Ave Goršič

The article recollects a debate between humanities scholars published in two Estonian newspapers – Sirp ja Vasar (Sickle and Hammer) and Edasi (Forward) – in 1967 and 1968. One of the main issues was the prospective implementation of computers and information technology in the preservation of humanities collections as well as in data processing and retrieval in the Estonian SSR. The other centrepoint of the discussion was the Fr. R. Kreutzwalds State Literary Museum at the ESSR Academy of Sciencesi (LM) and its folklore department (Estonian Folklore Archives), also briefly touching upon the problems of the collections and personnel of other departments of the museum.

While the background setting and conditions may be emphatically Soviet in general or Soviet Estonian more specifically, readers from the non-Soviet countries may find some interesting parallels in research situations both fifty years ago as well as today.


The departments in the State Literary Museum (1940) were formed by splitting the Estonian National Museum (1909), however, the museum was not given the status as an Institute. The State Literary Museum (LM) was included in the Academy of Sciences system in 1946. Not being an Institute meant that the folklore, bibliography, library and cultural historical departments were basically serving other institutions and the general public, while still attempting to do research, an impulse from the previous decades and a logical need. This situation prompted many to leave for the Institute of Language and Literature (ILL), also under the Academy of Sciences (the ILL was formed in Tartu in 1947 and moved to Tallinn in 1952) before their retirement, in order to double their wages and get a higher pension.

After the meagre times and repressions after the WW II, the Soviet society experienced a so called ‘melting era’ in the second half of the 1960s, although the authorities worked on reintroducing the control that had been softened. Also internal tensions in socialist countries (Hungary, Czechoslovakia) had an impact on the internal policies of the USSR. The USSR rapidly developed its communication with the outside world, and in Estonia specifically a change was brought about in this regard with the visit of Finnish President Urho Kaleva Kekkonen in 1965, which resulted in a ferry connection between Helsinki and Tallinn. Literature and media were subject to ideological control. The General Government of Literature and Publications, or Glavlit, at the Council of Ministers was responsible for that. In reality, cultural life could not be kept strictly within the framework of communist ideology. In the theatre, art and literature, despite the barriers, the opportunities for creative freedom were exploited, and there was a resurrection of the national culture. The scientific research options were broadened primarily in natural sciences, but also in humanities, such as history, etnography (etnology), art and theatre history, etc. The possibilities of using archives were expanded. In the University of Tartu and elsewhere, sociological research was launched, which the authorities also tried to control, and there was a boom in philosophy. (Kuuli 2002: 102–152)

The state of play and debate on Estonian Humanities

In this context, a serious debate on the state of play and trends in humanities developed in 1967 and 1968 on the pages of two daily papers – Sirp ja Vasar and Edasi. In the first, the emphasis was placed on issues relating to bibliography and cultural-historical material, and on the general problems of technology and humanities. In Edasi, arguments were made more narrowly on folkloristic research and archive work and on the issues of the Literary Museum: the functions and future solutions of the folklore department (former and current folklore archive) and, more broadly, of all the departments of the museum. It was a time when humanities had a growing demand for effective information processing and technology. Within this framework, the state of play and future plans of the folklore department and the literature museum were also opening up.

There had been discussions and recommendations in the press on the state, needs and development of humanities already previously, as referred to in the first article of the present debate series (Kahk 1967: 3): there had been a debate on the work lag of the bibliografation of material published in older Estonian newspapers. This was the main task of the bibliography department of the LM, carried out with varying success and despite constantly changing and complementary work tasks.

The main concern was the large volume of work and the extremely small staff, while the demand for easily available data both among humanities scientists and amateur researchers grew rapidly. In 1968, the National Bibliography Department, set up under the Estonian National Library of the name of Fr. R. Kreutzwald of the Estonian SSR, which supported the work of the LM’s bibliography department and helped to alleviate the situation somewhat (Adamson 1990: 95–96).

The same was the case for folklore and cultural-historical collections: organizing large number of materials did not go as quickly as the visitors-researchers or the museum staff themselves would have wanted. For the folklore department, archival work at the time meant manually writing cards and registers: e.g. the same card was copied manually several times in order to systematically compile these copies in the various general and thematic files, also several copies were created of the same folk songs on writing machines.

