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The Preservation of Archival Records at the Estonian National Archives through the Last Century (Part 1)

The primary objective of this article is to provide an overview of the activity of the National Archives related to preservation over the course of the last hundred years. The emphasis is on the work to preserve archival records on paper that has been done in Tartu, where professional restoration and conservation of paper and bindings already began at the start of the 1920s. This work has carried on continuously for almost a century. The first part of the article focuses on studying preservation work in the period 1921–1944.

The date 3 March 1920 is considered to be the birth of the National Archives. This is when the first meeting of the Archival Commission was held in the University of Tartu Library at the initiative of Estonia’s Ministry of Education and as a result of the groundwork done by Professor of History Arno Rafael Cederberg. The Archival Commission raised the question of rescuing and preserving archival records among the most important tasks. On 16 May 1921, the first officials set to work at the Central State Archives in Tartu, including the bookbinder Peeter Jaan, a man with a great deal of experience who can justifiably be considered the founder of the work in preservation, restoration and conservation at the Central Archives and in archival science more broadly. Alongside the binding of books, and the cleaning and repair of archival records, P. Jaan very likely also carried out other indispensable tasks in the archive’s depositories, like for instance the measuring of temperature and the setting of rat traps to ward off biological pests. The study of Friedrich Nineve’s personal archive indicates that already at the start of the formation of the Central Archives, the orientation taken was in the direction of a scientific approach for how and by what means to carry out repair work on paper. A surviving archival record that bears the name ‘Instruction for repairing damaged documents’ is proof of this. This text is translated from Swedish into German and contains instructions for restoring documents on paper with moisture damage. According to the instructions, it was recommended to use Japanese paper and silk gauze in restoration, and flour paste as glue. The addresses from where Japanese paper and silk gauze could be ordered were also included in the instructions. Additionally, the Estonian translation of Hilary Jenkinson’s well-known archival science handbook (A Manual of Archive Administration. Oxford, 1922) could be used in the archive. It contained  very pertinent information for its time on preservation  conditions and restoration of archival records.  Helmut Rammo was hired in 1923 to work for the Central Archives in binding books and repairing archival records. He was the one who continued the work of Peeter Jaan and became a valued specialist for the Central Archives for a quarter of a century. Personnel was hired as necessary as temporary manpower to carry out the cleaning, repair and binding of archival records for the Central Archives. In the course of the current research, it turned out that Japanese silk paper for repairing archival records was already purchased for the first time from Copenhagen by way of Axel E. Aamodt on 20 October 1923. The Valjala parish register that was brought back to Estonia from the Swedish National Archives in 1925 provided the restorers of the Central Archives with a good example for repairing archival records. Swedish specialists had prepared a beautiful new binding and bolstered the pages of the content block that had been damaged by mildew using Japanese paper and silk gauze. Only two weeks later, the Central Archives purchased silk gauze and put it to use in repairing archival records. The product from the M. Clerc-Renaud Company located in Lyon was used as silk gauze. The quality of the work done by the Central Archives in bookbinding and repairing paper was appreciated by others outside the archive as well. The head of the University of Tartu Library Friedrich Puksoo considered the skills of the archive’s experts to be the best of that time in Estonia. In addition to the University of Tartu Library, the university’s Faculty of Religion and several church congregations also commissioned the restoration of books from the Central Archives.

The activity of the Central Archives in ensuring fire safety has to be considered noteworthy in every respect. A vivid example of this is the attempts undertaken in 1933 to make wooden shelves, cardboard covers, papers and silk gauze more resistant to fire, for which purpose Cellon aerosol impregnating agent was ordered from Cellon Werke G.m.b.H. in Berlin.

The increased need for copies of archival records required the acquisition of the corresponding copying equipment. On 16 July 1935, a photostat, which had been ordered from Photostat Limited in London for the rapid photomechanical duplication of documents and books, was delivered to the Central Archives. This made it possible to produce photocopies of good quality with sharp images in two minutes for each copy without the need for any special laboratory and darkroom. The photostat described here was the state of the art in technology of this kind, according to the appraisal of contemporaries, and it was the first of its kind in Estonia.

The most important landmark in organising archival science and the work of preservation has to be considered the passing of the Archives Act in 1935. The Archives Act prescribed the preservation conditions that prevailed in archives.

In the latter half of the 1930s, greater attention already started being turned to improving the condition of documents with preservation value that were created in the running management of affairs starting from the moment of their creation. At a meeting of the archival board on 12 November 1937, Otto Liiv, the director of the Central Archives, raised as one agenda item a topic that considered the standard format and quality of the paper used in official correspondence and also the question of ink from the viewpoint of first category archival records. According to O. Liiv, the paper and ink that was in use in governmental institutions did not meet archival standards in many cases in terms of permanent preservation. At the same time, he provided an overview of attempts undertaken in some foreign countries to manufacture paper and ink that would meet archival standards. Discussion of important topics related to preservation continued at the first conference of archivists that was held in Tartu on 15–16 October 1938. For instance, the conference turned its attention separately to the preservation of archival records on paper of poor quality made of mechanical wood pulp and the problem of documents with fading texts.

Although the Central Archives building of that time in Tartu did not meet the requirements for preserving archival records, the staff managed to provide the archival records stored there with the best possible storage environment. The creation of normal preservation conditions for archival records required a great deal of effort even in Tallinn. The Government Archives’ building located on Toompea did not become a place in which it was fit to work until 1925, when central heating was installed and some other renovation work was completed. By 1938, the Government Archives’ building had undergone thorough and comprehensive renovations. The room for cleaning archival records that was located on the first storey is notable. A powerful so-called exhauster, a fume cupboard in today’s terms, was in this room. The period that began with occupations of Estonia and war put an end to the development of the preservation of archival records and to planned innovations, but even then, a great deal was done to save and evacuate archival records. Additionally, the archive found time during the war to carry out the extermination of noxious insects. The Central Archives cooperated in this undertaking with the Estonian National Museum, where archival records were gassed with the disinfection agent Zyklon.

In summary, it can be said that from the establishment of national administration of archives until the changes that took place in wartime, a great deal of attention was paid to the preservation of archival records. The restoration, conservation and copying of archival records was of good quality in every respect. Although the available financial means did not allow all of the results wished for in creating conditions for preserving archival records to be achieved, first and foremost the construction of a new archive building in Tartu, the archivists did their best under the existing conditions.