It is always a privilege to be given a special insight into a country’s cultural heritage, and such a privilege came last week on a brief visit to Riga, which included a talk on digital public spaces at the National Library of Latvia. This imposing building itself draws inspiration from folklore, being modelled on the mythical “Palace of Light”, a motif for wisdom that has been lost and reclaimed through triumph over adversity; a theme very much in tune with Latvia’s national identity. After the talk, I was fortunate to be given a tour of the Archives of Latvian Folklore of the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art (University of Latvia), which is located in the National Library, by colleagues Sanita Reinsone and Ginta Pērle-Sīle.
At the centre of the archive is the Dainu skapis, or “cabinet of folksongs”. This remarkable, purpose built edifice was constructed according to the design of Krišjānis Barons (1894-1915), a foundational figure in the study of Latvian folklore, who collected the archive together and edited the collection into its structured form. It consists of over 260000 paper slips which document folksongs, each of no more than four lines or so, which provide commentary on every aspect of daily existence. Through this lens can be seen a rich and powerful picture of rural life, its joys, heartbreaks and milestones, and the very powerful connection which many Latvians have to their home region.
The Dainu skapis gives us an insight into the methodology of folklore. It was by a happy chance at the turn of the twentieth century that the process of recording the folksongs in text, which enabled their preservation and ongoing availability in the archive. This further cemented their place as a core element of Latvian identity and heritage, and sustained it through the immense geopolitical challenges that the Baltic region faced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
On my visit, I heard about the Archive’s exciting programme to digitise the Dainu skapis, which is available here. Many of the folksongs have been transcribed and are now available online. Scrolling thorough these often-enigmatic little texts (even through the not always perfect lens of Google translate), they are strangely compelling. As with all the most interesting examples of the folklore of any culture, they shine a light into vernacular stories that come up from the land, and which are often missed by history’s more mainstream voices.