International Council on Archives

        Section for Archival Education and Training

First European Conference for Archival Educators and Trainers

Priit Pirsko, the Estonian National Archives
Archival Education and Training from Ground Zero: the Estonian Experience

Without any doubt professional education and training is one of the main aspects of archival improvement everywhere. In this speech I am going to focus on the efforts made by the Estonian archivists in the last ten years. It is a survey about the training ideas and pursuits of a small profession in a small country - after a quite unfavourable fifty year period of soviet occupation.

First of all, I would like to briefly describe the specific conditions of Estonian archival service. I shall draw your attention to the broken dialogue between the society and the archives. Then I will speak about the current archival training projects of. Finally, I shall outline some conclusions regarding professional education under circumstances of limited human and financial resources.

There are several specific aspects to the development of Estonian archives and records management. One of the most relevant is the historical one. The Estonians had been a pretty rural population up to the beginning of last century and therefore we cannot detect any national interest in archives before then. Estonia was part of Russian Empire under Baltic-German rulers. The rise of Estonian nationalism in the 19th century has been generally seen as a European trend of the period. This was a half-political movement of cultural origin. It is important to consider that there was no local tradition of recordkeeping prior to the birth of Estonian state and bureaucracy. The cultural and self-governing experience, which preceded the national statehood almost, knew nothing about ruling the country on a higher level. The documents like parish court protocols, revision acts of fire-fighting societies and contracts of farmsteads’ purchase remained the only expressions of recordkeeping for most Estonians. I argue that the Estonian identity did not consider documents to belong to the national cultural heritage even 80-90 years ago. Hence, the Estonian National Archives emerged at ground zero at the same time as the national state in the early 1920s.

During the twenty years of independence (up to 1940), Estonian society accepted archives as a part of the national-cultural framework. It can be seen in the development of the national as well as municipal archives. Also the theoretical and legislative understanding of archives emerged at this time. The graduates of the Tartu University formed the recruitment ground for professional personnel in the archives. As an attribute of bureaucracy, archives were quickly attached to the concern of the nation.

In 1940, the fusion of archives and society stopped. The Soviet occupation and then World War II turned both the Estonian society and the archives upside-down. There are some influences and actions that help us to summarise the archival world during the Soviet regime in Estonia.

Firstly there was ideological pressure. Archival studies became an instrument in the hands of Marxist-Leninist ideology. In appraisal, for example, records with content which described the activities of the Communist Party were considered more valuable. New closed and weird soviet institutions were founded, like, for example, the Party Archives for the Institute of the History of the Party of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia. On the other hand, Estonian archival practice was cu off from the outer world. Theoretical archival literature from the Western World was seldom encountered and even that came mostly from Eastern Germany. Archival research was monopolised by a special institute in Moscow.

Secondly there was the destruction of the previous national archival system. The principal changes occurred in archival legislation, organisation and personnel. A significant shift in the legislation entailed the fact that no special archives act was promulgated in the soviet time. All the archival regulations were executed on a lower level than a law.

Furthermore, private ownership of the records disappeared. All documents created or situated in the Soviet Union were nationalised. The so-called State Archival Fonds of the USSR was established. By the way, in the context of records it meant the same as the term of substance in philosophy. All documents/records of archival value were directly a part of this paramount Fond. It is important to realise that this method of treatment was a legal not an archival one. The concept of the State Archival Fonds of the USSR was not an approach for archival description as has sometimes been argued.

We should not forget also the personnel changes executed at that time. During the war and political repression the majority of the archival management was slaughtered or forced to emigrate. They were replaced not by professional archivists, but by philistines. Throughout the soviet period, a professional background was not essential for making a career in the archival system. In this regard I argue that there existed a shocking similarity in managing archives between Soviet and Czarist Russia. During both periods the retired military were often appointed to head the public archives. Without exaggeration, most of the half-educated immigrants who were hired as archivists had never heard about the principle of provenance.

The final action which affected the Estonian archival world under communism was the closure of archives. Free access to the archives did not exists during these decades. Whole archives and series of records became unaccessible for the majority of people. So-called special fonds were founded to preserve the most “dangerous” documents. Even genealogical research was formally prohibited. It meant the birth of censorship in archives. Citizen’s rights to freedom of information were limited to evidence of his or her education and profession.

What effect did these influences and actions have in the context of a dialogue between the Estonian society and the archives? It would be naive to assume that losing its statehood did not affect the Estonians’ concept of archives. I rather think, that in the eyes of the society, the archives were transferred from the custodian of informational freedom to a closed ideological agency.

