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Liisi Esse – Stanford University Libraries at the brink of Baltic’s Centennial

Liisi Esse – Stanford University Libraries at the brink of Baltic’s Centennial

Interview by Taira Zoldnere

Approaching the Centennial of all there Baltic countries and before a visit and address of the Ambassador of Latvia Andris Teikmanis at Stanford Libraries which will take place on Thursday , March 2nd 2017,  I have asked Liisi Esse, Assistant Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies at Stanford University Libraries for a short interview.

liisiesseWith 126 years of history and its remarkably impressive campus, Stanford University is one of the world’s leading teaching and research universities. The University was founded in 1885 by former California governor Leland Stanford and his wife Jane in memory of their only child, Leland Stanford Jr., who had died of typhoid fever at age 15 the previous year. Since its opening in 1891, Stanford has been the home of the Stanford University Libraries which is a library system encompassing more than 20 libraries. Right here at Stanford campus is located The Hoover Institution, an American public policy think tank and research institution, with its own library, known as the Hoover Institution Library and Archives. The libraries hold a collection of nearly 9 million volumes, 260,000 rare or special books, 1.5 million e-books, 1.5 million audiovisual materials, 75,000 serials, 6 million microform holdings, and thousands of other digital resources, making it one of the largest and most diverse academic library systems in the world.  Both Libraries collect the records of contemporary history, especially from countries under Nazi or Communist rule. They have become the most significant resource about Baltic’s history from materials out of the Baltic countries themselves. The Libraries also host exhibits, workshops and events of outstanding speakers.

T.Z. Liisi, first, please tell us more about yourself – what is your background and how did you start working at Stanford Libraries?

L.E. I am from Estonia and have spent the past four years living in Silicon Valley, where I work at Stanford University Libraries as Assistant Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies. I have a doctoral degree in history from the University of Tartu. My thesis, which I defended last August, focused on the experiences of Estonian soldiers who served in the Russian Army during the First World War.

Back in 2012 I was working at the Estonian National Archives and had just begun my doctoral studies when an opportunity came to move half way across the world and start working at Stanford. Stanford Libraries had received an endowment from the Kistler-Ritso Foundation, which enabled them to create the Baltic Curator position (the very first and so far the only one in the U.S. academic libraries) and hire an Estonian historian to come and do the work. I’m so glad I was able to use this opportunity!

On a more personal note, I am married to a wonderful Estonian guy and enjoy an active lifestyle! By the way, I also have some distant Latvian roots (my maiden name was Eglit) – my great-grandfather was Latvian.

T.Z. Stanford Libraries is a large and complicated structure with many sub-divisions. In which section do you work and what are your work duties? How is it relevant to Baltic studies?

L.E. Stanford Libraries has a few dozen curators and subject librarians who each take care of one or more collections in their respective fields. Before my position was created, our Baltic collection was grouped together with our Eastern European and Russian collection, which was curated by our Slavic and East European curator. The fact that this tiny geographical region has its own curator now is pretty remarkable!

As the Baltic curator, I’m responsible for making sure our collection of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian books, periodicals and manuscripts is in great shape and continues to grow in size and in strength. In the past four years, we have nearly doubled the size of the collection and made it one of the strongest in the U.S. academic libraries. We buy a lot of books from vendors, but we also work with other libraries and rely on donations of books and manuscripts that members of the Baltic expat community make. We are truly thankful to all our donors!

The other part of my work has to do with helping researchers (professors, students, visiting scholars from the Baltic countries) discover and use our Baltic collection and shedding light on the Baltic studies more generally. We have organized a lot of public events, like film screenings, cultural evenings, talks, etc. in the past and continue to do so.

T.Z. Over the years what would be the most significant events or research achievements at Stanford regarding Baltic countries?

L.E. We have been very blessed with a wide array of guest speakers during the past years, ranging from Baltic academic scholars to politicians (including presidents and former presidents!). It has been very exciting to host their talks at Stanford. I have also enjoyed organizing Baltic film screenings, which have always been very well attended. It is wonderful to see that there’s a strong relationship between us and the Baltic expat community – we always have a sizeable audience from the local Baltic community.

In 2014, Hoover Institution hosted a Baltic conference, which was put together by renowned Stanford professors Amir Weiner and Lazar Fleishman. It included a keynote talk by Vaira Vike-Freiberga and 15 presentations by leading Baltic scholars. The proceedings of that conference should be published very soon, and I consider this book to be one of the most important works in the field of Baltic history that has been published at Stanford so far.

T.Z. All three Baltic countries are looking forward to celebrate their centennials in the year 2018. Are there any special events planned at Stanford regarding this remarkable anniversary?

L.E. Definitely! Stanford Libraries will be organizing the 2018 AABS (The Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies) conference on June 1-3, 2018. With that conference, we will celebrate two important milestones – the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies and the 100th anniversary of independence for the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The conference title is, The 2018 AABS Conference at Stanford University: The 100th Anniversary of Baltic Independence.

The conference will bring together around 200 scholars from all over the world and foster collaboration between Baltic and Stanford researchers. The three-day program, to be held on Stanford University campus, will feature panels, roundtable discussions and workshops on sixteen broad topics from history and memory to Baltic startup culture. The conference will also include numerous public events, such as keynote talks by leading Baltic scholars, film screenings, exhibit openings and tours of Stanford’s Baltic collections. The conference will be open to the public, and we hope that members of the local Baltic community will join us! More info on that conference will follow very soon.

T.Z. Latvian Ambassador’s Andris Teikanis address at Stanford Libraries at March 2nd this year – why is the address important now and here?

L.E. We are very excited about this event! The Ambassador has agreed to discuss the development of Latvia’s security issues, which in my view have become more topical than ever before during the past 25 years. On the other hand, he will also talk about the opportunities that these challenges bring about, and how Latvia has been able to shape new possibilities for cooperation with its partners in Europe and in North America. This will be a public event and there’s no admission fee, so I encourage everybody to attend!

T.Z. Do you have any suggestions for the audience attending the March 2nd event at the Green Library?

L.E. Make sure you come and use this rare opportunity to hear a talk by your ambassador at Stanford! Arrive early (finding a parking spot on campus might be challenging) and bring your thoughts and questions for the Q&A!

T.Z. What are you looking forward to in future regarding Stanford University and Baltic countries cooperation?

L.E. We have quite a few ongoing projects with various Baltic memory institutions. For example, we have been digitizing a large video testimonies collection that the Museum of Occupations in Riga has created during the past 20 years. This collection is essential to understanding Latvia’s history during the past 70 years, and it will become available to researchers both in Stanford and in Riga very soon. There are similar projects to follow in Estonia and Lithuania.

Last year, Estonia was the first country in Eastern Europe that had an institution (The Museum of Occupations in Tallinn) joining Stanford’s Global Studies internship program. Each summer, this program sends Stanford students as interns to various organizations all over the world for two months. This coming summer, we also have Latvian and Lithuanian organizations represented, and we hope that these opportunities will be used by Stanford students this year and in the coming years!

We also hope that the 2018 conference will have a large attendance by scholars and graduate students from the Baltic countries, and it will open up many new avenues for collaboration between Stanford and the Baltic states.

T.Z. Thank you Liisi for this interview, the best success with all the upcoming challenges and I am looking forward to March 2nd Ambassador’s speech!

Interview first appeared in “ZK Apskats” February 2017 issue. 
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