The typewriting and manual copying were labourous and time-consuming. There was therefore a need for technical innovation: copiers were needed both to speed up making copies for researchers and for thematic files and spare copies, microfilming enabled avoiding the re-use and wearing out of valuable manuscripts. On the same principle, researchers today are not given access to original materials that have already been digitised.

Janika Oras, who has analysed the archival and collecting work at the time, has pointed out that the reason for the organisational work lagging behind was the need to collect folklore going out of use, both due to the high age of co-workers and the unpopularity of older folklore genres, as well as lack of staff and some of the staff’s time-consuming work on the Baltic Sea’s proverbs edition. Both in the archive and in research, there were two opposing views: one approach based on the ideas of Oskar Loorits, the founder of the Estonian Folklore Archives (research, collecting and organising is interlinked), which continued to be followed by archival staff, and another approach based on Soviet-developed research policy (research is conducted only by institutes of the Academy of Sciences) (Oras 2008: 68–70), which was followed outside the folklore department.

On 14 August 1967, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted a decision on the objectives of social science on ‘Remedies for the further development of social sciences and maximizing their role in communist construction’ (Abinõudest ühiskonnateaduste edasiarendamiseks ja nende osa suurendamiseks kommunistlikus ülesehitustöös, published on 23.08.1967 in Rahva Hääl [People’s Voice]). The document mentions as one of the objectives the improvement of the technical capacity of archives and institutes and the need to organise the Institute of Scientific Information in the field of social sciences. It was a programmatic text in which science, including humanities, was seen as a means of rebuilding Communism. This mentioning of the need to set up an information centre gave a ‘formal justification’ for public discussion (Palli 1970: 321).

In September 1967, historian Juhan Kahk (1928–1998) published an article in Sirp ja Vasar, with the main points of discussion being the current state and development of social sciences: the use of microfilm equipment, computers and mathematical models to make large quantities of data quickly available for analyses, as well as opportunities and weak spots of sociology. As an illustrative example of sources where a great deal could be done by implementing the technical possibilities, he pointed to the already quite large collections of the Literary Museum. He pointed out that the researcher of cultural heritage must be aware of the tasks necessary to solve the current problems while heading towards the future (Kahk 1967). In short, the numerous opinions subsequently appearing in Sirp ja Vasar largely stated that the linking of humanities and information technology is essential for the development of the field and that the corresponding preparatory work should be started immediately in order to prepare the processing of all material by computers. However, another interesting comparison from the past to todays’ researchers was the accompanying dispute whether the number of publications could really be a measure of scientific potential.

From jurisprudent Hillar Randalu (1915–1990) appeared in September 1968 an article that in a way completed the discussion, indicating the need to use machinery for the analysis of information. Randalu wanted, like some others, to create thesaurus, investigational concepts that would bring together ‘information – dinosaurs’: his recommendation was not to bother with manual files anymore, but to start creating an information language suitable for machines. Randalu also referred to the results already achieved by the Economic Institute through perfocards. (Randalu 1968)

Issues of the Literary Museum

In parallel with the debate on the future for humanities in Estonia, daily paper Edasi held a debate on the functions of the Literary Museum and its folklore department.

Firstly, the department celebrated 40 years of folklore archives, on which occasion there was a series of short articles in Edasi on September 24, 1967. Among them was a piece ‘Seven wishes’ written on behalf of the department by ethnomusicologist Ingrid Rüütel (1967). It expressed a desire for more rapid publication of books, complained about the incommodiousness and long continuing repairs, expressed the hopes of the museum to obtain the status of an Institute and higher wage levels, and dreamed of the availability of the necessary apparatus and computers and databases for archives and research (e.g. deciphering folk music; text search). Secondly, Herbert Tampereii (1909–1975) gave a presentation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution at the scientific conference of the Museums of the City of Tartu (October 6, 1967) with a presentation entitled ‘The Folkloristic Research and Publications of the Estonian Folklore Archives and the Literature Museum’ (Eesti Rahvaluule Arhiivi ja Kirjandusmuuseumi folkloristlikest uurimustest ja väljaannetest).

