NAHA Header

NAHA Logo

A Pioneer Church Library
By H.F. Swansen (Volume XI: Page 57)

In recent years students of immigrant history have manifested a genuine interest in the cultural activities prevailing in the Norwegian settlements. Such studies are difficult, owing to the indefinite and intangible nature of these activities, and yet they are indispensable in any effort attempting a complete and accurate picture of immigrant life.

Since the Lutheran church was the axis around which much of the cultural activity in the Norwegian immigrant communities revolved, it has received some consideration at the hands of students. While some aspects of its work and influence have been explored, others have not. There is, for example, the congregational library, about which little or nothing has been written. As early as 1852 such an institution was in existence at Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, a Norwegian settlement just north of Madison. {1} Others have been established elsewhere in the settlements, including one in Allamakee County, Iowa. This latter enterprise is of more than passing interest because fairly complete records are available of its organization, nature, and use.

Several years ago the writer ran across these records in the sacristy of the picturesque East Paint Creek Church in Allamakee County, Iowa, about twelve miles east of the county seat, Waukon. They consist of a "Bog katalog" (Book Catalogue) and a "Protocol over ud og indlevering av bøger" (Register of Books Loaned and Returned). {2}

The catalogue, which consists of an eight-page folder, has not been kept between stiff paper covers or otherwise protected, hence, in the course of time and frequent handling, it has become deeply creased, torn, and soiled. It lists alphabetically by author all books in the collection, each bearing a number. The original list, embracing 212 volumes, was written carefully, legibly, and in ink, apparently the work of one person. Additions were made later, but the subsequent entries do not have the form, legibility, or neatness that characterize those in the original list. In a few instances only the author or title was listed, not both. Since the last sheet is badly torn, it is difficult to discern some of the items on pages 7 and 8; in fact, in a few cases this is impossible. As far as can be determined, the last number was 227 and this in all probability was the last book accessioned. Even though this record is incomplete in places and in poor condition generally, it does permit generalizations that are significant in this study.

The register, however, is a well bound volume and even at present is in good condition. The entries are in the handwriting of several persons; therefore, there are some variations in the writing and some inconsistencies in the spelling of names. The record is almost complete for the year 1874, fully complete for 1875 and 1876, but fragmentary for 1877. It closes rather abruptly with the few entries of 1877, but, on the other hand, it contains a loose memorandum sheet which lists several loans and returns for 1889. There is, of course, the possibility that other loose memorandum sheets were placed between the pages and have been lost. While the examination of the entries in this register occasionally presents difficulties, it yields valuable information about the use of the books. The entries in this register for 1874, 1875, and 1876 are practically complete, therefore they are the basis for several of the observations in this study.

As mentioned above, the library was placed in the parsonage of the East Paint Creek congregation of Allamakee County, but it was used by the neighboring Lansing congregation too. Since in 1870 the East Paint Creek parish had a membership of 664 and the Lansing organization 129, the book collection was accessible to a large number of settlers. These congregations were two of four served by the Reverend O. J. Hjort, who, judging from present indications, was the instigator and the motivating force back of the project. He was a native of Norway and a graduate of the University of Kristiania. In 1862, shortly after his immigration to the United States, he accepted a call to Allamakee County, Iowa, and he remained there until his death in December, 1879. While on a visit to Norway in the early 1870's he purchased a collection of books, intending that it should serve as a nucleus for a projected library in his charge. According to a notation on page 7 of the catalogue, six volumes were presented to the library at a later time by the University of Kristiania.

On January 5, 1874, eighteen members of the East Paint Creek congregation assembled to consider the question of establishing a library. Since their number was too small for an adequate discussion of the matter, nothing was done; however, before departing each pledged himself to raise funds for the cause and to spread abroad in the settlement news concerning another meeting a week later. The members of the Lansing congregation in all likelihood also met at this time to weigh the same matter, but what they did is not known, for the records have been lost or destroyed. The minutes of the East Paint Creek Church, on the other hand, tell of another meeting on January 12, at which the members resolved unanimously to take over the book collection which Pastor Hjort had acquired and make it the property of the East Paint Creek and Lansing congregations. {3} They also decided that any member, by paying a fee of $2.50, secured the right to use the books and also the privilege to speak and vote on matters relating to the library. Persons not members of the congregation were given access to the books, subject to the payment of the same fee, but denied the right to participate in the direction of library affairs. The members decided that the direction of the library should be vested in a committee of three, and that the pastor should serve as librarian, with the power to choose assistants when and if necessary. The degree of ownership in the case of the two congregations depended on the number of supporters or subscribers in each. A part of the collection, corresponding in size to the extent of ownership, was to be deposited at Lansing, and the books were to be exchanged every two weeks.

