I will start this talk by sharing a rather bizarre story with you. It happened in the autumn of 2015, the first year of what has become known as the European refugee crisis, when more than 1, 2 million refugees applied for asylum in European countries. In Finnmark county in northern Norway, there is a border post named Storskog – the only one on the Norwegian/Russian border. And in August 2015, relatively large numbers of refugees started crossing the border at Storskog. Until mid-August, only 112 refugees had come this way, but then, during the next three months, 5.327 refugees arrived. This constitute only about one fourth of the asylum seekers that came to Norway this autumn, but due to the circumstances – the border municipality of Sør-Varanger has 9.500 inhabitants, and the population in the county of Finnmark, which is larger than Denmark, is only 76.000 – the refugee arrivals at Storskog became a top story in the media.

I shall not discuss the societal and political consequences of the asylum crisis; suffice it to say that it has become much more difficult for a refugee to get asylum in Norway, and the conditions for the public discourse around these questions has been changed. My errand is to discuss how this event – the refugee crisis – should be documented in the archival records.

And this is where the bicycles enter the story. Russian legislation does not allow border crossing on foot, so the great majority of the asylum seekers came on bicycles, through the barren and desolate landscape between Nikkel and Storskog, and the images of cycling refugees on their way towards a new life, have stuck in memory, as a symbol of the events this strange autumn.

After the border had been crossed, the bicycles were left behind. And because of Norwegian traffic regulations, which states that bicycles must have brakes on both wheels, most of the bicycles had to be destroyed. More than 3.500 bicycles were sent for recycling.

And then – after we Norwegians had celebrated Yule and the New Year – our government came up with the great idea to send the refugees back where they came from, through Storskog, on bicycles, but as those that had been used coming here had been destroyed, the police across the country had orders to send all lost and found bicycles to Finnmark. Well, this never came to happen, but that is another story …

My questions are:

  • Have the bicycles at Storskog created archival traces? To what extent, and how, did the Finnmark police, as a public body, and the recycling company, as a private business, document the collection, the handover, and the disposal of the bicycles?
  • Will the public records documenting the bicycles be preserved? I presume that disposal of lost and found bicycles are transactions that generally are not considered to have permanent archival value, but this case is rather extraordinary – do the National Archives have procedures that can ensure that records that normally are meant to be destroyed, may be preserved when they bear evidence of such special circumstances?
  • And – last but not least – if the records were created, and preserved, will they be sufficiently contextualised so that future generation may understand why there were so many bicycles lost and  found in Finnmark this autumn – in other words: will this case be highlighted and explained in the archival description?

To me, the images of the bicycles are powerful symbols of this event. But, of course, human beings are more important than bicycles, so what happened to them? The 5.000 that came through Storskog, and the around 17.000 that came by other routes in the autumn of 2015, were registered by the police, and taken care of by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration for health control, accommodation, and little by little, the processing of their asylum applications. The accommodation was a major problem, and a great number of private businesses were contracted by the Immigration authorities to accommodate refugees, and I ask myself what records were created in these mostly provisional centres for asylum seekers, where people lived for one or three or ten or 25 months, before they were sent to another centre, or granted temporary or permanent residence, or sent back to the country they came from, or escaped to another European country to avoid deportation. Were there created records that could tell us anything about the daily life in these centres, and the refugees’ relations with the local communities, etc. These were private records, so their eventual preservation would have been dependent on immediate action from regional or local archival institutions to collect them, but I know of no such initiatives.



When a person has applied for asylum in Norway, she or he will be summoned for an asylum interview. The record that is created during this interview will be crucial for the outcome of the individual person’s case. The immediate context of this record creation is the encounter between an asylum seeker on the one hand, and a representative of the Norwegian state on the other. The questions that are asked, and the answers that are given, will in most cases be filtered through the translation of an interpreter. The immediate purpose of the record is to serve as evidence of an asylum seeker’s background, so a careful recording of the individual’s whereabouts – the construction of a client biography – is necessary.

While early 20th century archival theorists regarded records as impartial evidence of administration, created by “by a natural process” as Jenkinson put it, such assumptions were challenged in the last part of the century. The act of archiving is no longer regarded as an objective process, and certainly not when it comes to client biographies, an archival genre, which main purpose 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?” (Eivergaard 2006). Accordingly, a client biography does not tell the client’s life story from his or her point of view, with her or his own words, but rather the client’s answers to the interrogator’s questions, as they are understood by the interrogator and written down with the interrogator’s words (and in these cases, filtered through the translation of the translator). Thus, when producing client biography, the interrogator and the interrogated are never on equal footing, and the act of archiving should be understood as an exercise of power.