This was the situation also by early 1990s. A weak national bureaucracy and a lack of (modern) records management culture resulted in a scattered archives system and an insignificant professional association of archivists. I have already noted the legal implications and the destruction of non-state archives. At the same time the challenges of digital recordkeeping emerged. The government has set up a general aim - the paper-free public sector - as a means to improve good management and obtain social welfare. Naturally, the problems of educating and training staff became the most critical issues for our archives.

There are two traceable stages in the training of archivists in Estonia in 1990s:
1) A sub-conscious (or half-conscious) attempt to improve the qualifications of archivists;
2) A conscious effort to build up the system of educating, training and accrediting procedures as a whole.

The first period lasted up to about 1996. The main challenge of this time was to change the management and employees in archives. There were many people in the archives without any normal education and without Estonian language skills. On the other hand, there were absolutely no professional archivists in the labour market to replace the old staff. As I mentioned above, the only institution for archival education was operating in Moscow, although, only about a dozen Estonians have graduated from this institution.

Certainly, for ages the profession of historian has been closest to the archivist’s speciality. Considering also the financial difficulties in the academic sphere, it was no wonder that the new management of National Archives emerged from academia. It has been quite common that many lecturers have been forced to leave their academic career and enter into public service under the circumstances of economic crisis. Ernst Posner, as a renowned man in German (and American) archival history, is a particularly apt example to mention here in Marburg of such career move.

As a result of these recruitment changes, today 52% of staff were engaged in the archives after 1995 and even 72% were hired since 1990. Replacing a considerable number of people has entailed some positive as well as negative consequences. On the plus side, I can refer to:

  • general improvement of educational standard in the archives;
  • transfer of reference service and whole archival work to Estonian;
  • relevant changes towards better self-consciousness of archivists.

The problems, by the way, also became very quickly evident .

  • New generation very clearly preferred historical research to archival routine;
  • The inevitable connection between records management and archives was not coherent enough - neither in the archival mind-set nor in the society or legislation;
  • There was no basis for any continuing training for archivists.

Foreign scholarships and grants formed a totally new training horizon for archivists in the early 1990s. Three recurring training courses have been especially effective for us:

  • Yearly scholarship given by the Swedish National Archives for Baltic archivists (1992…);
  • The Cederberg scholarship awarded to Estonian archivists for research and practice in the National Archives of Finland (1998…);
  • Summer-courses arranged by Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary.

Without any doubt the opportunities of training outside Estonia have opened the eyes of many archivists. I presume that the most relevant impact of these courses has been purely to experience modern archives management techniques in practice. Apart from the benefits, distinct insufficiencies of such training appeared.

First of all, this system of training is always occasional. The content of the courses as well as acceptance of the participants is decided by the organisers of the training and not by ourselves. Secondly, the decisive precondition for outside training is proficiency in foreign languages. Unfortunately linguistic ability and knowledge of archives do not always go together. Thirdly, and this was surely our weakest spot - we could not apply all the new experiences quickly enough for improvement in our archives work. The theoretical attainments and everyday practice are often very different. And, last but not least, the Estonian records management tradition (also in the pre-soviet period) differs from the Swedish-Finnish and North American ones. Therefore no direct theoretical nor practical transference from a foreign recordkeeping system could happen then and can not happen now. Briefly, our scholars learned about the deficiemcies of the archival situation in Estonia, but they did not and could not study how to improve Estonian circumstances quickly and completely.

I do not want to claim that foreign grants have been insignificant or unnecessary. Not at all! I would rather emphasise the impact of the overseas courses for understanding our own requirements with respect to training programmes. These experiences from Nordic Countries and Central-Europe have been irreplaceable for designing the archivists training rules in Estonia. I believe also, that the grants will be of great consequence for our archivists’ continued training in the future.

It may be a bit surprising, but I would classify also as unconscious the inception of a chair for archival studies at Tartu University in 1993. Why? Mainly because this was a result of curriculum reforms in the university and not a comprehensive demand for professional archival education. To be frank, in this case the most relevant motivation was the historians' goal to create as many chairs as possible for as many professors as possible. As usual, archival education was only considered as an auxiliary issue for professional historians. The simple wish to educate good archivists rather than historians for the National Archives receded into the background.

We realised in the mid-1990’s that a definite consensus on basic matters is essential to a national educational programme. We started, as Frank Evans and Hugh Taylor already suggested in 1972: "first define minimum standards, then apply them to existing education and training offerings". We tried to do just the same. Hence, the main endeavours of archival training since 1996 have been as follows:

  • defining professional requirements for archivists;
  • adjustment the archival curriculum at graduate level;
  • creating the “training the trainer” programme;
  • implementation of the procedure for professional examinations.

I do not argue that all the training events occurred in last five-six years have been well-sketched and conscious steps. I rather point out that the training process as a whole has not been as hap-hazard as before.

