On 19 February 1931 the poor relief committee in the municipality of Bruvik carried out a domicile examination of Einar Andersen of Oslo, after supporting him with 5 kroner for a train ticket. Andersen told them that he was born in 1887, in Moss, that he was a Norwegian citizen, unmarried and a trained paperhanger. After finishing his four year apprenticeship in 1916, he had worked as a paperhanger for some years in Oslo, Drammen and Horten. He added that he in 1929 had been serving a jail sentence of 75 days for vandalism in Oslo. The poor relief committee sent their report from this examination to the Oslo poor relief administration, claiming reimbursement of 2/3 of the 5 kroner that they had paid to Einar Andersen. The reply recognized that Andersen was a resident of Oslo, but added that “the person in question is a vagabond”. I do not yet know on which grounds the Oslo poor relief administration made this statement (and I may never know, because the Oslo poor relief archive from the 1920s and 30s is deficient) , but it is possible that he had received poor relief support in other municipalities than Bruvik. Nevertheless, their statement became the conclusion of his case; according to the records of the Bruvik poor relief committee Einar Anderson was no longer a paperhanger; he was a vagabond.

The archiving context

The context of the creation of this record was the encounter between an unemployed, migrant worker and society, represented by the poor relief committee, which was part of the local municipal administration. When a poor relief committee supported an individual who was a resident of another municipality, 2/3 of the expenditures should be refunded by this person’s domicile municipality. However, to be able to get such refund, the poor relief committees were compelled to interrogate these individuals to determine their domicile and produce a domicile statement for each person. The immediate purpose of these records was to serve as evidence of the poor relief committee’s actions concerning an individual and the refund of its expenditures.

The Poor Relief Act of 1900 set a standardized form for the domicile statements, which were printed and bound in special registers (Mykland and Masdalen 1987:146). This became normative for the creation of these records, and the interrogator should record 26 items of information about a client (see appendix 1 below): the supported person’s name, occupation, birth, confirmation, marriage, national citizenship, residence and previous poor relief support; and his or her parents’ names, places of birth, marriage, citizenship and residence; and his or her spouse’s name, birth, citizenship and residence; and the spouse’s parents’ names, places of birth, marriage, citizenship and residence; and his or her legitimate or illegitimate children’s names, ages and residence and if these had received support; and finally the supported person’s residences after 15 years of age, with a note saying that: “wandering individuals must be explicitly examined about possible habitation in their original domicile municipality”. This last and 26th piece of information was the most important, because a Norwegian citizen could obtain the right of domicile in a municipality if he or she had lived there for two consecutive years. And before 1942, the public resident registration was very deficient; most municipalities – with the exception of the towns – did not keep good records of their inhabitants. Therefore, a meticulous recording of an individual’s whereabouts – the creation of a client biography – was necessary.

Acts of archiving

While early 20th century archival theorists regarded records as impartial evidence of administration, created by “by a natural process” (Jenkinson 2003:238), such assumptions were to be challenged in the last part of the century. The act of archiving was investigated by Jacque Derrida, who states that “the archive doesn’t consist simply in remembering, in living memory, in anamnesis; but in consigning, in inscribing a trace in some external location – there is no archive without some location, that is, some space outside” (Derrida 2002:42). In this consignation “the social and political power of the archive” is at play, a power that “consists in selecting the traces in memory, in marginalising, censoring, destroying, such and such traces through precisely a selection…” (ibid:44). The archived traces create windows to the past, but “[t]he archivisation produces as much as it records the event” (Derrida 1996:17); the events that created the traces are irrecoverable, and we can only know the events through the traces that have been selected and preserved as archive. In Einar Andersen’s case, the only surviving trace that I have been able to locate so far “produces” him as a vagabond.

Elaborating on Derrida, Eric Ketelaar (1999, 2001) has introduced the concept “archivalisation” to describe the conscious or unconscious choice to consider if something is worthy of archiving. Such choices will always be depended on social and cultural factors. According to Ketelaar, the act of archiving encompasses three steps: the archivalisation, i.e. the choice to archive a piece of information; the archivisation, i.e. the recording of the information; and finally the archiving, i.e. the inclusion of the recorded information in an archive. The three stages of the archiving process are contingent, dependent upon contemporary norms and values. Thus, the archiving process cannot be understood as an objective activity, it will rather be subjective and dependent on societal power relations, and bureaucratic, legal, cultural and technological conditions, and the records creator’s societal position, needs and objectives. When a poor relief client’s biography was written down and archived in a domicile file, the primary objective was purely financial. The poor relief committee wanted their money back. However, there were other preconditions at play when such records were created.

