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500 years of Latvian Books series of events

The 500th anniversary of the printed word is the awareness of the roots of our language and, at the same time, an illumination of the country’s development opportunities. Our (Latvian, Liv, Latgalian) language and its prevalence – in spite of ideological, economic and technological challenges – has been and will remain a fundamental value of our nation. Latvians’ core and the basis of our identity. An ancient and shining star in the great family of European languages and identities.

In the extensive five-year set of events in the 500 years of Latvian Books programme
(2021-2025), we highlight the most significant processes that once set in motion the dissemination of the Latvian written and printed word. The structure of the events is designed so as to single out a theme for each year, which determines the planned events, exhibition publications and other proceedings.


Coming home, books for Latvia outside Latvia


The Latvian language in manuscripts and newspapers


Dissemination of texts in the past and today (publishers)


Libraries and reading


500 years since the first book in Latvian

The birth of Latvian books

This happened five centuries ago, in line with Europe’s turning point arising from the Reformation. At that time, supporters of Luther’s teachings had already gained the upper hand in Rīga, and in 1525 the first printed works in Latvian and Estonian languages were being carried to Rīga – Lutheran texts intended for Livonia. News about the fate of these publications is scant. The shipment did not reach Rīga, because the books were seized in Lübeck by the pro-Catholic city council. The Duke of Lübeck, Johannes Brandes, wrote in his diary that the council confiscated barrels of Lutheran books, among them were also printed texts in Estonian, Latvian and vernacular Livonian. The council wanted to burn the books in the market square. Although these books in Latvian did not reach their readers (listeners), and later could not be found in the already established Rīga city library (1524), fire did not stop the dissemination of words. Word written in Latvian were born, grew further and spread in a variety of ways. Several testimonies about articles, notes and translations in Latvian have been preserved from these ancient times. For example, the Lord’s Prayer written down in Latvian by Nicolaus Gisbert, a Catholic priest from the Rīga area, in the margins of a handbook printed in Leipzig; or the hymns rendered in Latvian by Johann Eck, head pastor of Rīga’s Latvian St. James’ congregation (both examples date from the 1530s). Not much later, in 1585, a translation into Latvian of the Jesuit Petrus Canisius’ Catholic Catechism was printed in Vilnius – the oldest printed text to have survived to this day. And a couple of decades later, the foundation of the publishing business is already being laid in Rīga – the first book printshop, run by Nicolaus Mollyn, began operating. Over the course of five centuries, the Latvian language and publishing have established deep roots and flourished widely. The “ashes” of the first Latvian book have been fertile – from the listeners to the first printed books, public readings and singing of texts to individual reading experiences, translation and the digitisation of texts – books have been and remain the driving force of the cultural space and the nation. Books once opened new opportunities for education and knowledge, for reflection on the world around us and on the world that can only live in our imagination. They gave us self-assurance, made us think about ourselves and the organisation of society, about our past and future opportunities. The written word allowed Latvians to identify themselves among other nations and resolutely integrate into the family of other cultures with a rich contribution. That is why the beginning of the 16th century is when the Latvian written language and culture forced itself above ground. Into the light that has already been shaping us for 500 years.

Photographer: Zane Priede

The printed word, the first listeners to and readers of the written word launched a new era for Latvians. Our nation’s traits began to be marked out 500 years ago by the language that was sung, written down, reproduced and read. Books give us self-assurance and inspire the nation to grow.

Egils Levits

President of Latvia, patron of the 500 years of Latvian Books series of events

“For inference and feeling to become meaningful thought, to be able to formulate big ideas, precise words are necessary. The 500th anniversary of publishing is the 500th anniversary of the development of the Latvian nation’s language and thinking, and the 500th anniversary of the creation of ideas.”


Andris Vilks

Director, National Library of Latvia

“It is hard to even imagine what the fate of our nation and the path to nationhood would have been if a printed book in Latvian had not been created in 1525. That was,
of course, not a totally decisive event. Nevertheless, Latvians very soon became
a society of “readers”, which, in the 20th century, enabled them to fully integrate into
Europe’s cultural, educational and
ultimately political processes.’’

And words were … written down. As if falling out of a cloud, first came the soothsayer and the storyteller, followed by the scribe, the pastor, the calligrapher and the bookbinder, then the typesetter and the publisher set about writing. And once again – writings are back in the cloud.

Respect for language
The liveliness, splendour and power of language comes from our respect for it – using not only “naked” words in our daily correspondence, but also punctuation, diacritic and other marks that make words hiss, stretch or become softer.
Sentences and rules
Diacritics, full stops and dashes that organise and impose rules. They stop the endless flow of text, add meaning to it, emphasise the most important point or even make the text infinite ...
Translation of a word
They met by the Daugava and could not understand each other. Then one pointed his finger at the sky and said, look, today the sun is walking across the earth. The other nodded, took a small step, and the sun had been translated.
The printed word
When printed or imprinted, a word has been captured and anchored. No more hanging around, it is bound up with others of its brothers. And, caressed by many eyes, this word becomes ever more important and necessary.
In a beehive of words
Words and sounds, pictures and memories amass here. They are brought here and left. They are looked through, moved around and tasted. Language is stored in the cells, where new words begin to sprout.
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