In the presentation (and subsequent article), Tampere highlighted the close links of the collection, organisation, research and publication and problems that emerged when some of the folklorists were transferred to a separate folklore sector in the Institute of Language and Literature (ILL), and the former archives’ position as a scientific institution disappeared. This was accompanied by a reduction in staff and wages, and various stages of work suffered. In addition, there was a constant change of views on the tasks of the museum as a whole: whether there should be purely museological work or also research.

Tampere considered that, irrespective of the institution’s position, the theory and practice, technical work and research should in any case be interlinked, highlighting the great professional contribution of the folklorists of the Literary Museum both at home and abroad (Tampere 1971: 192–203; Oras 2008: 70–71). According to the recollections of the co-workers, Tampere dreamed that the archives were granted the status of the Institute (Oras 2008: 71), an idea which could have been based on the creation of the archive in 1927 as an autonomous department of the Estonian National Museum, and in a pre-war plan to set it up as a private foundation.

Thus, Rüütel’s ‘Seven wishes’ and perhaps also Tampere’s presentation launched a chain of emotional expressions from folklorists, of which I bring out a few. Tartu University folklore professor Eduard Laugaste reprimanded the folklore department (a.k.a the archive) for illusional wishes and complained about the slow work on organizing archival material (Laugaste 1967). Folklorist and literary scholar August Annist (1899–1972) admitted that the main task of the museum was to complement, make available and publish collections. He was in favour of bringing ‘electrophotographic photocopiers’ to the folklore archive (as these already existed in the Finnish Literature Society), which would facilitate work and would promote, for example, the printing of folksongs. Annist also pointed out that the museum must also be a research institution. (Annist 1968)

From the ILL, folklorist Ülo Tedreiii (1928–2015) regretted the segregation of former researchers from materials that would not allow ILL folklorists to contribute to the archival work. Although broadly agreeing with the critical arguments made by Eduard Laugaste on archiving, Tedre was in favour of the idea of a central folklore archive and of bringing both the ILL folklore collections as well as Tartu University folklore department’s collections to the folklore archive (an opinion to which Laugaste as the professor at the University protested). However, Tedre pointed out that the role of the archive is also to organise and make material available, that the participation of scientific staff in technical work is inevitable and that the photocopying equipment is necessary but only a partially assisting element. Tedre also found that the small archival staff had been fragmented between too many tasks. (Tedre 1968)

To conclude this debate, Eduard Ertis, the director of the Literature Museum, wrote about the work and plans of the museum and the fragile balance between them. Ertis stressed that a lot of additional work was being done in the museum, such as consultations, tours, peer-reviewing, trips to find rare material, etc. The museum had tried to service the university researchers and researchers from the ILL to the fullest extent possible and, at the same time, to cooperate with all institutions in the organising and preservation work. (Ertis 1968)

Meeting at the Litarary Museum

In some of the articles, there were calls for a meeting of the parties, which took place on January 25, 1968 at the Literary Museum. A summary of the meeting was published (Edasi 1968), through which the public was made aware of the topics of passionate debate. In addition to what is published in the newspaper, the archives of the Literary Museum contain a file with clips of newspaper articles on the topic and four versions of minutes from the meeting (ELM archive, n 1, s 553, l 7).

The Edasi summary stated that it was not good to lag behind the collecting work in favour of systematization and availability of materials, since the older folksong and the printed works needed urgent archiving. Furthermore, there is no subject that could be left aside in the interests of organising materials. The funds and the tasks and requirements of the departments had increased, but the number of staff had remained minimal: in the beginning of 1968, there were 33 employees in the museum, with the need for staff estimated to be between 70–80. By comparison, in the former sections of the Estonian National Museum and the current separate museums, the number of staff had increased greatly (in the Ethnographic Museum or former National Museum from 9 to 44, in the Tartu Art Museum from 3 to 26). During the meeting, it was repeatedly stated that they are not reaching solutions, there were only complaints and concerns, and no clear answers to: what plans to make? how to proceed? (Edasi 1968).

