Saturday, March 22, 2008

Latvia trip March 2008

This was a whirlwind of a trip, where I had to take care of some personal business, but I got to see quite a few relatives, friends and colleagues in a short amount of time.

Professionally my goal was to visit the Bibliographic Institute of the National Library of Latvia to gather information for a presentation I have to give at a Slavic studies conference this fall. When I first visited Latvia as a librarian for the Latvian Studies Center in 1990, it took me quite a while to understand their library set-up and the role of the Bibliographic Institute (BI). It maintains statistics on publishing throughout the republic, later country and publishes the national bibliography - an index of all publications and all articles in periodicals published in the country and about the country. In 1990 the BI was independent, but it is logical that it is now a division of the National Library. The descriptions created for this national bibliography are modified for the catalog and our Library of Congress considers their cataloging qualitative enough that they use these records for their catalog.

Lots of interesting topics arose in our conversations, for instance the issue of authority files. Latvians tend to butcher non-Latvian names by writing them as Latvians would pronounce them, for example Dzeimss Dzoiss (James Joyce) and Ijans Makjuens (Ian McEwan). Now in the days of electronic databases and non-Latvian users, they have to add the original spelling authority files.

Of course they have tried to keep up with the explosion of technological advances, but have entered the game a little late. They have been creating the indexes with the help of computers since the late 1980's and, but do not provide access to the international databases we use regularly. Full text is minimally available - mostly from a company providing full text for pay to newspapers from 1994 and some journals from recent years. They have moved from a print index to online and CD-ROM, but with the availability of Internet connections throughout libraries in the country (thanks to the Bill Gates Foundation), they will be dropping the CD-ROM version this year.

Another fascinating project is to retrospectively convert all the old bibliographies and indexes. I remember being amazed at the extent of indexing done in the Baltics - all on catalog cards in rooms full of card catalog cabinets. The main reading room in the National Library today has only one room of computers, the other is still the card catalog. It didn't look like they would ever be converted, but with advanced scanning and character recognition programs, they are beginning to convert this mass of bibliographic information. They have the book descriptions entered back to 1920. The old orthography and hand written cards are a special challenge.

Since Latvia still does not have a single building for their National Library, it is scattered throughout the capital city of Riga. I left the Bibliographic Institute in Old Town and went to meet Director Andris Vilks in the main building that also houses the administrative offices. He gave me the background I needed for my research on the changes in the National Library over the late 1980's and early 1990's.

The new building project for the library - The Castle of Light has taken so long to start, that people have lost enthusiasm and are now opposed to the government wasting money on the building. Some question the need for a building in today's online information world, others don't like the architectural design, created by Gunars Birkerts, a Latvian architect from the Detroit area. (It seemed more appropriate when it was first proposed over 10 years ago.) Others are upset that some interesting old buildings were razed to clear space for the new library.

I enjoy the way traveling abroad gives me glimpses of other lives. On the long flight there I sat next to a man from LA who was going to Uganda to distribute Bibles for the Gideons. (They have already provided Bibles to all the new hotels that have been built in China for the Olympics.) In Sweden I had an Iranian taxi driver, that had lived there 20 years. He asked what city I was from and I had to tell him that Kalamazoo was near Chicago. "Oh, gangsters!" Still. Another man was returning to visit his sick father from Italy, where he has taught English for the last 28 years. A young woman from Germany was visiting her boyfriend, who had an internship at Princeton. All interesting lives.

My friends and relatives were very interested in who we were going to elect as our next president. One thought that if we elected Obama, it would mean an end to our racial problems. Others were intently watching the dollar and our economic woes. Though I have seen incredible progress in Latvia, especially in living conditions, they too seem to be in a building slump. Banks are no longer lending money for building projects, and some have over-borrowed to build their dream homes or projects.

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