Wingate University becomes destination for Baltic books

The March 31 dedication of a Baltic-studies workshop that accompanied the collection in the Ethel K. Smith Library drew scholars from around the country. Photo courtesy of Wingate University


WINGATE – Wingate University dedicated the Baltic Reading Room last month in the Ethel K. Smith Library. The former group-study room now holds more than 1,400 volumes of works by Baltic authors and about the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). Over time, the collection is expected to grow to 4,000 volumes.

“Initially, we weren’t sure if we would even get 1,000 books,” said Keith Lassiter, director of the library. “It’s going to be a good-sized collection.”

Joseph Ellis, a professor of political science who focuses his own research on Estonia, brought the idea of creating the room to Lassiter, who had previously expressed a desire to bring more off-campus traffic to the library. 

“Keith, without flinching, said, ‘Sure. Let’s do it,’” Ellis said.

Ellis began contacting Baltic-studies colleagues he’s gotten to know over the years, and pretty soon the collection started growing. He spent an hour or so on Zoom with Liisi Esse, a librarian at Stanford University, which, he found out, had extra copies of several volumes. 

“Before you know it, 26 boxes of books from the Stanford library are at the back door of the Ethel K. Smith Library,” Ellis said.

While speaking at an Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies conference, he mentioned his quest for books, and Ramuné Kubilius, a librarian at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, answered the call, sending boxes and boxes of Lithuania-related books.

The library has received reference books, history tomes, children’s books, guidebooks and novels. Ellis and Lassiter expect the donations to continue.

“According to the University of Washington, if we had 4,000 volumes we would be the fourth-largest collection in the country,” Ellis said. “That’s what we’re aiming for.”

The task of cataloging all of these items has fallen on Kory Paulus, collection-management librarian. She has employed several students to help her with the project, which is far from straightforward. Books that already have an ISBN number are “supereasy to catalog,” she said, but many of them do not. Slotting those books into the right category is time-consuming, with Paulus forced to do translations to determine who the author is and to pick out all the relevant information. She decided to take care of all the low-hanging fruit first.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Paulus said. “That’s an understatement. At one point I asked my students to pull all the books that are easy for me to catalog, so the ones that are left are definitely the harder ones.”

It’s been a good learning experience for the students, who have not only affixed stickers to books and shelved them but have run translations for Paulus, who said she can now catalog in five languages, and have done associated research projects.

“I didn’t put a single sticker on these books. I just catalog them and have taught them how to do the rest of it,” she said. “I’m more like the project manager and am the one putting it in order and in perspective.”

That includes creating displays of items she’s found tucked away in donated books. In one book donated by Kubilius, Paulus found a letter from Kubilius’s grandfather discussing his deportation from Lithuania during the Soviet occupation. Copies of the letters are on display in the library (Paulus sent the originals back to Kubilius by certified mail).

After finding several Name Day cards in some Latvian volumes – presumably used as bookmarks – Paulus assigned a student to write a research paper about the history and significance of Name Day. The cards make up one of several special displays that sit alongside the books in the collection.

“It’s been so much fun,” Paulus said. “It really has. When I find something really cool, I email Dr. Ellis and tell him, ‘Guess what I found!’”

With the largest collections of Baltic books located in the Northeast and the West Coast, Ellis is hoping to provide a worthy nearby collection where scholars in the Southeast can do research. It also provides the university with a distinctive resource to offer. The March 31 dedication and a Baltic-studies workshop that accompanied it drew scholars from around the country. One attendee even flew in from Sweden.

“As a side benefit, it sort of gives Wingate a little recognition,” Lassiter said. “Our focus is on health sciences, but here we are with a very unique and what’s going to end up being a very sizable historical collection.” 

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