Literary scholar and bibliographer August Palm (1902–1972) from the bibliography department listed the needs of departments for a new workforce, proposed a plan along with a list of staff needs and asked a sharp question as to whether the literary museum has benefitted from being a part of the Academy of Sciences: for Moscow, the museum is not important and money is being channelled to natural sciences and technology, leaving national sciences behind (ELM archive, n 1, s 553, l 28–30).

Joosep Saat (1900–1977), representing the Academy of Sciences, commented in response that the staff of the museum have not been accused of lazyness and the needs of the humanities have rightly been pointed out. He defended the Academy of Science in disputes by saying that development requires joint work and that it is not possible to develop all social sciences. Saat pointed out that the issues and applications of the Literature Museum have not been successful in the higher committees and, although there are no possibilities for extra workforce at the moment, hope should not be lost (EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 553, l 9v, 31). Even today, this does not sound reassuring.

Historian Ea Jansen (1921–2005) remarked that the poorness of the information service should be taken into account when it comes to the prospects of the development of social sciences. The first step would be the appropriate consultation of representatives of social science institutions, in the long term regarding the implementation of machines and the knowledge of new methods. Jansen pointed out that the development of humanities as being the eyes of the mankind is topical throughout the world: new fields of science are developing and new methods are being sought. Jansen also pointed out that, in order to make science more popular, it should also be written about interestingly (EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 553, l 8v, 39).

However, it was a question of the limitation of the technical situation, sometimes perhaps in the absence of a clearer vision of possible effective solutions. The reason for the debate of folklorists was their fragmentation, some personal conflicts and the division of institutions, a large number of archival material, its dynamic increase, and lack of staff. Since these topics affected the participants quite personally, there was not always peace of mind to view the problems more broadly.

At the same time, however, the common aim was to find solutions, although there was no clear plan. Issues relating to the use of technical instruments and the development of humanities in general, including, in particular, the linking of humanities to information technology, was a common topic of almost all those who participated in both debates. It was clear that there was a strong desire and a need for greater coherence with information technology in humanities, and action was taken accordingly.

Follow-up to public debates

At the meeting of the scientific Council of the Literature Museum at the end of February 1968, heated debates continued on work done and to be done. Those present discussed the ‘perspective plan’ for the Literary Museum, that is, the wish list of tasks for the 1970s (ELM archive, n 1, s 568). The Council consistently recommended that technology and labour should be demanded from the Academy of Sciences. The museum staff pointed out that the necessary organisational work and number of publications compared with the lack of workforce have caused difficulties, but they are trying to cope with everything. Among other things, the folklore department wanted to work more closely with the ILL’s folklore sector in archival work and research. The minutes reveal no reply to this request. Hovever, later during the meeting, Ülo Tedre from the ILL expressed a clear wish that the ILL expected assistance from the Museum’s folklorists in work on fairy tales. (ELM archive, n 1, s 555, l 1–10)

The debate on technical work and scientific issues continued at the meeting of the Scientific Council in May 1968. (ELM archive, n 1, s 555, l 11–18) Also in May, the Heads of departments of the museum discussed the decisions of the General Committee of the Academy of Sciences, which among other things called for the consistent organising of archive materials (EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 552, l 18–19).

According to the minutes of the meeting of the Scientific Council in September, the Academy of Sciences had responded to the museum that it takes the museum’s wishes into account, but does not allow the required extention to the building nor the increase in the number of staff (ELM archive, n 1, s 555, l 22). The minutes also show that attempts had been made to do what had been promised earlier in the year: to improve the state of unorganised material, to provide the public with proper overviews of what has been sent to the museum in response to the collecting calls, etc. (EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 555, l 27–28)

The acquisition of technology and the increase in staff was LM’s continuous ambition in the coming decades, and the situation continued to improve, including the state and availability of archival materials in all the museum’s departments. However, the status of an institute was not gained during the Soviet period (nor was the museum affiliated with the ILL, as also had been planned), which in turn annulled hopes for higher wage rates.

