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The magical maps  

My first archival passion was maps. It all started with the maps hanging above the blackboard in our classroom at school: Maps of Norway, Europe, the world – and the Holy Land. The first three to be used in the geography classes, the fourth in the Christianity classes. Usually we were able to see the lower part of one of the maps, enough to send the mind wandering in boring lessons. And I travelled, with Amundsen on the South Pole or with Moses in the desert. Later I travelled in the atlas, which I still do. I never tire of maps, because they are magical.

Maps are basically unintelligible, but we have been taught to understand them. We have been taught the meanings of scale and equidistance and what the different colours and symbols signify. It is obvious for all that maps are constructions, that they are two-dimensional representations of multi-dimensional landscapes. We know that the landscapes are so exceedingly richer that the map, with all their visual impressions, smells and sounds, details that never can be reproduced in a map. I believe this is why maps are magical; because of their selectiveness they invite us to fantasise about how a landscape might be and thus create our own stories about it.

150 years ago Eilert Sundt, the great pioneering Norwegian social scientist, visited the parish of Haram on the Norwegian west coast: On this trip he witnessed how the fishermen navigated their boats using the traditional system of méd (leading lines):

«There is for example a mountain on one on the Haram isles, which is called Skulen, and when one is on a certain area of the ocean this mountain hides another mountain, farther in on the Mainland, which is called Hildre-hesten (the Hildre-horse); if one travels along the land towards the North, then the Horse little by little will come into sight beyond Skulen, and then one says: The Horse fine (when the head of the Horse just has become visible), the Horse coarse, the first part of the Horse, the second part of the Horse, the saddle of the Horse is clear of Skulen etc, and by each of these sighting one knows where one is in the route between South and North; if at the same time one has a méd on the other side one will as well know where one is in the direction from the land or between East and West; thus the experienced man will know, that to avoid this or that reef, he cannot sail any further in this direction, but must veer off to another. Thus, a pilot is able to steer his boat between breakers and dangers scarcely looking at the dangerous items close by, but more certainly and more often fixes his eyes on the land and the distant mountain heights far way.

What if these landmarks cannot be seen because of snow fall, fog, darkness of night? Then there will always be danger afoot; but in that case it will be decisive to use one’s ears; because many of those reefs and skerries are recognisable by their ring and rumble, differing according to the rocks» outstretched or steep shapes, a difference that also must be judged by the direction of the wind or more precisely the waves».   

 Eilert Sundt’s narrative tells us about an indigenous map of the waters in Haram. This map represented a communal accumulated knowledge of the fishermen in this area, an archive: traces of events, inscribed on an external substrate, transferred from individual experiences to a collective oral memory. This archive must have been drawn from myriads of traces; good catches, accidents, shipwrecks and other incidents that taught people where one should and should not sail in these waters.            

Like other archives and maps this had been created with a purpose. In a pre-industrial costal society like Haram, this purpose was to survive, to provide food and income on the fishing grounds and sail safely to and fro. Consequently, this collective memory about underwater landscapes, sea currents and the fish’s migrations, had been selected and constructed to serve the immediate needs of the society.   

Modern navigational charts are made for a more confined purpose: navigation. Such charts are drawn from scientific measurements of the ocean floors, made by or on behalf of the state as an element in the making of authoritative cartographical series. Map historian J. B. Harley characterises the development of such authoritative maps as means to control a landscape in order to support the expansion of a social system. When modern navigational charts eventually replaced the indigenous maps of Haram, this also signified the end of the mode of production that Eilert Sundt had witnessed in the 1850s.   

This example shows that maps are deficient and selective; they never tell the «whole story» about the landscape. They are made for certain purposes, which decide which information that will be included in a map and how this will be narrated. One such purpose might be national expansion. J.B. Harley has shown how the mapping of New England systematically suppressed Indian names and introduced English names. In Norway a similar process took place in the Samí areas. But the purpose might be something as down-to-earth as the development of a local society; a development plan may also be seen as a tool for the expansion of a social system. In my own youth I witnessed how the first development plan for my home place led to offended resistance from the locals. Needless to say, this resistance was fruitless. 

 Maps are archival documents, and similar to other records they are societal products made in certain societal contexts. Maps tell stories about the landscape, but also about the society that made them. As with other archival documents, these stories invites archivist to «interrogate the archive’s semantic genealogy» (to quote Eric Ketelaar) and explore the conditions of their creation and thus open them for interpretation and re-interpretation. Inn all archives there are a pulsating tension between text and context, endlessly opening the texts for new readings and this is where I suggest we might find the roots of my archival passions. So let me move on to the text.

