August 21, 2008

Sydney Archivists in Käsmu Summer 2008

It’s been over 4 years now since I started working as a volunteer at the Estonian Archives in Australia (EAA). So why should I give up one day’s work every week to sit among a pile of dusty papers and books?

Well, originally, it was to keep up and improve my Estonian language skills but the big surprise was how much I have learned about us – I mean “väliseestlased”, Estonians who don’t live in Estonia. And of course how much I enjoy my work and how great our team of archive workers is.

I really had very little idea of how enormous the contribution to Estonian culture outside Estonia has been and about how absolutely crucial this was in the past and still is in many ways to keep Estonian culture alive and productive all over the world. And of course how interested the “kodu” (home) Estonians are in us. Well, maybe not all the kodu-eestlased but certainly those who are active in Estonian archives and libraries, memory institutions and museums.

And this interest was demonstrated by an Estonian archival summer school, held in Käsmu, Estonia from 17 June to 22 June this year. And which we were invited to take part in.

Estonian archives in America, Canada, England, Germany, Sweden, Latvia, Russia and Australia were represented as visitors and of course our wonderful host country Estonia.

Four of us came from Sydney: Maie Barrow, Raivo Kalamäe, Reet Simmul and Jüri Woan. Tiiu Salasoo and Ann Smith also attended.

So, to Käsmu. A pretty little coastal village just over an hour out of Tallinn by bus. Käsmu is famous for its great but now vanished naval school and ship building facilities. Käsmu is also very proud of the fact that they did not take part in smuggling and selling alcohol to Finland during its period of prohibition in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The film “Tulivesi” (Tallinn 1994) is a good representation of this period.


Our days were spent listening to speakers from various archival institutions from Tallinn and Tartu – and of course we, the visitors, also spoke.

There was a lot to learn. The information was plentiful and useful. Topics included maintaining photography and film, sound and storage of tapes and videos etc. Preserving documents addressing difficult questions of copyright. The content was often very inspiring and also very moving. For example „elulood”, life stories, memoirs and how to conduct oral history interviews.

We were also introduced not only to some great books published by archivists but also to the writers themselves. Rutt Hinrikus and Tiina Kirss presented some fantastic material and inspired us all with their incredible amount of knowledge and conviction.

Maie Barrow and Reet Simmul impressed everyone with an excellent talk and video presentation about the EAA activities in Sydney and Canberra. Our collections, our working routines and our very successful exhibition of Estonian in Australia at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum.

Another very important lecture which had tremendous impact on us was an introduction and insight into the world of digital archives. How and what to scan and digitalise. This is very significant for photography collections.

We also had a lovely time socially. We were about 40 people all together but this changed according to our daily visitors. For those of us who were accommodated at the summer school for the week there were great opportunities networking and very importantly we enjoyed some really nice summer “camp” activities.

We had a great excursion to Palmse and Sagaste manor houses. This included a visit to a War of Independence memorial where we heard of the struggles for freedom over several generations. The weather was fittingly bleak with gray clouds and torrential rain.

Raivo Kalamae, Reet Simmul, Piret Noorhani, Anne Valmas, Maie Barrow and Jüri Woan

Raivo Kalamae, Reet Simmul, Piret Noorhani, Anne Valmas, Maie Barrow and Jüri Woan

We had a guided tour of Käsmu and saw such things as the well known maritime museum, set amongst decaying soviet relics. We also saw the cemetery with its notable Käsmu characters, the writers house, the beautiful forest with its lovely views of the sea, a huge pile of „wishing stones” and a terrible army of very hungry mosquitoes. And we saw the house where poor Jüri Vilms set off for Finland never to return.

There was a film night showing the fantastic 1927 film “Noored kotkad” (Young Eagles) digitally restored this year. And of course there was the tradition of sauna.

We walked, talked, ate and slept together. We studied and swapped stories with each other. All in a great atmosphere of Estonian language, Estonian history, Estonian archives – without the dust and Sass’s great village style accordion playing.

The food was wholesome, plentiful and Estonian. The weather was sunny, warm, cold, windy and one day even a minor flood following an exciting hail storm.

On the last night the entire summer school laulik (song book) was sung. Wonderful. Everyone felt the same, new friends, new information, new ideas and new challenges. We shared a tremendous feeling of achievement and an increased bond and commitment to Estonian archiving. Along with this we felt we were welcomed as Estonians as well as archivists.

A huge thank you to the organisers.

Jüri Woan.

Reproduced with permission from Meie Kodu

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