Latvian Association on further actions. This was already the second such conference, and we all agreed that another conference in two years - preferably on the West coast (seeing as the first one was held in the Twin Cities, in the Midwest) - would be a good idea. Various other suggestions were discussed, but - as always - the limiting factors of time and money are an issue.

Overall the conference was very interesting, and I am incredibly glad I was able to attend.


  1. Very nice explanation of an important conference. Thank you, Daina!
    The pictures add an extra worthwhile dimension to the narrative.

    1. Thanks for reading, and for the comment, Ilze! :)

  2. The conference sounds absolutely fascinating!

    1. For anyone interested in books, history, etc, it definitely was. I wish there'd been more people in attendance, especially on the first day. Apparently we were the first ever ethnic group to actually organize a such a meeting at the Library of Congress, so that's pretty cool, too.


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