Client biographies

As Mikael Eivergaard (2006) has pointed out in his study of Swedish sterilization records, the main purpose of client biographies is to find out when, why and how an individual has ended up as a client; the examinations “have in fact one common basic question: who is the investigated?” Accordingly, a client biography does not tell an individual’s life story with this individual’s own words, but rather his or her answers to the interrogator’s questions, interpreted by the interrogator and written down with the interrogator’s words. Thus, when producing a domicile statement, the interrogator and the interrogated were never on equal footing and the act of archiving may be understood as an exercise of power. I will give you two examples to illustrate this. The domicile reports were both written by police officers, who carried out the interrogations on behalf of the Ministry of Church Affairs, who needed these documents to decide the domicile rights of two individuals. In both cases there was strong disagreement between the involved municipalities about these individuals’ domicile rights.

The first document (case 1) is dated 23 and 24 October 1903. It gives a very long and detailed narrative of the client’s life. The writer has a sober, bureaucratic style of writing and the client’s story is consequently referred as indirect speech. A rather short quote should demonstrate this:

Elias Larsen Kant, born 30 November 1867 in Stjørdalen, explains that he stayed with his parents at Røros from he was 6 or years old and until his confirmation in the spring of 84, when he started to ramble around as a shepherd. … When he had been roaming around on Rørosvidda for a year or two, he started working as a shepherd with Lapp Nils Bull, who kept his reindeer in the mountains…

The interrogator and writer was a country policeman from Aurland in Western Norway; the interrogated client was a South Sami ex-shepherd, then working on the Bergen railway (his wife and children had received poor relief when he had gone looking for work). The text may seem to be a neutral and indifferent narrative of Elias Kant’s life as this was told to the policeman, but we will never know if this was the case. The document is the only evidence we have of the interrogation, but it was not signed by Kant. It is not his version, and we will never know how true to Kant’s own story the written text may be.

The second statement (case 2) is dated 27 July 1929. The writer begins by summing up the client’s personal data:

Jakob Andersen Haakholmen, says to be 52 years old, born on Haakholmen in Sund, without work or occupation, without permanent residence, has during the last 7 or 8 years been living in a boat and with this moved from place to place, no one to support, unmarried, without assets, earns a bit by fishing.

The writer then changes his literary style to direct speech, which gives us the impression that he is using the clients own words:

I haven’t lived on Håkholmen … since my father died some 30 years ago. I lived for many years in town. I have lived both in Bergen, Haugesund and Stavanger. How many years I lived in these towns, or how many years in each town, I cannot recall now. I made a living by working at sea, mainly fishing. … Due to lack of money I had to stop living in town. Then I started living in my boat. Even when I have had jobs on land, I have lived in my boat … In the recent years I have not found any work, as nobody wanted me to do anything. I couldn’t cope, so I had to get help from the poor relief. I do not know where my domicile is.

The writer then adds a remark: “Jakob Haakholmen is rather hard of hearing and it is difficult to communicate with him”, which begs at least two questions: how is it possible to refer a conversation with a person using direct speech, when this person is “rather hard of hearing” and difficult to communicate with? And: why has the writer been using direct speech in this case – is it pure coincidence or did the writer make an intended choice? We will never know for sure, of course, but my reading of this text says that Håkholmen probably was a bit “feeble-minded” – if I may use a term of that time.

So we have two very different reports when it comes to literary style and attitude towards the clients; one seemingly objective with a certain respect for the client, and the other one openly biased with contempt for the client. How can these differences be understood?

Reading the traces

A useful framework for analysing these texts may be found in Mikael Bahktin’s approach to reading texts as dialogues. According to Bakhtin, any text is dialogical and the shaping of an utterance always occurs in this context. Any dialogue will have an object – in my examples: the two poor relief clients – and two addressees:

Any utterance always has an addressee (of various sorts, with varying degrees of proximity, concreteness, awareness, and so forth). This is the second party (again not in an arithmetical sense). But in addition to this addressee (the second party), the author of the utterance, with greater or lesser awareness, presupposes a higher superaddressee (third), whose absolutely just responsive understanding is presumed, either in some metaphysical distance or in distant historical time (the loophole addressee). In various ages and with various understandings of the world, this superaddressee and his ideally responsive understanding assume various ideological expressions (God, absolute truth, the court of dispassionate human conscience, the people, the court of history, science, and so forth) (1986:126).

