Global Estonian | How do we build bridges between Estonia and the world’s top-ranking universities?
Liisi Esse: Eesti ja Balti õpingute kuraator Stanfordi ülikooli raamatukogu
Liisi Esse: Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies - Stanford University Library

How do we build bridges between Estonia and the world’s top-ranking universities?

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Liisi Esse from Stanford University writes how thanks to years of researcher and student exchanges, lectures on the Baltics, that is, non-stop promotion of Estonia, interest in Estonia has only grown.

I have worked as the Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies at Stanford University for little over ten years now. When my partner and I packed our suitcases in 2013 and moved to Silicon Valley, we had no idea we would be staying so long and the journey would turn out to be so interesting. In addition to expanding the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian collections of the university’s library and ordering books, new challenges and opportunities have emerged, mainly involving boosting relations between the researchers of Stanford and the Baltic States and sparking an interest in the Baltics in Stanford’s students. In recent years, after my son was born, I have increasingly related to the wonderful people whose mission is to pass on Estonian language and culture to children raised abroad.

A library and archives form the pillar of every centre for Estonian studies, making studies and research possible. This is why at Stanford, we are particularly happy that the Kistler-Ritso Foundation made a donation to the university’s library, making it possible to create the position of a curator for Estonian and Baltic studies. Like in many other universities in the USA, developing the Baltic collections was previously the task of the curator for Slavic and Eastern European studies (in several other university libraries, it falls to the curator for European studies that has an even broader subject area). The creation of the position of a curator for the Baltic States specifically and a designated budget has helped us to grow the Baltic library of 15 000 items to 40 000 items in ten years, with 15 000 donated books waiting to be catalogued due to the backlog caused by the pandemic. Although archival collections are not our priority – the building next to us, the Hoover Institute, houses some of the strongest Baltic archival collections outside the Baltic Sea region –, we have added larger and smaller archives of representatives of the diaspora communities, and developed the Estonian and Latvian collections of video interviews.

Stanford library

As our collections were growing, we increasingly had to ask the question: who is using our items and archival materials now and in the future? As there is no academic centre or professorship for Baltic studies at Stanford University, we have made efforts in recent years to add Estonian and Baltic studies to various centres and programmes at Stanford. We hope that in addition to keeping the spotlight on Baltic topics, these small steps can boost the interest of institutes and departments in Baltic studies.

We began with students, bringing in first Estonian institutions to offer summer internships to students under Stanford’s internship programmes in 2016. By now, the programme has expanded to Latvia in addition to Estonia, and every summer, around 15 students travel there – this is nearly a tenth of all traineeship posts offered by Stanford across the world! The students train with various universities and academic institutions (University of Tartu, TalTech, CCDCOE, RKK, Riga Stradinš University, Baltic Security Foundation); museums (Vabamu) and startups (TechHub Riga and associated Latvian startups). Thanks to the excellent work by Kadri Paju, who heads international projects at Vabamu, they get the chance to visit various places and institutions in Estonia and Latvia over the summer. Whereas in 2022, the students and their parents became slightly anxious about going to such a region, by now, Estonia’s geopolitical position and know-how in foreign policy, especially on Russia and Ukraine, but also cyber and e-state have become an absolute asset for traineeships in Estonia and Latvia. The students return to Stanford, raving about the Baltic States, and in many of them, Estonia is likely to get a lifelong ambassador. In light of the latter career of Stanford students, this is no small victory.

As the number of students and their interest in Baltic studies grew each year, we decided with Stanford’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREEES) and History Professor Amir Weiner to offer a Baltic lecture course. It is aimed at teaching the summer trainees more about the history, society and technological development of the Baltic States ahead of their trip. This spring, we are giving the lecture with other Stanford and visiting professors and it is a joy to see the number of students grow (27 Stanford students are attending the lecture this year), and their questions are sharp and nuanced.

We soon found a way to increase the number of Stanford professors who are informed about Estonian and Baltic topics in addition to the students who are interested in the Baltics. Thanks to support from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kistler-Ritso Foundation, from 2022, several Stanford centres are accepting visiting researchers from Estonia, who make short-term academic visits, researching, giving lectures and seminars and making contacts. It is not only a wonderful opportunity for Estonian researchers – their presence has helped reinforce the connections with and knowledge of Estonia at Stanford’s hosting institutions and professors. CREEES also offers travel grants to Stanford’s researchers and PhD students who – usually on the invitation of Estonia’s visiting researchers – visit Estonia as part of conferences and research.

Unfortunately, Stanford still does not have a centre for Baltic studies nor a designated professor; however, it is wonderful to see the boost Estonian and Baltic studies have received from the programmes mentioned above. In cooperation with Vabamu, we are also organising a series of events and visits titled Global Conversations, which includes academic and cultural events and visits by delegations on both sides of the Atlantic, with a focus on Estonia’s past, present and future. We are very grateful to all our supporters in the Baltic States and the USA who have helped with these programmes and events organised in the university, and we hope that the interest in the Baltics continues to grow.

Liisi Esse
Curator for Estonian and Baltic Studies
Stanford University Library



Veebilehte haldab Integratsiooni Sihtasutus.
Sihtasutuse asutaja on Eesti Vabariik, kelle nimel teostab asutajaõigusi Kultuuriministeerium.