Rules providing for the numbering of the books, the recording of loans and returns, and penalties for the loss or defacing of books were also drafted at this meeting. It is interesting to note that books could be returned or exchanged on Sundays after services or on Saturday afternoons. Provision was made to house the collection in the parsonage. This was the arrangement at the outset, but as time went on a separate building was erected not far from the parsonage. This structure was simple, but provided the desired protection from rain and the elements. Thus, on the initiative of the pastor and with the support of the congregation, this venture was launched.

All the books in the collection, whether by English, American, or Norwegian authors, were in the Norwegian language. This being the case, it is not strange that the majority of the works in the collection were by Norwegian authors, the following of whom were each represented by two or more works: Ludwig Holberg, Andreas Munch, Anthon Bang, Jonas Lie, Peter C. Asbjørnsen, Henrik Ibsen, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. None of the selections of the master poet, Johan S. C. Welhaven, was included. Four of the masterpieces of Ibsen were listed, Brand, Peer Gynt, Kongsemnerne (The Pretenders), and De unges forbund (The League of Youth). The dramas, Sigurd Slembe, De nygifte (The Newly Married) and Sigurd Jorsalfar; the epic romance, Arnljot Gelline; and two volumes of Stories were the titles of Bjørnson. Synnøve Solbakken, a peasant novel and probably his greatest work, was not in this group. The works by the other Norwegian writers consisted in the main of folk tales, stories, novels, and dramas, selections that would appeal to a large number in the community. A few volumes of Skilling magazin, an illustrated weekly periodical printed in Kristiania, were also on the shelves. The same may be said of the periodicals Folkevennen (Friend of the People), also published at Kristiania, and Aftenlæsning og underholdende maanedsskrift (Evening Reading and Entertaining Monthly), the publication place of which is unknown to the writer.

Danish titles were numerous. This fact provokes no surprise, for Danish literature at the time still exerted an influence in Norway, and, besides this, the Danish written language was strikingly similar to that used in Norway. Hans Christian Andersen, Herman F. Ewald, Thomasine C. Gyllembourg, and Bernhard S. Ingemann were the most conspicuous representatives. A few volumes of the Danish monthly magazine, Underholdning for menigmand (Entertainment for the People), published at Copenhagen, were also found among the periodicals.

The non-Scandinavian authors were few. The writings of Dickens, however, were conspicuous, for not less than seventeen titles in twenty-seven volumes were in the collection. All the important works excepting Pickwick Papers were in this wide selection. The Norwegian titles in some instances took on a strange and amusing sound to one accustomed to the English version. Humorous Stories, a two-volume collection from the writings of Thackeray, was among the translations from English classics. Egen kraft (Self-Help), a book of sound practical advice for youthful readers by the well-known English journalist Samuel Smiles, was another translation. The fact that this work had been translated into seventeen languages testifies to its popularity at that time. Eight volumes of American literature were accessible, among them the popular Onkel Toms hytte (Uncle Tom's Cabin) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Besides this there were two volumes of Fortællinger og skildringer (Stories and Sketches) by Bret Harte and five volumes of history by Prescott. One of the volumes of Harte contained twelve stories and included the popular "Luck of Roaring Camp" and the "Outcasts of Poker Flat."

The collection 'as a whole was strongly literary in tone, fairy tales, folklore, stories, and novels predominating. About thirty volumes consisted of periodical literature. Eight to ten volumes contained devotional or religious treatises, while approximately fifteen were historical in content. Most of these histories related to Scandinavia, but H. J. Muller's Søkrigen i America fra 1861-1865 (Sea Warfare in America from 1861 to 1865), A. Bang's Om bebyggelsen av Nord Amerika (On the Settlement of North America), and Prescott's volumes pertained to the New World. This general classification, with two or three exceptions, includes all the titles in the collection.

As already indicated, the library was open on Saturdays and Sundays. Since children met at the church or parsonage on Saturdays for catechetical instruction, this time was opportune for exchanges. Aged people who still reside in the community tell of securing books when they made their weekly trips for confirmation instruction. {4} The library was open on other days but not at regular intervals. During the months of March and December, 1874, it was open on sixteen different days, but this should not be considered typical. In the three-year period, 1874-76, it was open an average of nine times per month. It was well patronized all through the calendar year but less frequently during the busy months of July, August, September, and October. These statements, it should be remembered, apply to the East Paint Creek congregation, not Lansing.

The extent to which the collection was used may be judged from the fact that 635 books were issued in 1874. During the two following years the number was 618 and 624 respectively. Quite naturally the number issued from time to time varied. On March 21, 1875, for example, the total was thirty-seven, on March 15, 1874, thirty-one, and on October 15, 1876, twenty-seven. These are the best records for each of the years studied. The average for the three-year period was 5.68 volumes per time, a much smaller figure than those given above. Again these figures pertain to the East Paint Creek group only.