The never-ending stories

«(—) according to the parish register Elias Larsen Kant quite correctly was born in Hegre in Øvre Stjørdalen parish, on November 30 1867 on the farm Ingstad by parents Lapp Lars Larsen and wife Maria Sofia Jonsdaughter, but he has no right of municipal domicile here, as his parents by the time of his birth did neither have any right of municipal domicile in Hegre. In fact, his parents were roving, and according to the account of the previous farmwife on Ingstad , which she, and other people may confirm as the truth, they came one evening to Ingstad  and then during the nigth the Lapp’s wife became ill and gave birth to a son, who 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 a child birth in 1867, taken from a letter from Hegre poor commission, dated 30.03.1903, may serve as an introduction to another of my archival passions: the stories. Sometimes we witness human beings appearing among the documents while working with the arrangement and description of archives, bring with them stories of happiness, distress or just daily chores. This does not happen very often, but when it occurs, it makes up for lengthy hours leafing through lifeless paper.

What’s more, I’ve often found my best stories in the archival borderlands, among the archival pariahs, which according to most appraisal theories should not be appraised but be subject for destruction, namely the account receipt series. I discovered the story of Elias Larsen Kant in an account receipts file when I was arranging the archives of the poor commission in Ullensvang, a municipality in western Norway.

On October 12 1900, a woman and her two daughters came to the poor commission chairman, asking for relief. She tells him that her husband has gone away and she does not know where he is. The poor commission takes care of them for three months, spending 110 kroner on their subsistence, until she and her children leave for another destination. And as the family does not have any municipal domicile in Ullensvang, the poor commission can claim 2/3 of their expenses refunded from their home municipality. This sets off a process which is going to last for more than three and a half year, involving a dozen other poor commissions and creating more than 80 documents. In these documents we can follow Elias Larsen Kant’s life from his birth until he disappears from sight while working as at the construction of the Bergen railroad in1903.  

A case like this gives an excellent example of multi-layered information that may be found in archives. The purpose of this case was to provide evidence of Elias Larsen Kant’s municipal domicile, still the documents tell stories about 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. Furthermore, the documents provide insight into the values of their creator. In this case is noticeable how the letters from the poor commissions in central Norway is oozing with racial prejudice against Elias Larsen Kant and his parents (being of the South Samí nation), while we find no such traces in the documents originating from poor commissions in western Norway. 

It should be evident that it is impossible to read these texts, the account of Elias Larsen Kant’s life as it is told in these documents, separated from their contexts. And 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 a correspondence series tells a significant story), the contexts of its preservation (why some archives survive while other are destroyed or lost), the contexts of appraisal (why some documents 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 often are found in poor commission’s account receipt series and was actually looking for them and listing them in the inventory; another person could have left them unnoticed), the contexts of our readings and interpretations (which are biased by certain social, cultural and ideological conditions; my reading of racial prejudice in some of the Kant documents is 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 what’s more, we archivists are parts of these contexts in different and shifting ways. So let me finally say some words about the archival contexts and the archivist’s role in creating and shaping some of the contexts.

The archival justice

Elias Larsen Kant did not write a single one of the 87 documents in his municipal domicile file himself. His voice is never present. We have only access to other people’s accounts of his life, mostly built on second-hand and third hand sources. There is but one exception to this: a local sheriff’s account of an interview with Elias, but even in this document his voice is absent. He is not quoted; the sheriff uses a language and rhetoric typical of the public official interviewing a possibly suspect person. The document reflects the power relations that existed at the time of its creation, and Elias Larsen Kant was one of the unorganised and powerless migrant workers of the first decade of the 20th century. We do not know of any surviving documents created by him, every document that has survived in the Elias Larsen Kant file was written by the authorities. But the mere existence of this file allows us to «interrogate the archive’s semantic genealogy» and make him visible to us, unlike the great majority of contemporary his class colleagues.

The problem of the silent archives was actualised by the Norwegian Government’s White Paper (44/03-04) on reparation and compensation to the «war children» and certain groups of the Sami, Kven and Romani minorities. The White Paper proposed a system of individual compensation to persons who had experienced «grave suffering, loss or damage» due to infringement and persecution in their neighbourhoods, at school or by public officials. The size of the compensation should be made dependent on the documentation that each individual might bring forth – the better documentation the larger compensation and vice versa. The «war children’s» organisations reacted strongly against this proposal. They argued that it would be unreasonable to claim documentation in cases like this, because of the lack of archival records. Doing this, they referred to the white paper’s observation that it would be accidental if any documentation of the individuals» childhoods might be found at all – due to poor or missing records.

