Celebration as bygdebok collection hits milestone
UND’s Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection is one of the largest ancestry resources online
An uncommon celebration happened October 23rd on the fourth floor of the University of North Dakota’s Chester Fritz Library in the Special Collections Conference Room.
The milestone event was a mix of a family or school reunion, a homecoming, an anniversary, and a celebration of how a handful of books that referenced local histories and genealogies in Norway has grown over three decades to become an international legacy of 1,500 books from the 424 current municipalities of Norway.
The conference room of the Library was filled with people who had some part, benefit, or support in helping grow the Arne G. Brekke Bygdebok Collection from a small beginning into what is believed to be the largest, most complete, and most accessible reference “treasure” available to a national and international audience of viewers who seek to learn and trace their ancestral roots in Norway.
The patriarch of this family-styled network and growing legacy, Dr. Arne Brekke, stood at the podium, his white hair illuminating his 87 years and his Norwegian-born energy as a linguist in Comparative Germanic and Indo-European languages still permeating the room from a lifetime of teaching.
“Students from yesteryear’s language classes have played a large role,” he said, “often starting with learning to read Norwegian, speak it conversationally, and then traveling to Norway to learn about their family histories and meet other descendents.”
He acknowledged individuals in the room who had assisted over the years to help build the collection—his family, his business partner (Char Brekke) in Brekke Scandinavian Travel and Tours, former students, Library staff, and a host of others who had contributed in some portion to the success of the collection.
He reviewed the history of the collection that seemed to arrive in waves, similar to immigration itself. “In 1980,” said Dr. Brekke, “we had two sets of Bydgebøker—Hol in Hallingdal and Heddal/Notodden in Telemark. I sent out a mailing to the 450 municipalities at that time and we received 180 volumes by year’s end. A year later, we had 400 books. A new mailing in 1988 brought another wave of books in the hundreds.”
“By 2010, we had 1220 books. Then, UND Library developed a website that posted the books in Norway’s districts on a digital map, so online viewers could see what books were in the collection, as well as what books were missing. Since the website was available, we collected another 300 books, totaling 1,500, which was our goal and prompted this celebration.
“If known books are out of print, we find them in used bookstores, advertising in newspapers or internet postings. We want the collection to be a complete one.”
Dr. Brekke gave examples from the past week how people from distant places were discovering their roots of heritage in their ancestral “home country” of Norway, coming from across the country and across continents.
In 2010, Dr. Brekke and his daughter, Dr. Karen Hoelzer of Springfield, Ill., established the Arne G. Brekke Endowment for the Bygdebok Collection.
Gloria Gransberg, a co-benefactor who flew in from her residence in Norway, gave remarks from the podium, describing how she took a Norwegian minor at UND as a student of Dr. Brekke, received one of three of the first Summer Schools scholarships to the University of Oslo, married a Norwegian, and became invested in promoting the Collection.
A retired schoolteacher from Norway, visiting a nephew attending UND, by happenstance sat in on the event.
“I didn’t know that such a wonderful resource existed,” he said. Anyone with internet access can find Norwegian Bygdebøker in one place that can help them trace their ancestries.” He found a photo of his home farm in the Suldal book and a picture of his family and himself when he was four years old in the Strand book.
”For me,” he said, “it was so great to meet the founder of this collection who has been in this country for 66 years and still speaks perfect Norwegian—even the language and dialect of my home community.”
A number of University staff gave greetings, emphasizing pride in how the collection is drawing International attention and usage.
“Our goal with the library staff,” said Dr. Brekke, “is to identify where all the new books are being published, and once the ink dries they are being shipped to our collection. We anticipate that the collection will grow by the hundreds in the upcoming years.
“When you consider,” he continued, “that the number living outside of Norway, especially in North America, with one or more ancestors from Norway, the estimate is a minimum of 50 million—ten times the population of Norway.”
Personally, I was pleased to be there for this event, honoring a longtime friend. I have known Arne since he first arrived in America in1949. As a feature writer at that time for the college paper at Luther College, I interviewed him for a story and we became lifelong friends.
I didn’t realize then that the story of his beginning a journey would become his lifetime legacy that carries on to the benefit of my children (born of a mother with Norwegian citizenship), grandchildren (who never knew their grandmother), and great grandchildren (who are yet to learn their heritage)—all of whom are bonded to their ancestral homeland.
Although I have been an eyewitness to a longtime friend’s journey of fulfillment, this event was about his lasting living legacy.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 31, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.