Keeping Norwegian-American history alive

NAHA archives at St. Olaf preserve the past

Photo courtesy of NAHA
Through internships and student employment, NAHA creates opportunities for students to encounter history and gain hands-on experience in the management of archives and nonprofit organizations.

Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

The archives of the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) have always been a main feature of its mission to gather information and materials about the Norwegian immigrant experience. Its purpose is to locate, collect, preserve, and interpret the Norwegian-American contribution to U.S. history.

The founding of the organization in 1925 makes that clear. It is significant to note that 1925 also marked the centennial of the first organized emigration from Norway to New York. A group of visionary Norwegian Americans wanted to establish a national center to preserve and publish scholarly works of the Norwegian immigrant experience. The founders knew the power of stories and the history they contained.

The archives, housed at St Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., are filled with diaries and journals, letters, and photographs of historic value. The Rowberg files include more than 200,000 biographical clippings about Norwegian Americans from a variety of sources. Andrew Rowberg (d. 1969) was a long-time publisher of the Northfield Independent and was involved in the launching of NAHA.

To interpret these materials, NAHA has published many scholarly volumes starting with those edited by University of Minnesota historian Theodore C. Blegen, who served as the association’s first editor. His scholarly standards characterize NAHA publications that today total around 100 volumes.

Current publication editor, Anna M. Peterson, associate professor of history at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, writes, “We take our mission to interpret the Norwegian-American experience with accuracy, integrity, and liveliness seriously. Our annual journal, Norwegian-American Studies, and our robust book-publishing program showcase the innovative and engaging scholarship currently being done in the field for a diverse audience.”

Ole E. Rølvaag (1876-1931), a collector and author of Giants in the Earth, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1931, was the first secretary, and he laid the groundwork for the creation of archives. These archives now are a treasure trove for scholars of immigration history, as well as family historians seeking information on individuals.

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
In 2021, NAHA digitized portions of the O.E. Rølvaag Collection, one of the larger collections housed by NAHA, made possible by a grant funded by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. A second grant allowed NAHA to digitize a portion of the Norse-American Centennial Collection.

I was an ordinary person and not one of Norwegian heritage back in the year 2000, when I first visited the archives looking for information on Norwegian immigrant photographer, O.S. Leeland, who had worked in Mitchell, S.D. Even a century ago, most people left a paper trail: a birth certificate, tax records, or a school transcript. I telephoned postcard and photography dealers, as well as curators of museum collections, but none knew his work or anything about his life. Not even a clue.

That led me to NAHA. I was enthusiastically welcomed by Ruth Hanold Crane and was rewarded when archivist Forrest Brown, who had not heard of Leeland, found and translated a 1939 obituary in Chicago’s Norwegian-language newspaper, Skandinaven. This gave me a number of clues as well as concrete information that launched my quest, one that is ending shortly with a manuscript telling the story of my journey with this Norwegian immigrant’s life journey and the photographic legacy he left.

Because Leeland died with no family and was buried in a potter’s field in total obscurity, we are only appreciating now his visual diary documenting the era of homesteading in South Dakota and illustrating its place in the American West.

I was later asked to join the board of directors of NAHA, which leads me to Club 2014, a fundraising campaign for climate-controlled archives under the leadership of the late Jackie Henry, administrative director, and Brian Rude, past president of the board. It is logical that in order to fulfill the preservation of archival materials, they must be cared for properly, particularly during this time of climate awareness.

The biggest drawback of the NAHA space in 2014 was the lack of climate control. The variation of temperature and humidity takes a toll on historical documents. The evidence can often be seen immediately, for example, crumbling newsprint after reading an article in a newspaper; a fading photograph whose chemical composition in the early 1900s was not perfectly mixed in the photographer’s darkroom; and the disappearing ink on a handwritten document.

NAHA began working with St. Olaf to install air handling and conditioning systems to hold the collection space steady at an industry standard temperature and a steady relative humidity. The objective to ensure the preservation of its collections into the future with a stabilization of internal conditions was first and foremost the goal. NAHA agreed to pay for the cost of building out the space and furnishing equipment needed.

The financial goal of $160,000 was met with the full participation of the board of directors, a challenge grant of $10,000 that was matched dollar for dollar and members’ contributions. Over time, the plans evolved in scope to a state-of-the-art vault and a shared space Special Collections facility among NAHA, Rølvaag Library Special Collections, and the St. Olaf College Archives. The funds originally raised by NAHA provided matching funds required for a $300,000 Infrastructure Challenge Grant provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This fully renovated facility will not only provide a safe environment for valuable archival materials, but it will also include staff offices, a reading room, classroom and exhibit spaces and workspaces for processing and preserving collections. Mary Barbosa-Jerez, the head of strategy for library collections and archives at St. Olaf College, expressed her enthusiasm for the project.

“It’s thrilling to see the hourly progress. But knowing our facility will keep all our wonderful collections safe for future generations is probably what excites me most…It’s great to know our precious historical and rare materials will be moving to a facility designed to arrest the damage caused by time.”

Photo courtesy of NAHA
The state-of-the-art vault, under construction, represents Phase One of the project and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2022. The new facility will provide a safe environment for valuable archival materials and provide areas for processing and preserving collections.

The vault under construction represents Phase One of the project and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2022. Then, the reading room, offices, classroom, and workspaces will be completed in Phase Two.

Amy Boxrud, executive director of NAHA, sums it up: “The new special collections facility will bring related collections together and help NAHA reach a new level in our programming. In addition to better preservation of the collections, the new facility will include expanded meeting spaces, a classroom for teaching with the collections, and a large reference area with bygdebøker (regional histories in Norway) and other family history resources. We expect our new home to become a crossroads for research.

“Another important part of preserving our history is offering a proctored reading room for scholars, family historians, and others to conduct research in a welcoming environment that ensures the safety of these unique materials,” says NAHA Archivist Kristina Warner.

The archives continue to benefit from the generosity of members and friends who have made small and big donations of letters, diaries, photographs, family histories, and community and congregational materials. Onward and upward. Fremover og oppover!

This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD., is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history. She collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See