Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Diggin' the census

From the early 1900s on, the interest in genealogy has been fairly widespread in Norway. Lately though, there has been an explosive increase in interest. This can be contributed to two main factors. One is the series “Who do you think you are?” (Norwegian version). The other factor is the release of the digitized version of the 1910 census, now available online.

Researching family history might be easier for Norwegians than for Americans. Unique to Norway is the amount of resources available to genealogists. There is a plethora of sources easily accessible online. Genealogy is also very popular in neighboring Sweden and Denmark, but the genealogist’s situation there is different. Swedes have to pay for material Norwegians can access online for free. The Danish situation is quite similar to the Norwegian, but they lack our unique and extremely useful tool, the bygdebok, which will be addressed later. In other European countries (for example, Germany) there are few sources online. Parish records, for instance, can only be obtained through archives, and for a fee.

The National Archives of Norway are responsible for digitizing sources and making them available for researchers and the general public. The work of digitization and transcription is however divided between the different regional state archives and universities. Available online, and free of charge are: the censuses of 1801, 1865, 1875 (not completed), 1900 and 1910. Most parish registers are scanned and available online, and the work is still in progress. The parish registers contain births, christenings, confirmations (confirmation was mandatory before getting married), marriages, and burials (millions of pages). Also available are sources like probate records and real estate records, at least 14 million pages. In addition to work done by the state archives and universities, a lot of material is scanned and transcribed by genealogists and local history societies. This gives the Norwegian hobby genealogist access to an enormous amount of information online.

But how to proceed? All the public records can be accessed through the Digital archive’s homepage (i.e. the National Archives of Norway in collaboration with the universities). The Digital archive’s homepage contains several links that can be helpful to the new genealogist. There are links to a Forum for contact with the Digital Archives, the Users Forum, and “Ask the National Archives”. There’s also a link to an online course (interactive and free) in gothic handwriting. The reason for learning to read gothic handwriting is that only the censuses are transcribed; the other sources are scanned documents, i.e. primary sources.

But all the easily accessible resources online don’t fully explain why genealogy is so popular in Norway. There are two other important factors to consider: Knowing with certainty where your great grandparents come from (as most Norwegians do), does make it easier to start tracing the family history. Not knowing when your great grandparents were born, only where, the common tool to use would be the bygdebok (literally village book).

The bygdebok is a genre unique to Norway, and in my view of great importance to the popularity of genealogy in Norway. This kind of local history has been addressed by some of Norway’s finest historians, and has been seen as a legitimate pursuit among historians. In Denmark, by contrast, local history has been regarded with a certain amount of skepticism, has had little prestige in the past, and was by some seen as contributing to separatism, and therefore not encouraged. The Norwegian bygdebok can be described as a form of total history. In these bygdebøker the local history is recorded, usually starting with a description of the archeological finds in the area. As a rule the names of owners and families living on each farm hundreds of years back are provided. It would be fair to say that these books cover most of Norway. Some of the bygdebøker are available online, otherwise the ones you need can be sent to your local library free of charge. The bygdebøker are widely used by genealogists, although in the genealogist community it’s expected that every genealogist also checks the primary sources. If not, she can risk getting the nickname “bygdebokavskriver” (avskriver = copier).

The general interest in genealogy has led to international actors with different agendas popping up online. If you need to boost your genealogical pride, you can hitch your ahnentafel to GENI (a collaborative genealogy platform) as I did on a winter night. According to GENI I’m related to many significant Norwegian profiles, all the way back to the legendary king Nor who established Norway. However, the ancestors you find on GENI must be taken with more than a grain of salt, though it must be said that there are several capable moderators continually cleaning up the lineages. As for now, I take pride in the surprising (and well documented) discovery of an ancestry of well respected boat builders and well educated men and women living in a small valley in Vestlandet (the western part of Norway) stretching back hundreds of years. Finding these previously unknown ancestors has made me curious for more information. Several of the boat builders kept a “diary”, records of incidents in the family, and of the boats they built and sold. This book is published (three books bound into one), and two days ago I got it in the mail. It was interesting reading, and reading it has only spurred me on...

There are ongoing projects, many collaborative efforts between professionals and amateurs, to make even more material available to the public. In the future I expect the databases will get more user-friendly and better coordinated with each other. There’s a certain urgency about identifying the pictures in the museum’s databases before it’s too late, and also for people to share old photographs they possess with the public. There is in all the projects mentioned here an underlying thought of a common inheritance--an inheritance we work together to preserve, which is for everyone to use and enjoy.

Bottom line, in Norway genealogy can easily become an obsession, and for most people the hobby has challenges enough for more than a lifetime.

~ Anett Ytre-Eide

Guest blogger Anett Ytre-Eide earned a Master of Philosophy in Culture and Ideas Studies from the University of Oslo in autumn 2010. She is interested in living history, phenomenology and "thinking with her feet", and is a new genealogy enthusiast. The conductor of the military band in the c. late 1890s photo above is her second great grandfather Samuel.

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