Move to digital records among topics discussed at archives conference

A group of Latvian history enthusiasts just spent three days dwelling on the past—and considering how to preserve it for the future.

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of the Conference on Latvian Diaspora Archives and Material Culture (Trimdas latviešu archīvu un materiālās kultūras konference) was learning about digitization of Latvian collections—and the challenges this poses.

The conference took place April 12-14 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It was organized by the American Latvian Assocation, the university’s Immigration History Research Center, and the Latvians Abroad – Museum and Research Centre (Latvieši pasaulē – muzejs un petniecibas centrs).

The conference brought together archivists, librarians and museum workers, both professionals and volunteers. About 60 participants and speakers attended the conference, coming from around the U.S. as well as from Latvia, Germany and the United Kingdom. They talked a lot about their work, and also received practical advice on how to process and manage collections.

Haven Hawley, director of the IHRC, described how digitization of archival material often is misunderstood. People have two wrong assumptions about digitization, she told the audience on the last day of the conference.

First, people assume that everything in an archive will be digitized and made available online. Second, they assume that after digitization, the original is destroyed. Neither is true, Hawley said. Digitization is a labor-intensive process. It takes time and money to scan archival material. Plus, that material sometimes is restricted, meaning that it cannot be placed online for anyone to see.

Digitization of Latvian archival records and publications, both in the homeland and abroad, is expanding. Several speakers explained the work their institutions and organizations have been doing. As it turns out, there’s plenty to explore.

Aivija Everte of the Latvian National Library noted how the first efforts by the institution to digitize collections date to 1999, but the real work to create a national digital library began in earnest in 2006. About 20 collections are now available in digital format, from periodicals, to images, to audio recordings.

Everte highlighted four collections:

  • The very first collection to be digitized was that of composer Jāzeps Vītols. Unfortunately, because of copyright restrictions the collection is only viewable from within the libary’s internal network.
  • Latviešu Dziesmu svētki (1864–1940), a collection of posters, postcards, photographs and books that tell the story of the song festivals so important to Latvian national identity. Everte especially noted that the collection includes a completely digitized version of exile author Valentīns Bērzkalns’ monumental history of Latvian song festivals, Latviešu dziesmu svētku vēsture: 1864–1940. It’s interesting that his second volume, which examined the history of song festivals in the exile, has not been digitized.
  • contains digital versions of 40 newspapers and magazines published from 1895 to 1957 in the Latvian, German and Russian languages. Although she did not mention it, another valuable online collection is Mantojums, which contains digitized versions of quite a few newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Zudusī Latvija, a collection of digitized drawings, postcards and photographs about forgotten places in Latvia. The collection covers the period from the late 19th century to today. The National Library, Everte said, will expand the project to include the post-World War II exile and is now looking for images that help illuminate such aspects as life in the Displaced Persons camps and cultural activities in the exiles’ adopted countries. Further information about what the library seeks is available from the Zudusī Latvija project coordinator, Ginta Zalcmane (

Inese Kalniņa of the Latvian State Archive told the conference about several of its digital collections:

  • Perhaps the most popular is Raduraksti, a collection of church books beginning with the late 18th century. It is a wonderful resource for anyone researching family history.
  • The Latvian State Archive of Audiovisual Documents (Latvijas Valsts kinofotofonodokumentu arhīvs) gathers photographs, audio records, film and other materials that document Latvia’s history. Among films that can be viewed on the site is one documenting Russian Czar Nicholas II’s visit to Rīga in 1910.
  • A number of digital exhibits, such as “Aizvestie,” a look at the 1941 deportations from Latvia, and “Latviešu strēlnieku piemineklis laika lokos,” which examines the history of the imposing statue in downtown Rīga honoring the Latvian Riflemen.

Ints Dzelzgalis discussed the work behind, the website for the American Latvian Assocation’s Immigration Documentation Database (Amerikas latviešu apvienības Imigrācijas dokumentācijas datubāze. The database is meant to gather evidence about all the different exile organizations in the United States—some 3,000, past and present, according to Dzelzgalvis. Visitors can find information on many of these organizations, as well as digitized documents.

Finally, Maija Hinkle talked about the Rīga-based Latvians Abroad museum project and its website,, where visitors can examine photographs of a number of objects already collected. Hinkle especially highlighted the new Internet exhibit, “Latviešu pēdas pasaulē,” which features six objects and tells the story behind each one. (Disclaimer: In addition to being a speaker at the conference, I also played a role in the Latvians Abroad exhibit.)

All in all, it was an impressive showing of what already is available online. The enthusiasm of conference participants suggests we will be seeing more in the future.

A final word

This is my last column as editor of Latvians Online. A couple of months ago, I decided to step down from my position to devote more time to other interests, including my academic research. Daina Gross, who has served as associate editor, takes over as editor. I will continue as a special correspondent. The past 12 years have taught me much about the global Latvian community, as well about the Latvian presence on the Internet. I thank all who have supported Latvians Online and who will continue to do so in the future.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

2 thoughts on “Move to digital records among topics discussed at archives conference

  1. Paldies Andris. LOL is a wonderful medium for staying in touch with / from all parts of the globe. Laima Daina. (I hope I said that right)

  2. Paldies, Andri, for all you have done for Latvians Online over all those years. I don’t know if you realise how much this site has helped me learn about Latvia, it’s culture and history. Not to mention the many friends I have made – some I have actually met – along the way.

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