Links with today

Today, we are faced with a somewhat different situation than fifty years ago. Many issues have been resolved, collections are organised and complemented, disseminated and made available in both printed and digital formats. Collecting, archiving and research have become more technical, research topics more virtual. It is clear from the debates at the time that a number of discussants had a foresight: today it is clear that the humanities and IT must work together to create sustainable, attractive solutions for society. At the same time, we still continue to discuss how to better combine humanities and information technology and to mutually exchange knowledge. Digital humanities [A.G.’s italics] should be a self-evident part of humanities, and not a confusing complement (Lindström, Uiboaed 2017). I would also like to point out that the IT is already embedded in the name humanITies (humanITaaria).

The use of computers in the processing of folklore data in Estonian folkloristics accelerated in the 1980s. For the moment, there are tens of project-based databases created at different times and using different solutions. Today, one of the problems is interlinking them, while also adding new digital (and therefore quickly changing) data.

The technical possibilities have raised other concerns: public access to data must be taken into account. On the one hand, the wishes as well as fears of the co-workers of archives have to be respected, and on the other hand, the requirements regarding ethics and personal data protection (GDPR) must be followed. At the same time, we are subjected to the requirement for open access and data. Paradoxically, open science does not allow the full protection of what is needed to be protected. In addition to requirements and laws, a lot of common sense has to be used while assessing the restrictions to be given to archival materials.

Moreover, folklore/tradition archives are not ‘dead’, but living knowledge hubs that combine materials from different centuries, cultures and languages, represent scholarly, educational, local and family history interests, and cooperate with other institutions, communities and individuals. The balancing act between being open and closed as an archive is difficult, but hopefully not impossible.

In view of the future of archives, it is important to resolve the issue of the format and form in which modern material should be stored and archived so that it can be used by researchers in coming decades. This requires good predicting skills in technological developments. Clearly, there is a need for constant cooperation between the IT and humanities.

Too many scientists are spending too much time on finding solutions to difficult situations. It is understandable that new challenges or projects come up in research, and research plans must be changed for various reasons. Unfortunately, excellence is sought at the expense of the health and family of the scientists themselves, and the lack of a stable support structure also prevents the permanent pursuit of high-level science. Research policy (in Estonia), which still is fairly largely project-orientated, directs researchers to more administrative tasks: management, requests and reports, as well as supervision, lecturing and so on (Lukner 2016: 46).

The fulfilment of these tasks is, of course, a prerequisite for achieving the objectives set. In the case of a successful research project, research groups must still rely on continuing funding in order to prevent the research from sudden death. Good sustainable science needs more time and more sustainable resources than a project lasting a few years – in Estonia there has been increasing discussion on this in recent years (e.g. Niinemets 2015; Ukrainski et al. 2015; Koppel et al. 2016; Maidla 2017). The new objectives in fundingiv and the career model (for example, the implementation of the tenure in Tallinn University of Technology) do not for the time being offer definitive solutions.

As regards today’s research policy, financing reseach and the far-reaching consequences of the career model, it is to be hoped that the changes will be made in a thought-out manner and that these developments will have positive results. Humanities, being very capable of development, are indeed the eyes of humanity: also today we need to look society in the eye, to understand and explain what is reflected in it.

The prevailing results of the past debate were that the humanities should be encouraged to cooperate with information technology, while manual handling of data and collections should be reorganised providing for a conversion to computer-based technologies. As for the Literary Museum, the debate explicated the needs of both the museum’s staff and the users of its collections, as well as the activities necessary to facilitate the arrangement and accessibility of the collections, including cooperation with other humanities institutions.

Notably, the public debate of 50 years ago reveals some interesting parallels between the problems of uniting the forces of the humanities and IT, considering the demand for it as well as its developmental requirements.

*This research has been supported by the Centre of Excellence in Estonian Studies (CEES, European Regional Development Fund) and is related to the research project IUT22-4 (Estonian Research Council) “Folklore in the Process of Cultural Communication: Ideologies and Communities”.

**This is an abridged version of an article first published in Estonian in Keel ja Kirjandus [Language and Literature], 2017 (10). P. 771–786.

