Brekke’s bygdebøker keep on giving

Arne Brekke with his Bygdebok Collection in the background.

Photo: Lars Wanberg
Arne Brekke with his Bygdebok Collection in the background.

Larrie Wanberg
Features Editor

Legacy, it is said by many, is a gift that keeps on giving across time and even generations.

If you have a single Norwegian gene in your DNA, as 40 to 50 million people do, there is a legacy that can benefit you and your ancestral family history.

This legacy-gift is the largest library collection in the world of Norwegian family and farm histories—the Bygdebok Collection at University of North Dakota’s (UND) Chester Fritz Library in Grand Forks, N.D.

The Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection is not only the largest with 1,721 current volumes but also through online or onsite means the most accessible to the public for usage.

Norwegian genealogists and Norwegian-American family historians often exchange searches, findings, or quests in the library’s Special Collections Research room. Others are logging in via emails for scanned data on a farm history or family name from a specific time and location in volumes pertaining to 428 municipalities (kommuner) and 20 districts (fylker), including Oslo.

The back story of this life legacy comes from its namesake, Dr. Arne G. Brekke, who turned 90 years old in October. His birthday was celebrated at the library by a crowded, community-wide gathering, when it was announced by the UND Foundation that the endowment supporting the collection has now surpassed half a million dollars.

“So many people carrying Norwegian genes have lost connection with their heritage,” said Arne Brekke, founder of the collection. “Yet the possibility of help to connect with their Norwegian roots is much more available than before, mainly through communications technologies.”

“Today, there is an enormous amount of data available about family histories,” he continued, “and the Bygdebok Collection is not used in isolation. Rather, it is utilized with all other databases, such as censuses, immigration documents, emigration ship passenger lists, cemetery records, and church archives, etc.”

The origin of the collection dates back to 1980 when Brekke was teaching languages at UND and also arranging student tours to Norway to complement their studies in language, history, and heritage.

As founder of Brekke Scandinavian Travel and Tours, he developed the idea of mutual learning through study, reunion, or heritage tours that connected family and generational life histories between Norway and America.

At the time, bydgebøker were little known in the Grand Forks area, where nine out of 10 residents have Norwegian ancestry.

At the UND Library, only two sets of bygdebøker were in the stacks—one from Hitterdal (now Heddal), Telemark, and one from Hol in Hallingdal.

The librarian in 1980, Colleern Oihus, whose ancestors lived in Valdres, asked Brekke to help secure more bygdebøker. Contacts were made with local history centers in all of Norway’s 428 municipalities requesting more books. The collection grew to more than 400 books over the first couple of years. A second solicitation took place in 1988 and again resulted in a large number of donated bygdebøker.

The charter flights that Brekke used to bring Americans to Norway usually returned to North America with Norwegians who included journalists, radio, and TV personnel. Many of these people visited the collection in Grand Forks and gave it widespread publicity in Norway.

This enabled Brekke to ship truckloads of books from Oslo to Fargo, N.D., by charter flights, and the number of books started to soar. After more than 36 years, the collection has exceeded 1,720 volumes.

In 2010 Brekke and his daughter, Dr. Karen Hoelzer of Springfield, Ill., started the Arne G. Brekke Endowment to support and maintain the collection. That same year the library began showcasing the Bygdebok Collection online (library.und.edu/special-collections/bygdebok).

Two honors have recognized Brekke’s entrepreneurial initiatives. In 1977, he received the St. Olav Medal from His Majesty King Olav, after being nominated from Norway for “fostering connections between people of Norwegian descent and the homeland of their ancestors.” Through charter flights and a full program of tours, it’s estimated that he brought over 250,000 visitors to Norway, not to mention travelers who came from Norway to the U.S.

In 2011, the North Dakota Library Association honored Brekke with the Major Benefactor Award for being the “driving force behind the growth of the Library’s Norwegian Bygdebok Collection.”

Brekke envisions the future of the UND Library’s Special Collections to expand in scope to include four additional databases to complement the Bygdebok resources; namely immigrant letters exchanged among relatives, books on immigrant histories, individual family histories, and articles and research papers about Norwegian heritage.

When asked about what aspect makes him proud of his lifelong legacy of bridging cultures, he answered, “Of course, I’m proud of the global reach of the Bygdebok Collection, of helping to promote travel between Norway and America over the years, and of all the people that I consider friends and associates from these travels.”

“Deep down personally, I’m most proud of my grandchildren. They are global citizens, speak both languages and are vitally invested in their Norwegian-American heritages. I’m proud of bridging generations and know that my four—soon to be five—great grandchildren will know their heritage and participate in both cultures.”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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