At this time we came to a strange situation. We had a curriculum at the graduate level and there was a clear requirement for archival education in archival agency circles. Even though, and this is relevant, we had no minimum standards for adequate, regular and comprehensive archival education. We had no normal control over job entry through higher education. In terms of professional structure, for example, Fredric Miller has pointed out that such a control is absolutely crucial.

The legal ground for changing this controversial situation was created by Archives Act, executed mostly in 1998 and 1999. According to this, all archivists working in public archives must meet the professional requirements starting from year 2001. This means that their professionalism and expertise had to be certified by a valid professional certificate. In accordance with these principles the Government fixed the schedule of professional requirements and the procedures for professional examinations.

The professional requirements or minimum standards are the same for the archivists of public as well as private archives. All the archivists must have a bachelor degree as a minimum and in-depth knowledge of the following fields:

  1. Archival theory - especially archival terminology and main principles, a bit about history of archival theory, but also basic diplomatics;
  2. Records management - its legal basis, functions and fundamental principles, the specifics of digital records management etc;
  3. Appraisal and acquisition - especially objectives, methods and criteria of appraisal, disposal and transfer of records to archives, general approaches for planning the acquisition policy;
  4. Arrangement and description - for example units of arrangement, technical requirements of arrangement, levels and elements of description, description standards, finding aids;
  5. Preservation - objectives, strategies and facilities, preservation conditions in the archives, types and characteristics of data carriers, disaster planning etc;
  6. Access to records and use of records - legal framework in general and the Estonian regulations, organisation of reference services in the archives, publishing and public relations etc;
  7. Archives management - regulations in the field of public and private archives, archival services, archival supervision etc;
  8. Code of ethics for archivists.

Obviously, these requirements are quite ordinary for the archivists all over Europe. However, some fundamental problems were sharply brought to our attention. In the first place, there was the question of a training institution - who takes care of the training procedure according to these specifications: the National Archives; Tartu University; the professional association; or anybody else? Besides that, the lack of professional trainers was apparent as never before. In sum, the organisation and delivery of training and finding the trainers became the most crucial problems after establishing the professional standard.

For reshaping the archival curriculum we started deliberations with Tartu University as early as 1996. An extremely open atmosphere and mutual confidence characterises this communication. . The only precondition for rearrangement of archival studies has been the existence of lecturers with an academic degree. Nevertheless this precondition has been insurmountable in some fields of archival studies. If there are simply not enough lecturers available in the country then it is not possible to improve the situation quickly and satisfactorily. A vicious circle had emerged - we needed the trainers to meet the needs of the professiona, but there were neither trainers nor trainers for training the trainers within Estonia.

In comparing the university's curriculum with the formal requirements for archivists, I wish to make some observations. As I noted before, a course in archival studies is a speciality in the department of history at Tartu University. In the framework of the history curriculum students select one major subject which determines the name of the respective degree. The bachelor's program for archival studies requires 120 credits (and usually lasts 3 years) and the master's program requires 80 credit points (usually 2 years). The syllabus compiled for archival studies, except the general obligatory and optional studies is as follow:

  • Introduction to the archival studies
  • Palaeography
  • Historical metrology
  • Genealogy
  • Basic conservation and preservation in the archives
  • Numismatics
  • Historical editing
  • History of cartography
  • Historical institutions in Estonia
  • Modern institutions in Estonia
  • Historical databases
  • History of archival theory
  • Basic problems of modern archival theory
  • Sources of Estonian history in the foreign archives
  • Seminars
  • Internship in the archives

Summing up, this is a syllabus for historical sources rather than for genuine archival studies. Hence, the relationship with the professional requirements programme is only overlapping and not in principle the same. One might say that this syllabus seems a bit old-fashioned and I am afraid that would be true. Nevertheless, about half of the graduates (mumbering 20 between 1993-2000) are employed as archivists in the National Archives. This has been a good supplement for us, but not a complete solution for staff's qualification in modern records and archives management.

Briefly, we had no chance to apply the university's educational expertise to deliver the advanced training needed by practising archivists. However, for the practising archivists training prior to the accrediting examinations became an urgent necessity. The emergence of the information society has thoroughly changed the nature of archives in last ten to fifteen years. Most archivists need some assistance to interpret the nascence of this new paradigm in their daily work.

Considering all these limitations to our progress, we made a decision to start the advanced training of archivists with our own “training the trainer” program. The very first attempt to create such a teaching base was already made some years ago. For several reasons this project failed.

