Books build a bridge between cultures

The Norwegian-American Collection at Norway’s national library

By Erica Olsen
Special to the Norwegian American Weekly
Dina Tolfsby is the curator at the Norwegian-American Collection at the National Library of Norway.

Dina Tolfsby is the curator at the Norwegian-American Collection at the National Library of Norway.

Dina Tolfsby is hard at work—and she’s shopping online. Tolfsby, curator of the Norwegian-American Collection at the National Library of Norway, clicks on used book website, searching for rare volumes published in the Norwegian language in America in the early 20th century.

The Internet has changed the way she looks for books, Tolfsby says. “Earlier, if a book was more than two years old, you couldn’t get hold of it. You couldn’t just go to America and visit all the used bookstores.” Her online search today is guided by an artifact from the past: a rare 1920s catalog from John Anderson Publishing Company, a Norwegian-American publisher based in Chicago. “It’s just amazing the number of books they published.”

Tolfsby’s latest acquisitions will be joining a collection founded in 1958 with donated materials from America. Now some 10,000 items strong, it is Norway’s national collection on Norwegian emigration to the United States and Canada.

On a recent day in February, a graduate student was researching congregations in Minnesota in the collection’s reading room, while outside, the snow-covered streets of Oslo sparkled in welcome winter sunshine. Tolfsby talked about the Norwegian-American Collection and the relationships between library patrons, book dealers, donors, and friends that make her work possible.

Books in the Norwegian-American Collection at the National Library of Norway. Photo: Erica Olsen

Books in the Norwegian-American Collection at the National Library of Norway. Photo: Erica Olsen

“There are quite a lot of people who study [emigration] at the university. People write fiction using emigration. And family history is a very hot topic,” Tolfsby says. “I’m very preoccupied with getting the collection out to people. Of course, people don’t come to the library to the same extent as earlier. They think they can find everything sitting at home—which of course they don’t.

As an example, Tolfsby points to a sturdy wooden case in her office, the collection’s old card catalog. She opens a drawer and gestures at the hundreds of subject headings. “You can’t find this [information] online. This is just priceless. When I realized this was going to be thrown away, we managed to rescue it. In a way, this is a small library within the library.”

“Some people say, oh, I guess [the collection] is just about family history, blah, blah. But there are so many fields within Norwegian American studies. I like to get hold of books about Norwegians who have made a name for themselves in America. It can be third or fourth generation. You know the Norwegian American Hall of Fame? That was how I found [Nobel Prize-winning physicist] Ernest O. Lawrence. His family was called Lavrans when they left Norway. It’s a way to make this visible, you know: Norwegians, they didn’t all become farmers in America!

“Of course I buy books about migration theory. The important word now is transnationalism. It used to be multiculturalism, ethnicity … it changes.” She laughs. “It’s always a mix of everything when you look for books. Whenever a user comes in and is interested in one particular area, it very often leads to the fact that I order a couple of books afterwards.

“And then I have nice people in America—for instance, the archivist at Luther Seminary in St. Paul—he sends, when they have an extra copy, the church anniversary publications of the congregations that celebrate their centennials, etc.

“The collection grows [by] about 200 books each year.”

Tolfsby’s own connection to the U.S. is through her work. “A couple of sisters of my paternal grandfather went to America, but they came back again,” she says. “And my mother is English. So we don’t have a particular immigration history in my family.” Before coming to the National Library, she worked with Nordmanns-Forbundet, the Norse Federation, for about 15 years. “Then I was asked if I could be here [at the National Library] for a year when my predecessor was on leave,” she recalls. I had two jobs for three years, part time both places, but in 2000 I started working full time here. I think it’s very rewarding.”

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This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on March 13, 2009. To learn more about the Norwegian American Weekly and how to subscribe, email us at or call us toll-free at (800) 305-0217.

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