There are several and complex reasons for this situation. Time does not allow a thorough discussion of these matters in this talk. Suffice it to name three important elements in the societal context of the creation of these archives in the first decade after WW2:

–        The Norwegian society’s negative attitude towards the «war children» and their mothers;  

–        The dominant societal view regarding children’s rights and needs in general;

–        Insufficient record creation due to the recordmaking regime that existed before the public administration and freedom of information legislation of the late 1960s.

This had two important consequences: Most of the «war children» who needed aid did not get it, because the public and the child care authorities usually did not act when such children suffered mobbing and harassment. Secondly, when the authorities did act and the children were moved to children’s homes, these actions were documented in a way we today would consider defective, or they were not documented at all. Eventually, some of the records that actually were created have been lost or destroyed, due to poor management or even to hide someone’s acts.

The current public administration legislation gives the citizens a fundamental democratic right to access public records. The public administration is – on the other hand – obliged to make sure that all recorded information regarding individuals is correct, complete and related to a certain case, and to inform an individual when he or she is object of a case. In such cases the individual also has the right to rectify and add to recorded information. This legislation – which is part of the current societal recordmaking context – should incite the creation of records that will not be silent about important matters, in the rules are followed. This depends on how the record managers – as another part of the archival context – do their jobs. Record managers may contribute to the creation of a comprehensive archive. To make this possible, it is necessary to invite every citizen to use their right to access and control the records and make sure that their own versions, their own stories, becomes parts of the archive. And this brings me to my third and most important archival passion, namely the archival justice.  

To me, this archival justice is about something very simple – and very difficult: On one hand, everybody should have the right to be present in the archives on their own conditions. On the other hand, everyone must have equal rights to access and benefit from the archives on their own term, regardless of age, gender, class, education, language, disability and so on. Such an archival justice may be beyond our reach, but for me it signifies a moral imperative. This call of justice (to quote Verne Harris) «comes from beyond records and archives.  It comes through the fabric of injustice which is our experience of life.» And this call of justice is inseparable from the enduring, permanent struggle for democratisation of all societies, in which the control over the archive plays an important part. As Derrida wrote in «Archive Fever: » Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: The participation in and the access to the archive, to the creation of it and the interpretation of it».

Do the archival institutions have any role to play in this regard? Yes, they have. I will give you one example. On April 20th 1944, a major explosion on Bergen harbour destroyed large parts of the city, killed 150 and injured 5000 people. As a result of this accident, all the children in the city were evacuated to other parts of the country. In remembrance of this accident the Bergen City Archives launched a web exhibition in 2004, for which the City Archives had collected reminiscences from people who had been evacuated at that time. These stories were published together with archival documents and photographs in the exhibition and later as a printed publication. By inviting these people to tell their stories, the City Archives expressed hospitality towards a group that until then had been invisible in the city’s war history. Now these stories have been told, they supplement and enrich the other archival records about this event and they will be accessible for use in the future.

Is it possible to imagine similar projects, where other groups  will be invited to give their stories to the archives? I will suggest that a future justice for marginalised and outcast groups will depend on such initiatives. When their stories have been told, when the defective archives have been supplemented, their stories can be made accessible to society, to the future, and the invisible will become visible. Thus, the archival institutions – as a part of the archival context – may contribute to making the archival text more comprehensive. Thus, we may contribute to an archival justice that may encompass all citizens.

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2 Responses to “Archives and Geography – Reflections on my Archival Passions”

  1. John Fordahl Says:

    Hi. I was reading this article and it occurred to me to ask you if you might have any information on the old Fordal farm near Hegra (Hegre?) in Norway. Here is the info I have on it so far:

    Farm no.- 93, Farm – Fordahl, Parish – Hegre, Municipality – Hegre, County – Nordre Trondhjems amt

    The reason I’m asking is because I’m trying to research my dad’s family tree, and it is difficult at best, because of all the name changes and misspellings that were common for that era.

    My hope is, if I can at least locate a solid source of info on the history of this farm, that I will be able to do further research to sort this all out. Thanks for any help you may be able to give. Even a map would be helpful, if nothing else. Thanks so much, and I’ll wait to see if this message gets to you. Bye.


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