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Cultural heritage online
How Latvia is starting a Journey into the Digital Future

Folklorist Krišjanis Barons’ “Cabinet of Folksongs”
Folklorist Krišjanis Barons’ “Cabinet of Folksongs” | © LNB. Photo: Didzis Grodzs

For Latvia, digitisation means more than just an economic opportunity. It also enables them to preserve the rich cultural heritage of this Baltic state and make it available to everyone online.

By Alexander Welscher

At first glance it’s just a plain unassuming piece of furniture – and yet it’s one of Latvia’s national shrines: the famous “Cabinet of Folksongs”, which belonged to the folklorist Krišjanis Barons (1835–1923), is the greatest treasure of Latvia’s National Library. The simple wooden closet with many drawers is kept under tight security in the prestigious building, which opened in 2014 in the capital city, Riga.
 
Dainas are ancient Latvian folksongs that offer deep insight into the history, ethics, language and daily life of the Latvians. Barons was the first person to write down and systematically catalogue folksongs that in the past had only been handed down verbally. The “Father of the Dainas” wrote down the short songs – mostly quatrains – by hand on more than 268 000 little pieces of paper and organised them painstakingly in the cabinet made especially for the purpose.

Cultural heritage is given a digital future

Viewing the “Cabinet of Folksongs” is a compulsory part of every guided tour in the National Library. It has a place of honour right next to the Latvian Folklore archive. But the entire contents of Latvia’s most famous piece of furniture, which have been listed amongst UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” documents since 2001, are also already available online at www.dainuskapis.lv. Barons’ collection was copied onto microfilm during the Second World War and has been completely digitised over the past few years. 
 
But it wasn’t only the Dainas that were made generally accessible. Latvia also attaches great importance to making the rest of its cultural heritage digitally available. The idea was not only to open up new opportunities for networking and knowledge sharing, but also to allow unlimited access to sources of cultural and historical significance. These sources were intended to be viewable independently of time and place, for both private and academic purposes.
 
A state project was already started up a few years ago to achieve this, in which the goal was to digitise more than 3 million pages of text documents, over 100 000 images and at least 500 000 minutes of audiovisual material by 2021. The Council for Digital Cultural Heritage, the Latvian National Library, the Latvian State Archive and other cultural establishments are involved in this.

An integrated approach to digitisation

This ambitious plan aims to create a standardised central register for digital resources. They have also used projects in other countries as orientation. “The German Digital Library was a great inspiration for us”, said Deputy State Secretary for Cultural Policy Uldis Zariņš in an interview with a delegation of the German Library Association in September. He gathered information in Latvia about the opportunities and challenges along the road to the digital future.
 
To begin with, he reports, various different individual projects for libraries, archives and museums were implemented in Latvia. Later the stringent focus on sectors was replaced with an integrated strategy. "We realised that it’s probably more effective to adopt a cross-sector approach to digitisation. That’s why we’ve only got one project now”, explained Zariņš.
 
The form taken by digitisation has changed too: instead of preservation, administration and maintenance of the cultural assets, the emphasis is now on the creative use of digitised material. For this it’s important that it is freely accessible and can be used by everyone – in other words in the public domain. However there are still copyright restrictions for works from the 20th century, explained Zariņš.
 
Libraries, museums and archives are supported in their digitisation by the Centre for Cultural Information Systems. The state institution provides the necessary IT resources and user interfaces, and maintains several databases. This allows amalgamation of resources from different locations, some of which are even stored abroad due to the eventfulness of Latvian history.

Extensive digital preservation in the long term

As well as a map of Latvian culture (kulturaskarte.lv) and a network with shared catalogues and information systems for libraries and museums in Latvia, the centre also maintains portals for digitised video and audio features on Latvian radio (diva.lv) and Latvian films (filmas.lv), which are streamed free of charge. Both older and more recent productions are included.
 
Digital content is also linked with collections in other countries through transnational projects, for instance in the neighbouring countries of Estonia and Russia. And they are also available online in Europeana, the European virtual library (europeana.eu).
 
Money from the EU Structural Funds is being used to finance the different measures. The intention is to invest 12 million euro in the treasury for the internet from 2014 to 2020. At least half of that will be allocated to the digitisation of documents and materials. The rest of the budget is planned for the improvement and continual upgrading of the fast-paced technical infrastructure, which has to be adapted to the digital content and larger quantities of data.

New responsibilities for libraries

With financial help from the non-profit foundation set up by Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as from Microsoft, the first step was to purchase computers for every public library in Latvia and connect them to the internet. This also caused an increase in user numbers in libraries – which have been performing more functions than just storing books for a while now. Their role as a learning environment and meeting place is increasingly important: with the prevalence of electronic media they are becoming public places that bring together all the media forms and provide access to the internet as well as to social media and digital technology. 
 
A particularly good place to see this in Latvia is the library of the University of Latvia. A Microsoft Innovation Center was opened in 2017 in the historical building in which the family of Riga’s Lord Mayor Ludwig Wilhelm Kerkovius (1831–1904) once lived, and which now houses books, digital media and e-resources. The idea of the centre – the first of its kind in Northern Europe – was to promote innovative IT projects and the digital transformation in Latvia through interdisciplinary collaboration.
 
All this happens under the watchful eye of Krišjanis Barons, whose bust looks down from a plinth on the wall in the Innovation Center. At the end of the day the folksongs have not lost any of their meaning, even in the era of digitisation. “The Dainas mean more to Latvians than simply a literary tradition. For them, they are the embodiment of the cultural heritage handed down from their ancestors”, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, a folklore researcher who later became president of Latvia, once wrote.

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