Archival sources

ELM archive = archive of the Estonian Literary Museum:

EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 552 – Osakonnajuhatajate koosoleku protokollid.

EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 553 – „Edasi” vestlusringi materjalid.

EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 555 – Teadusliku Nõukogu koosolekute protokollid.

EKM arhiiv, n 1, s 568 – Osakondade (v.a Arhiivraamatukogu) museoloogilise töö perspektiivplaan alates 1968. a., eesti retrospektiivse rahvusbibliograafia 20-aasta plaan (1963.–1982. a.) ja seletuskiri selle juurde.


Adamson, Virve 1990: Bibliograafia osakonna töösuunad ja kartoteegid. In: Juurtega sajandite mullas. Kogumik Fr. R. Kreutzwaldi nim. Kirjandusmuuseumi 50. aastapäevaks. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat (92–98).

Annist, August 1968: Meie rahvaluule hiigla-aarded ootavad tõepoolest „imemasinaid”. In: Edasi 12 (3).

Edasi 1968 = Kirjandusmuuseumi probleemid ja perspektiivid. In: Edasi 41 (2).

Ertis, Eduard 1968: Kirjandusmuuseumis: plaanid – aruanded – töö – ettepanekud. In: Edasi 20 (2).

Kahk, Juhan 1967: Eilses, tänases ja homses. In: Sirp ja Vasar 37 (3–5).

Koppel, Andres; Jaanson, Karin; Rutiku, Siret 2016: Teaduse rahastamise süsteem vajab ümberkorraldamist. In: Eesti Teadus 2016. SA Eesti Teadusagentuur, (45–46). [28.08.2017].

Laugaste, Eduard 1967: Mõningaid mõtteid museoloogilisest tööst eesti folkloristikas. In: Edasi 293 (2–3).

Lindström, Liina; Uiboaed, Kristel 2017: Valdkondade vastasseis? Digihumanitaaria – see ongi tänane humanitaaria. In: Novaator. [28.08.2017]

Lukner, Heli 2016: Järelkasv ja teadlaskarjäär. In: Eesti Teadus 2016. SA Eesti Teadusagentuur, (46–47). [28.08.2017].

Maidla, Margus 2017: Millist teadust vajab Eesti? Ehk Teadussüsteemi mitmekesisusestja järjepidevusest. In: Sirp [25.08.2017].

Niinemets, Ülo 2015: Eesti teadus Euroopa teadusruumis. In: Sirp. [28.08.2017].

Oras, Janika 2008: Viie 20. sajandi naise regilaulumaailm. Arhiivitekstid, kogemused ja mälestused. (Eesti Rahvaluule Arhiivi Toimetused 27.) Tartu: Eesti Kirjandusmuuseumi Teaduskirjastus.

Palli, Heldur 1967: Millest siis alata? In: Sirp ja Vasar 48 (4).

Rahva Hääl 1967 = Abinõudest ühiskonnateaduste edasiarendamiseks ja nende osa suurendamiseks kommunistlikus ülesehitustöös. In: Rahva Hääl 197 (1–2).

Randalu, Hillar 1968: Tesaurus võidab dinosauruse. In: Sirp ja Vasar 36 (4).

Rüütel, Ingrid 1967: Seitse soovi. In: Edasi 226 (3).

Tampere, Herbert 1971 [1967] : Kaks ettekannet Eesti folkloristika ajaloost. In: Paar sammukest eesti kirjanduse uurimise teed. (Uurimusi ja materjale VII.) Tartu: Eesti NSV Teaduste Akadeemia Fr. R. Kreutzwaldi nimeline Kirjandusmuuseum (183–203).

Tedre, Ülo 1968: Vaja on nii inimesi kui ka masinaid. In: Edasi 18 (2).

Ukrainski, Kadri; Kanep, Hanna; Timpmann, Kadi 2015: Konkurents teadusrahale. In: Sirp. [28. 8.2017]

i Museum bore this name in 1953–1990. For the sake of saving space I mostly use the name Literary Museum.

ii Folklorist and musicologist, Head of folklore department in 1952–1966.

iii Head of ILL folklore department in 1962–1991.