Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Trip to the Library: Bygdebøker

I just returned from a most fruitful and exciting visit to the Norwegian American Genealogical Center and Naeseth Library in Madison, Wisconsin.

Going in to this research, my assumption has long been that, because my family were relatively poor farmers, there would be few records, and that after a generation or two, the records would probably not exist at all. Oh, how wrong I was!

Norwegian Farm Books

In 1906, the Norwegian Historical Association, an arm of the Norwegian government, created a nationwide plan for the collection of comprehensive family and community histories throughout rural Norway dating back centuries. The result of these efforts are the huge collection of farm books - bygdebøker. They contain a stunning wealth of information - and not just of the wealthy. Included are decidedly un-wealthy families like my tenant farmer ancestors. This project was funded by the government, who created curricula and taught classes throughout the country for historians and authors on how to systematically research, gather, and create these histories. I find it amazing that the Norwegian government had the foresight and vision to create such a rich repository of rural history.

Norway is broken into nineteen counties and hundred of parishes. Each bygdebok covers the history and genealogy of an individual parish. And the bygdebok for any individual parish may be in multiple volumes, like the ten volumes for the parish of Luster. 

For research purposes, these are considered secondary sources. There are errors is transcribing details from the original sources - church, census, tax, and probate records, etc. And apparently some authors resorted to creating out-and-out fiction when records could not be found. So the gold standard remains the original sources. But all in all, these bygdebøker are a treasure trove.

I drove from Minneapolis to Madison with my dear friend Babs on Thursday, and arrived in time to spend an hour and a half at the library before they closed. I knew that my family lived in the Skjold (pronounced "shold") parish, so that is where I immediately headed. Skjold's bygdebok is in two volumes. I searched for the farm on which my family lived - Håvik - and boom! There was a picture of the two-room house in which my grandfather's large family lived!

I think that the librarian who was helping me was a bit skeptical. Sure... crack open the first book I get my hands on and claim, "That's our house!" To be fair, I think that her skepticism is well-earned. For instance, as she later told me, "Everyone thinks that their family is descended from King Harald the Fair-Haired." Well, guilty as charged. That belief in our royal lineage is part of our family lore. But the house - that was really ours! It wasn't until the next day when I showed her a picture of my mom, Charlotte Hovick Lohman, visiting the house in 1978, that I think she finally believed me. 

I spent the rest of Thursday and eight hours on Friday at the library, surrounded by bygdebøker, and finding more family information than I'd dreamt possible. In some cases, I was able to go back an astounding ten generations!

Stay tuned... I have a lot to share!

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