Stanford Libraries acquires the personal library of renowned Estonian scholar Jaan Puhvel

July 9, 2021
Liisi Esse

The Puhvel library consists of over 13,000 books and periodicals pertaining to Estonian and Baltic history, culture, society, politics, and economy. As such, the library makes a tremendous addition to Stanford Libraries' Estonian and Baltic collection.

Comprising nearly 8,000 books and over 5,000 periodical items (single issues, bound issues, and volumes), the library includes full or almost full sets of works by many Estonian scholars and writers, such as Jaan Kross, Raimond Kaugver, Marie Under, and Mats Traat. The library also features several full sets of serials, such as Looming, Akadeemia, and Keel ja Kirjandus. Of particular interest are the rare books and rare serials, which include literary and scholarly works published in interwar Estonia as well as items from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the first Estonian Bible printed in 1739.

Overall, the Jaan Puhvel library is in great condition and Stanford Libraries hopes to start cataloging it in the near future. Until then, it is not available to access via the Libraries’ catalog. If you are interested in the collection send a request via email.

About Jaan Puhvel

Jaan Puhvel was born in Estonia in 1932 as a son of a government official. In 1944, his family escaped Soviet occupation via Finland to Sweden where he graduated from the gymnasium in 1949. His family then moved to Canada where he graduated with B.A. and M.A. degrees from McGill University and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Harvard University.

Puhvel taught Classics and Indo-European Linguistics at UCLA from 1958 until 1993, when he retired as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Classics and Indo-European Studies, while continuing teaching for several years on a recall basis, and also teaching at the University of Tartu in Estonia repeatedly from 1993 through 1999. His books include Hittite Etymological Dictionary (11 volumes), Comparative Mythology (translated into Estonian, Lithuanian, Czech, Serbian), collected works (Analecta Indoeuropaea, Epilecta Indoeuropaea, Ultima Indoeuropaea, Ulgvel ja umbes, Võõraile võõrsil).

A member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, Puhvel is also a Guggenheim Fellow and has received honorary doctorates from the University of Tartu and Tallinn University. Studies in Honor of Jaan Puhvel (1997), a festschrift in his honor, was published in two parts by the Institute for the Study of Man. He has also received the Order of the White Rose (Finland), and Order of the White Star (Estonia). Jaan Puhvel was President of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies from 1971–1972 and is a member of many other scholarly organizations, including the Linguistic Society of America, the American Oriental Society, and the American Philological Association.

Puhvel has been married since 1960 to Sirje Madli Puhvel (née Hansen), Ph.D., professor of medical microbiology and immunology at UCLA, author of Symbol of Dawn (the biography of the Estonian poet Lydia Koidula, in English translated into Estonian). They have three sons and five grandchildren.

The story behind the library 

Written by Dr. Jaan Puhvel
Encino, CA

My Estonian education was interrupted after fifth grade, I received my secondary schooling in Swedish, and performed my academic work in English and French. Everything Estonian has since been a sideline and avocational, driven by a lingering interest in my native heritage. It was spurred incidentally in the 1950s when rummaging for Hittite material in the bowels of Harvard’s Widener Library and finding among discards also the primal edition of the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg with the autograph of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. So the author of Hiawatha had been privy to something more than the Finnish Kalevala! I managed to effect its transfer to Harvard’s rare books library and resolved to start collecting Estonian books myself. But frequent academic peregrination during the 1950s was not conducive to accumulation.

When arriving at UCLA in 1958 all my worldly goods fitted into my Chevrolet Bel-Air. The first break came in 1963 when my colleague Lauri Honko introduced me in Finland to Hilja Kettunen (widow of Lauri Kettunen, one-time professor in Estonia), who sold me significant parts of his older Estonian book treasures. During the 1960s it became possible to subscribe to Soviet Estonian periodical publications. Through personal contacts, I also acquired a whole string of private suppliers in Estonia of both current and older books, in return for either hard currency or as scholarly exchanges. This became a near avalanche until the Soviet apparatchiks noticed and forbade the export of older literature from Estonia. After that, the packages had to be mailed instead from Russian post offices, and the flood continued. Upon liberation of Estonia in 1991 everything became free to buy and acquire, as it had been all along with Estonian and Baltic publications in the free world.

In a nutshell, this is how the collection mushroomed between 1960 and the present. A serious field of study in the humanities and history requires adequate coverage in both bulk and time-depth. This is a sine qua non for both teaching and research. In the Estonian case we have a language of exceptional historical, grammatical, and phonetic interest to linguistics at large, and a large folkloric and literary treasure house well-deserving of exploration and exploitation by international scholars. For the last century and half Estonian literature has had extensive interaction with other world literatures, as the bulk of translations in both directions testifies.

It gives me great pleasure that Stanford now has the nearly full set of the literary monthly Looming, starting with the first issue in 1924. Also that it can exhibit the first Estonian Bible printed in 1739 and many other old texts and unique first editions. My hope is that Stanford Libraries will be able to sustain, perpetuate, and further expand the buildup of the Estonian and Baltic collections by steady subscriptions to periodical literature and persistent and exhaustive acquisition of current publications. Also to promote and publicize the resources it has to offer for the study of historical aspects of Estonian culture, to complement the Hoover Library resources relating to Estonian history and the contribution that Estonia is currently making to advanced technology.