Turning now to the books chosen, the records reveal that during the year 1874 the most popular book was B. S. Ingemann's novel, Kong Erik og de fredløse (King Erik and the Outlaws). In 1875 it was H. F. Ewald's novel, Den scotske kvinde paa Tjele (The Scotchwoman at Tjele); in 1876, Ingemann's novel, Prins Otto av Danmark (Prince Otto of Denmark). Other books that had a wide circulation were: Ingemann's Eventyr og fortasllinger (Fairy Tales and Stories) and Erik Menveds barndom (Erik Menved's Childhood); Asbjørnsen's Norsk-huldre eventyr og folkesagn (Norwegian Fairy and Folk Tales); Stowe's Onkel Toms hytte (Uncle Tom's Cabin); Eugenia von Mitzlaff's Familien Helldringen (The Helldringen Family); and Bjørnson's Fortællinger (Stories). Considering the writers represented by two or more titles, the most popular author for the three-year period was Ewald. Second honors went to Asbjørnsen, third to the German writer Eugenia von Mitzlaff, fourth to Bjørnson, and fifth to Ingemann. It is interesting to observe that among the authors who made so strong an appeal, two were Danes, two Norwegians, one American, and one German. Dickens and Ibsen, two of the great masters represented in the collection, had little popularity. During the three-year period four of the titles of Dickens were read at infrequent intervals, thirteen not at all; whereas Ibsen's De unges forbund (The League of Youth) and Brand were withdrawn only once. Fairy tales, stories, and novels made the strongest appeal. Skilling magazin and Aftenlæsning og underholdende maanedsskrift, both mentioned above, circulated freely.

While the record gives the names of those who withdrew books, it does not at the same time indicate accurately the number of those who read them. According to the register, 93 men withdrew books one or more times during 1874, 66 in 1875, and 68 in 1876, but these undoubtedly held membership in the library organization. The figures are probably low, for they do not include women and children, who in some cases are known definitely to have used the collection. In view of the fact that some books were read much more than others, it is reasonable to assume that discussions, both within and without the home, aroused an interest in these titles. The most diligent user in 1874 was Inglebrit Johnson, in 1875, Lars Seim, and in 1876, Nils Lageson. The best patron for the three-year span was the aforementioned Johnson. Other good supporters of the project were Halvor Smette, Peder Monserud, Peder Thorsen, Lars Iverson, Erik Knudsen, Helge Bøhn, Peder Dehli, and Knud Hanson. Over this period no less than twenty-eight persons used the library thirty or more times. Keeping in mind the size of the congregation, as given above, it is safe to assume that a large part of the membership enjoyed and profited from this book collection.

As mentioned above the library was used very little after 1876, but the reason for this is not known. Since the patronage during 1876 was on a level with that of the two preceding years, it seems strange that the interest should have dropped so decidedly. Of course, there is the possibility that the record was kept on separate sheets which have been lost. Then there is the further possibility that Pastor Hjort, who was ill for a long period preceding his death in 1879, lacked the time and energy for supervision of the details of administration. The register carries very few entries after this date, and this fact encourages the belief that the venture was dependent upon his initiative and direction.

As is to be expected, the books of this unique enterprise are at present difficult to locate. A small collection was presented to the Aase Haugen Home for the Aged at Decorah, Iowa, several years ago, and there the writer recently found eleven volumes, all in fairly good condition. Quite likely this remnant of the original library is the largest number now available at one place.

Even though this library was not among the earliest of the organizations in the settlement, it assumed a place of more than ordinary importance, mainly because it catered to the cultural needs of the settlers by providing wholesome and standard reading material. In this way it was a means of maintaining a close contact between patron and congregation. This is worth noting, considering the importance of the congregation culturally in the Norwegian pioneer community of that day. By affording access to choice literature in the Norwegian language, the library strengthened the bond between the immigrant and Norway and at the same time abetted the church in its zeal to preserve the mother tongue in the new land. While these observations relate to the East Paint Creek district, they doubtless would apply to a greater or less degree to the Lansing congregation as well. Generalizations in regard to the nature, scope, and influence of ventures of this type in the settlements of the country at large will have to await other studies.

Notes

<1> In the C. K. Preus Collection in the Koren Library of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, are seven volumes which carry this identification mark: "Almuebibliotheket paa Spring Prairie 1852." Each volume also bears a number.

<2> These records at present are in the Koren Library of Luther College at Decorah.

<3> These facts have been taken from "Forhandlings protokol for Østre Paint Creek menighed" (Minutes of East Paint Creek Congregation) which were made accessible to the writer through the courtesy of the Reverend A. P. Lea, the present pastor.

<4> Several months ago the writer visited the Paint Creek region in order to meet some of the descendants of the original settlers. He met Mr. Olavus Monserud, Charles Dahl, and Mrs. Ida Espeland, all three of whom had used the library in their youth. Several facts pertaining to the library were gathered from conferences with them.

<<  Previous Page   |  Next Page   >>


 
To the Home Page