Though I took vacation time to attend the American Latvian Association Congress in St. Pete Beach, FL May 1-3, it definitely has ties to Western Michigan University and my work. The American Latvian Association http://www.alausa.org/ is the umbrella organization for Latvian-Americans that coordinates the educational, cultural, and political work of Latvians throughout the country. Western Michigan University started offering Continuing Education classes in Latvian in 1966. In 1981, a minor in Latvian was established as a contract program with the American Latvian Association (ALA – yes this is another ALA), and was eventually expanded to a major in Latvian. The Latvian Studies Center was built by ALA for housing students in the Latvian Studies Program, and the Latvian Studies Center Library was established in 1983 and grew to be the largest Latvian collection in North America. The Latvian Studies Program was successful for 10 years, but when Latvia regained its independence in 1991, and the Latvian-Americans focused their energy and financial support on Latvia itself, the program no longer attracted students. We were forced to close the program, sell the Latvian Studies Center and disperse the library collection to various libraries throughout North America and Latvia.
The last time I attended an American Latvian Association Congress was in 1995, when the decision was made to sell the Latvian Studies Center. It was a very painful time for me, as I had worked hard to gather the materials for the library. Luckily I was allowed to find appropriate homes for the library (and archive and art) collections. When one door closes, another one opens - so eventually I found myself working here at Western.
The American Latvian Association Congress is a representational body, where member organizations send representatives to the congress, based on how many of their members are individual members of ALA. This year I was representing the Kalamazoo Latvian Association. I participated in the educational and cultural break-out sessions. There are 25 Latvian schools in the U.S., from a full time day care in Chicago, to the weekend Latvian grade schools, to the six week summer high schools. They are working on establishing reading groups and choosing Latvian books to discuss at various venues throughout the U.S. Among the projects initiated by the cultural section is one trying to document art work located in private collections. Another group is working to establish a Latvians in the World Museum, to document our experiences as Latvians outside of Latvia.
At the end of last year I received funding from the ALA Cultural Foundation, to start exploring the possibilities of creating an online union catalog for all the small Latvian libraries owned by the regional organization, churches, and schools. I presented my project at the cultural break-out session and got enthusiastic support, including information about collections and offers of help with the project.