Sharing stories

The University of Sheffield has found a way to share immigrant experiences in the digital world

Graphic courtesy of Louise Sorensen Follow Ola Nordmenn on his journey from Norway to America.

Graphic courtesy of Louise Sorensen
Follow Ola Nordmenn on his journey from Norway to America.




By Louise Sorensen

University of Sheffield

Researching your family history is a popular pastime for many. Finding out more about your ancestors can be a very rewarding experience, but the many hours of work spent investigating your roots often only benefit a small group of close family and that’s a shame. Now researchers at the University of Sheffield are offering a way to make your family history pack more punch.

The Ola Nordmann Goes West project team is looking at how the information uncovered by genealogists can benefit traditional history and their first topic is 19th-century Norwegian immigration to the US. Using cutting-edge virtual world technology they have reconstructed a fictitious peasant’s, the generic Ola Nordmann, journey from his home in Western Norway to New York and are encouraging people to engage with history in a different manner than they are used to.

Virtual worlds (of which Second Life is the best-known, though many others exist) are immersive environments where virtual beings, so-called avatars, can roam freely and interact with each other and the surroundings. The virtual world of Ola Nordmann has been specifically constructed to animate a historical event, the momentous journey of thousands of Norwegians, but it’s also a social space where people can meet and share memories about how and why their ancestors came across from Norway. By being able to relive something that normally comes across as static, the Ola Nordmann team hopes people will realise that the practicalities of the migration journey, which might seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things, are actually really significant if we are to understand the physical and mental hardship they went through.

The virtual world is more than just a historical exhibition. It is an experiment designed to see if it can change the way history is usually written with no emphasis on the little man or woman who is also experiencing history as it unfolds. And this is where family history is invaluable. Professional historians do not have the time or resources to research all these individual “micro-histories” (even though some of them are genuinely interested), and there is no central repository where these stories can be collected. Genealogy sites online offer the functionality to create a family tree using their bespoke software and have recently started offering personal pages where the family tree can “come alive” through the addition of images, recordings and historical anecdotes. But what if you are not a subscriber to this site? What if you are more of a story-teller than a stickler for dates of births, marriages and deaths? Where do you go then?

In Ola Nordmann’s virtual world it doesn’t matter if you are not entirely sure about the facts. You can share as much or as little as you know and that information is then used to add virtual objects, short personal sketches and original photographs. Even if you haven’t researched your family history before, you might find that, as you walk around the virtual world, other people’s contributions jig something in your memory and a long forgotten family tale is suddenly remembered. This story can then conveniently be dropped in one the many mailboxes placed at regular intervals along the journey and will within a matter of days feature inside the virtual world.

This is an open-ended history of Norwegian immigration to America in the 19th century. One based less on historical accuracy (the history books have already done that job) and much more on seeing this phenomenon through the eyes of those from the past who don’t usually have a voice in history.

If you have anything to contribute or are just curious, visit

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 1, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.