Now, reviewing the experiences provided thus far we chose a dozen people from the National Archives staff and arranged a special workshop of teaching methods for them. We tried to find foreign teachers from whom we could learn teaching basics as well as universally applicable archival methodology. Our main objective was to get a common basic knowledge about main principles and terminology for the eventual teachers. This course, delivered by Margaret Crockett and Janet Foster from Great Britain in October 2000, was devoted to teaching and training methodology and methods of archival principles. Our people did not need any profound educating in the field of basic archival skills. Rather, they rather lacked a systematic approach to archival methodology, especially concerning teaching someone else. We must take into account that not any of them graduated as specialists in archival studies. Nevertheless they had a good graduate or post-graduate educations, the ability and habit of self-improvement and working experience. The crux of the issue was therefore the content of the course. The solution to this problem was gained through close co-operation with our teachers and the final result was absolutely acceptable to us:

  • Introduction to methods and best practice of archival training.
  • Teaching preservation and handling.
  • Teaching arrangement and description.
  • Teaching records management.
  • Teaching management of electronic records.

I am delighted to mention that the course succeeded completely. The same people that participated in the “training the trainers” as students, themselves delivered soon after a special advanced training program for the other archivists. This advanced training was organised by the National Archives.

The National Archives has also been responsible for the accrediting procedure. There is a special examination commission consisting of representatives from the National Archives, the State Chancellery Tartu University, Tallinn University, Tallinn City Archives and the Association of Estonian Archivists. The chairman of this body is the tenured professor of archival studies. The professional examination usually takes place once a year and there are two exams - one written (a test and a short essay) and one oral. It has not been a pleasant adventure for many of the applicants. This year 51% of candidates failed, most of them, although, from outside the public archives sector. A professional certificate has accredited archivists and they now have much better chances to find a job or to continue their career in the archives.

Summing up, What are the main achievements of the “training the trainer” programme and the professional examinations?

  • We created a group of specialist trainers with a similar base of knowledge about teaching methods, archival terminology and main archival principles. I argue that this has not only been a training attainment, but also an achievement in the sense of improving the general knowledge of archival methodology.
  • We created a profession of archivists, at least formally and legally. For the first time we attained a real professional control over entry to the job of archivists.
  • We created the basis of our training system. We decided to handle this training as continuing and carry on with the “training the trainer” project. In this connection I would like to emphasise that we are already organising the next training course this October. Financial support from the British Council and the intellectual contribution from the British trainers help us to accomplish this event.

It should be quite clear that there could not be any absolutely complete training programme available in a field such as ours. Nevertheless, a considered and stipulated strategy of advanced training as well as basic education is to be universally recommended. I have described the efforts of the Estonian National Archives from the starting point of an almost non-existent expertise. Regardless of the fact that the development of our training system is still in progress, some provisional conclusions can be offered:

  1. A definite standard of professional expertise is necessary. In Estonia the Government established this as the professional requirements.
  2. A detailed curriculum based on these requirements is needed. Students need to be made aware of the true character of archival studies. We have been lacking in such clarity in Estonia. The existing archival studies programme at the university is not appropriate to the professional requirements and has caused this lack of clarity.
  3. Therefore, It is necessary to take responsibility for an adequate curriculum for archival studies. In the context of Estonia, the National Archives must take accountability for this.
  4. A training body or bodies must be available to cover training needs. There have not been any special offerings in the Estonian training market. Apparently this is common problem for a small profession everywhere. We decided to go ahead on the strength of our own capacity and create a trainers group in the archives.
  5. Graduate education for archivists is extremely desirable. In the small country such as Estonia the merging of similar disciplines on the level of curricula might be the best solution. I am not quite sure about history, but information sciences as a whole should fit with the modern requirements of an archives and/or library education. In Estonia this problem is still unsolved although, according to the strategic plan of the National Archives, the professional examination should be the final examination in the field of archival studies at the university. This may be possible after adjusting the curriculum to meet professional requirements and practising needs. It presumes also the preparation of lecturers with scientific a higher degree. Thus, it takes some time.
  6. Employing foreign lecturers and trainers should be reasonable both for the graduate programme and for advanced training.
  7. And, last but not least, a comprehensive understanding that a training system can only be a steadily changing endeavour is extremely necessary. The most essential challenge for Estonian National Archives will be keeping the training as well as the trainers fresh in future. Involving them as university lecturers should be a good opportunity. Besides that, the issues concerning theoretical concerns beyond training methodology would be interesting too. We have found that connecting the practical needs of archival work with the improvement of theoretical and teaching knowledge should be the most reasonable way of development. Eric Ketelaar has lately pointed out that archival research will save the profession. Research is directly rather than indirectly related to the national cultural framework. Conducting research and teaching in the mother tongue could ensure the fate of archivists in the National Archives in a long term. We would like to continue as archivists in Estonia.

e-mail to Dr. Karsten Uhde, Date: 14.01.2005