Personal tools
Du er her: Forside / English / Local history in Norway

Local history in Norway

by Ola Alsvik [ This article was first published in: The Norwegian Institute of Local History and Local History in Norway / By Ola Alsvik. - Oslo : NLI, 1993. - P. 1-5. - ISBN 82-90176-68-6 ]

A branch of research and a popular movement

Local history can be defined in a number of ways. Generally one might say that it is the history of local communities and institutions, or perhaps more precisely that local history occupies the stratum in historical studies below the national level but above the level of the family and individual.

These definitions both have a weak point in that they focus solely upon local history as a branch of the study of the past. From a Norwegian point of view, however, local historical activity has another important aspect: it is a popular movement. This dual aspect of local history, its character of being both a branch of research and a movement with considerable popular support, gives local history an extraordinarily strong position in Norway.

The situation today

The large number of local history associations provides a good example of the discipline´s high status; at the present time there are about 450 such associations in Norway. This means that one is found in virtually every local community. Together they have several tens of thousands of members. The activity of these organisations is quite impressive: they arrange study circles and courses in local history, organize restorations of old houses and sites, and carry out plans for collection of place names, oral traditions and dialects. In 1992, the local history associations published more than 250 yearbooks, containing articles of very diverse content. Some are modest and unpretentious works written by local enthusiasts, others are extensive articles of high academic standard written by professional historians. Underlying this amazing diversity we find another important distinctive feature of Norwegian local history - the fact that local history research has a rather high status also with professional historians. There has indeed developed a close and fruitful cooperation between historians with academic training and self-educated researchers, a teamwork which is most clearly expressed in the content of the annual local history books.

"Local history" is a collective term for a whole range of literature. The yearbook - or "Årbok" in Norwegian - represents one of the three main types of local history books in Norway. The second comprises the rural district books. A small rural district in Norway is called a "bygd", and the history book of the "bygd" - the "bygdebok" - is a phenomenon familiar to almost everyone in Norway. The third type is the town history book. Contrary to the yearbooks, these two latter categories are dominated by academically trained historians. In 1991, nearly 80% of the authors were university graduates. During the same year local authorities spent more than 40 million Norwegian crowns (about 4 million pounds) on rural and urban community publications. About 200 authors were engaged in more than 50 different projects, each aiming at the production of comprehensive local history books.

The production of local history is thus quite an industry in Norway. Moreover, the high level of production is met by an equally high level of demand. Local history yearbooks are among the bestsellers of many small bookshops throughout the country. One might indeed claim that many rural booksellers are economically dependent on the income provided by different kinds of local literature.

The background of local history

To discover the reasons why local history holds such a strong position in Norway today, we have to go back to the situation around the turn of the century. Three different groups of actors then shared a common interest in local history and established close contact in order to promote it. One group consisted of local rural politicians, notably of peasant background, and generally representing the upper strata of the peasantry. They viewed local history as a means of defending their traditional positions and status in society in a period of increasing pressure from modern industrial world. Another group comprised amateur local historians, who sought recognition of their work, an inspiration to continue and - not least - possible economic support.

Finally, the third group consisted of professional historians who also had a number of motives to join the alliance. The most important, however, was related to the national situation. In 1905 the Union of Sweden and Norway was dissolved, and Norway became an independent nation after more than 400 years of foreign rule. In the process of nationbuilding that followed, the idea of the proud and free Norwegian peasant, whose thirst for liberty and independence had survived four centuries of foreign rule, became a significant national symbol. Influential historians contributed intellectually to the concept of the Norwegian peasant. Their approach was often local. By means of a series of local studies they wished to build up a total picture of the historical role of the Norwegian peasantry, the cornerstone of the new nation´s life. These historians actually viewed local history as an important instrument in the process of nationbuilding.

The development of local history as an academic discipline during the following years was in many respects due to the close relationship between these three groups. Together they established general guidelines for research in local history, they arranged courses for amateurs and stimulated the popular interest in the discipline. This intense activity had two important consequences. First, the integrity of local history as a legitimate area of study, not only for amateurs, but for professionals as well, became unquestioned; and second, the interest in local history became an important part of contemporary life in rural and urban communities. In short, a two-fold characteristic of local history evolved; it was established both as an independent and valuable branch of research, and as a popular movement. In 1920 a National Federation of Local History Associations ("Landslaget for lokalhistorie") was founded. This meant that the steadily expanding number of local associations were now consolidated and more able to further common interests. The following year the national federation commenced publication of a periodical, Heimen, which is still regularly published today.

Within the local history movement, one distinctive literary genre developed: the rural district history - the "bygdebok" - which also found its form during these years. A "bygdebok" usually consists of two parts, one containing the history of a whole "bygd", a whole community, the other containing the history of every farm in the locality. The earlier histories of rural communities were generally collections of articles, mainly descriptive in character, and without a coherent theme. But just before the Second World War, Andreas Holmsen - who later was appointed professor in history at The University of Oslo - developed a new model in which he made use of a chronological rather than a thematic outline. The advantage of this model was that it opened the possibility of integrating most aspects of a local community´s history into one unifying approach. In the post-war period the works of Holmsen have served as models for both professional and amateur local historians.

The strength and penetrating power of the local history movement was also expressed in another way during the post-war period, namely by the foundation of a public institution for the promotion of local history research: The Norwegian Institute of Local History.

The Norwegian Institute of Local History (NLI) is an independent governmental institution under the Ministry of Culture. The Institute was founded in 1955, and became functional during the following year. NLI has a board of five members appointed by cultural institutions and organisations with special interest in the field of local history. There are four permanent positions at the Institute today.

The main purpose of the Institute is to promote local and regional historical activity in Norway. This is chiefly realised through two measures. First of all by giving advice and guidance to authors of local history studies, and secondly by carrying out its own research projects of relevance for the discipline.