Reading the two domicile reports according to this framework may provide some answers to their dissimilarities. One the one hand, it is obvious that the two policemen’s reports had the same immediate addressee; the Ministry of Church Affairs, on which behalf the interrogations were performed. On the other hand, the 25 years that had elapsed between case 1 and case 2 may have altered the (conscious or unconscious) appearance of the superaddressee; the ideological and cultural opinions about poor relief clients might have changed and thus influenced the authors.

However, there also were significant differences between the objects of dialogue in these cases; one was a railway worker in his thirties, the other an elderly man living in a boat. The two clients represented two social classes, the new working class and the “Lumpfenproletariat”. I don’t think it is far-fetched to assume that the policeman who interviewed Elias Kant at the railway construction site – coming from a small rural community – was impressed by the surroundings and that this inclined him to treat the interrogated with some respect. In the other case, the circumstances were entirely different and the object of dialogue generated no respect, only contempt.

Conclusion and prelude

This paper should be read as a prelude to further research on the reading of client biographies in poor commission domicile files. The answer to the question which forms the basis of all domicile interrogations – who is the investigated? – will always be dependent on several factors: the client, the purpose of the investigation, institutional premises, and the investigator’s personal opinions, all of which will be influenced by general societal and political circumstances. The biographies must be read as parts of a dialogue, in a context where the object, the immediate addressee and the superaddressee have influenced the creation and content of record. Bakhtin’s approach may shed light on Ketelaar’s archivalisation, and uncover the “social and cultural factors” that have influenced the substance of the archived trace.


Bakhtin, M (1986): The Problem oft he Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences: An Experiment in Philosophical Analysis. In: Emerson, C & Holquist, M (ed.): Speech Genres and other Essays. Austin: Univerity of Texas Press

Derrida, J (1996): Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, paperback edition 1998.

Derrida, J (2002): Archive Fever. (A Seminar by Jacques Derrida, Univeristy of Witwatersrand, August 1998). In: Hamilton et al (ed): Refiguring the Archive. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Eivergård, M (2006): Den svenska steriliseringsfrågan. Om makt och arkiv. I: Arkiv demokrati rettferd. Oslo: ABM-skrift 26. ABM-utvikling.

Harris, V (2001): On the Back of a Tiger: Deconstructive Possibilities in «Evidence of Me». I: Archives and Manuscripts vol. 29:1. Sydney: Society of Australian Archivists.

Harris, V (2007): Archives and Justice. Chigaco: Society of American Archivists

Jenkinson, H (2003): Selected Writings. Chicago: Society of American Archivists

Ketelaar, E (1999): Archivalisation and Archiving. In: Archives and Manuscripts vol 26 No 1. Sydney: Society of Australian Archivists.

Ketelaar, E (2001): Tacit Narratives: The Meanings of Archives. In: Archival Science Vol. 1 No. 2 2001. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Mykland, L og Masdalen, K-O (1987): Administrasjonshistorie og arkivkunnskap. Kommunene. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget

Appendix 1

Domicile statement

  1. Information about the supported person
  1. Name
  2. Occupation
  3. Born, when and where
  4. Confirmed
  5. Married, when and where
  6. National citizenship
  7. Residence
  8. Previous poor relief support (when, where and the reason for the need)
  1. Information about the supported person’s parents
  1. Name
  2. Place of birth
  3. Married, when and where
  4. National citizenship
  5. Residence
  1. Information about the supported person’s spouse
  1. Name
  2. Born, when (date) and where
  3. National citizenship
  4. Residence
  1. Information about the supported person’s spouse’s parents
  1. Name
  2. Place of birth
  3. Married, when and where
  4. National citizenship
  5. Residence
  1. The supported person’s children
  1. Legitimate (names, age, residence)
  2. Illegitimate (names, age, residence)
  3. Support to the children (to whom, when and where)
  1. Domicile information
  1. The supported person’s residences after 15 years of age (wandering individuals must be explicitly examined about possible habitation in their original domicile municipality)

(Printed and bound register, Sem & Stenersen publishers)

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