The National Archives of Estonia
For the second post our of archives and libraries series, Peripheral Histories? editor Catherine Gibson spoke with Sven Lepa from the National Archives of Estonia about all the archives have to offer, including hidden gems, extensive online collections, and even an escape room.
PH: What is your current position? What was your journey into working in the National Archives of Estonia?
I started at the archives doing temp jobs as a bachelor student, making our paper finding aids searchable online. That’s how many of my colleagues started out. And I’ve been working here ever since. I have been working as an archivist for around ten years and am now the deputy head of our access and enquiry department in Tartu.
PH: Which of your collections or resources are consulted most frequently by researchers?
The largest user group in our archives are not academic researchers but family historians. The most central sources for their research are of course church books documenting births, marriages, and deaths. These were among the earliest sources that we digitized and made accessible online in the mid-2000s. The ease of access has only helped to increase their use over the years.
PH: Do you have any hidden gems in your collections? What do you have that has rarely or never by used by researchers?
Do we! There are so many exciting things to be found in our collections, like in all archives. Even after digitisation it’s often hard to find them, as titles can only go so far in describing the contents of a document. One of my favourite examples I found during my student days is the probate inventory of Count Karl Magnus Stenbock from 1798, listing all his belongings after his death. The descriptions of his estates are atypically detailed and make you feel like you are taking a walk through his belongings. Here is an example from the description of the Viimsi manor: “Opposite the front door are 2 small wooden pillars and on top of them are 2 cannon balls, which were fired by the Swedes towards the manor during the last naval battle with them, they are covered with yellow sheet metal in the form of a globus cruciger, and between them is a wooden bench.” But it’s hidden away behind the short title “Minutes”.
PH: Do you have any digital collections which you would like to highlight?
We have a lot available to our users online – over 35 million images. In the last few years Estonia has been running a mass digitization program for cultural heritage. It has helped to grow the number significantly, even if as a whole it’s still only a small percentage of our collections. We managed to add some quite interesting collections during that time. Most of the archive of the Tartu University from the interwar period is now digital. Also available is the agricultural census of 1939, which gives a detailed view into every farmstead, preserving Estonian rural life before the Second World War. It is a great source for local and family historians.
PH: Does your archive engage in any public outreach activities (for example, exhibitions, work with educational or other public institutions, or organise public-facing events)?
Yes, we aim to be as open to the public as possible, offering a myriad of different activities. We organise lessons for schools, not only for history classes, but also for geography, chemistry etc. We work closely with the Tartu University and the Estonian Academy of Arts, where several of our employees teach. In addition to offering excursions, exhibitions, seminars for our researchers, we also have an escape room and organize arts and crafts workshops for families.
PH: What are the main challenges of managing your archive?
The digital age has brought with it new challenges. One example is born-digital documents. How do you ensure their long-term preservation and everyday access? Closer to my heart are questions about creating better access to digitised historical sources. As I said, the descriptions that exist can be quite vague. That is completely understandable, looking at the workforce available at the archives. Here we are looking for different solutions to index our digitized documents, make their contents machine readable and thus searchable. Be that with the help and goodwill of our users in crowdsourcing projects or using AI for handwritten text recognition. But we are still many steps away from creating considerable amounts of data this way.
PH: Is there anything you wish more people knew about your archives?
In an interview, Peripheral Histories? own Siobhán Hearne called our building in Tartu her favourite archive of all time. So… I think that should be taken as fact and made known to everyone.
Archive homepage: https://www.ra.ee/en/
Virtual reading room: https://www.ra.ee/vau/index.php/en
Electronic catalogue: https://ais.ra.ee/en