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A Christmas Story

desember 26, 2006

«(—) according to the parish register Elias Larsen Kant quite correctly was born Hegre in Øvre Stjørdalen parish, on November 30 1867 on the farm Ingstad by parents LappLars Larson and wife Maria Sofia Jonsdaughter, but he has no right of municipal domicile here, as neither of his parents by the time of his birth had any right of municipal domicile in Hegre. In fact, his parents were wandering, and according to the account of the previous farm-wife on Ingstad , which she, and other people may confirm as the truth, they came one evening to Ingstad and then during the night the Lapp’s wife became ill and gave birth to a son, whom on January 5 was christened in Hegre church and given the name Elias. Thereafter the parents went away bringing the child with them.»

This account of the birth of a child in 1867 is quoted from a letter from the Hegre Poor Commission, and it may serve as an introduction to one of my archival passions: the stories. Archives may be about evidence and accountability, but for me it is the stories that make archives magical. Sometimes while you are working with an archive, human beings will appear from among the documents, bringing with them stories of love, loss, happiness, distress or just daily chores. When this happens, it makes up for lengthy hours leafing through seemingly lifeless paper.

The story of Elias Larsen Kant is one of these, and it did survive only by chance. In June 2000, while doing field work in Ullensvang municipality in Western Norway, I became aware of a small black chest in the municipal repository. It was locked, but being an archivist, I forced it open. Inside I found the archive of the Ullensvang Poor Commission, dating from the 1790s to the 1920s. Some months later, while arranging the documents, I discovered a thick envelope among the account receipts from 1903. Inside this envelope was the Elias Larsen Kant story.

On 12 October 1900, a woman and her two daughters come to the Poor Commission chairman in Ullensvang, asking for relief. She tells him that her husband, Elias Larsen Kant, has gone away and that she does not know where he is. The Poor Commission takes care of the family for three months, spending 110 kroner on their subsistence, until she and her children leave for another destination. Elias Larsen Kant does not have any municipal domicile in Ullensvang, and therefore the Poor Commission can claim 2/3 of their expenses refunded from his home municipality. This sets off a process that is going to last for more than three and a half years, involving a dozen other municipalities and creating more than 80 documents. In these documents we can trace Elias Larsen Kant’s life from his birth until he disappears from our sight while working as at the construction of the Bergen railroad in 1903. We can find accounts of his hardships as a foster child, his work as reindeer shepherd in different parts of the country, his accordion skills or his participation in a cross-country skiing race.

The initial purpose of this case was to provide evidence of Elias Larsen Kant’s municipal domicile. This purpose has made the documents striking examples of archival bias. In their letters, all the Poor Commissions did their best to escape the refund payments, trying to «prove» that Elias Larsen Kant had no right of domicile in their municipalities. To achieve such right, a person had to live in a municipality for two consecutive years. It is no surprise then, that several municipalities admitted that he had been living there for one year and nine, ten or even eleven months, but never for two full years.

Today, these documents are about memory. They tell us stories about a human being living in a society that no longer exists. Not one of the 80 documents in this file was written by Elias Larsen Kant himself; they are all written by public officials, by men with power, telling their versions of stories about his life.   

It impossible to read these texts, the accounts of Elias Larsen Kant’s life as they are told in these documents, separated from their contexts. An archive’s contexts are infinite. There are the contexts of its creation (such as the creator’s missions, functions, values, purposes for making the documents etc), the contexts of its archiving (in this case, the archiving of the Elias Larsen Kant file in the account receipts series and not in the correspondence series tells a significant story). the contexts of its preservation (which, as this example shows, very often may be a question of chance), the contexts of its appraisal (why some documents are considered to be of archival value while other are not), the contexts of its arrangement and description (because of my previous experience I knew that municipal domicile files could be found in Poor Commission’s account receipt series and was actually looking for such files and to list them in the inventory; another person could have left them unnoticed), the contexts of our readings and interpretations (my reading of racial prejudice in some of the Kant documents may be characteristic of the dominant present cultural Norwegian discourse, fifty or more years ago the readings would have been different). Also, as the above examples may suggest, there are no sharp boundaries between texts and contexts. And we archivists are parts of these contexts.

Archives are never neutral. Neither are archivists. We are in a position where we can decide what should be known to the public. We can let the stories of people like Elias Larsen Kant remain buried among the account receipts, or we can decide to use our archival power to disclose such stories about the marginalised and make the invisible visible. 

As I see it, this is what makes the stories more important than the evidence.

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