The answers to the question which forms the basis of all client biographies – who is the investigated? – will always be dependent on several factors: the purpose of the investigation, institutional policies and principles, and even the interrogator’s personal opinions, all of which will be influenced by general societal and political circumstances. The records that are produced – the texts that are written – may be better understood using Mikael Bakhtin’s framework for analysing texts. According to Bakhtin (1986), text are always dialogical, and there are three variables contributing to their shaping: the object of the discourse, the immediate addressee and the super-addressee. In the writing of client biographies, the client is the object. The immediate addressee is the administrative unit that will decide what is going to happen to the client. The super-addressee, however, will be the political and institutional framework that governs a certain area of decision-making, Foucault’s “regime of truth”, so to say, and the encounter between the representative of the Directorate of Immigration, and the asylum seeker will an encounter between power and “the other”. The records that are created as result of such encounters are not “natural, organic evidence”, they are constructed, created by the powerful side of these encounters, by officials who transmits political, and organisational, (and sometimes even personal) values and attitudes to the records. Archiving is never a “natural” process; it is a societal process influenced by political and economic power, by bureaucratic, legal, cultural and technological preconditions, and by the record creator’s social position, intentions and purposes. The record creator’s sense of relevance will – to a great extent – decide what kind of information that is written down and archived. Furthermore, the information that is written down and archived will be structured by certain categories that reflect the record creator’s mandate – not only a public body’s formal mandate, but also the current political agenda informing such mandates. Categories are never neutral; consider for example the categories “refugee” and “migrant”, and how these have been and are being used by politicians and the media over the last few years.

In client biographies, categorisations may be powerful conditions for both the outcome of an individual case, and for the historical record, as well. For example, my research on poor commission case files from the 1920s and 30s have revealed how categories such as tramps, vagabonds and travellers were used to signify that an individual was not worthy of poor relief, and that this should be denied him or her. Today, these categorisations serve as apparent historical facts, so the rhetoric of the archive may be very powerful indeed.

Such mechanisms will also be at play when the records documenting the individual asylum seekers are created. Even though the Immigration Directorate’s internal interview guide states the interviewer should “act as objectively as possible during the interview”, the guide makes it very clear that the purpose of the interview is to collect and record any information that may be considered “relevant” for the processing of the asylum applications. Information without such relevance will probably be omitted.

Ok, then; the case files documenting the asylum seekers may be biased, and the information they contain selective, but they are still evidence of the application processes. It should be evident – pun intended – that they have legal value for the individual refugees, and continuing historical value for society at large. According to Statistics Norway, 4,1 % of the population, approximately 217 000 individuals, had “refugee background” – another categorisation – last year, and all these people will probably have their individual case file. As will those who have had their asylum application rejected; I haven‘t been able to find an exact number, but let’s say that at least 150 000 during the last 20 years is a qualified guess. So since 1998 there may have been created more than 350 000 case files documenting refugees and asylum seekers in the Immigration Directorate. And there are Norwegian police registers where name, age, gender, and country of origin of all asylum seekers are recorded.

According to appraisal decisions by the National Archives, the records documenting individuals who have been granted asylum or permanent residence in Norway shall be preserved, as well as the cases where asylum seekers have appealed the rejection and had their cases tried by the Immigration Appeals Board. Records documenting individuals that have been denied asylum, but not appealed, may be kept temporarily by the Immigration Directorate for administrative purposes, and then destroyed. The police registers will also be preserved.

So, in due course, the Immigration Directorate and Immigration Appeals Board will transfer close to 300.000 individual case files – electronic and on paper – to the National Archives. These records will obviously be a rich information source for future researchers, but even more so for the descendants of the refugees; significant fragments of family history may be found in these records.



But fragments, merely fragments. As Derrida described it, the economy of accumulation is always at play:

… the limitation of the archive – the fact that the power, and often the social and political power of the archive, which consists in selecting the traces in memory, in marginalising, censoring, destroying, such and such traces through precisely a selection, a filter, and which, of course, is made possible by, let’s say, the finitude, the limitation, let’s say of human power, of space, the place where to accumulate the archive and so on. And we have a number of such problems today of the economy of accumulation (Derrida 2002, p. 44)

It is, of course, elementary that archival institutions are subject to economies of accumulation; limited space, limited resources, limited staff, these factors entail that most archives will be destroyed, only a chosen few are selected to be preserved for the secular eternity. But then, one of the problems of the economy of accumulation appear: we – the archivists – must decide which records should be preserved, described and disseminated. The past is gone, and the events that once led to the creation of records are irrecoverable, and we can only know past events through the traces that have been selected and preserved as archive. And these archived traces, even though they may be biased, incomplete, untruthful, create windows to the past, but – and I return to Derrida here – “[t]he archivisation produces as much as it records the event” (Derrida 1996, p. 17). The surviving traces create our images of the past. Where there are no traces left, there is no past.

Through the processes of appraisal and selection archivists decide what should be remembered and what should be forgotten. Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz have argued that archival institutions “are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed” (Cook & Schwartz 2002). The “stuff” that is kept in these archives obviously reflects power relations of the past, as they were created by government institutions in their exercise of power, but they are also influenced by the power relations of today, as far as public archival institutions in most countries in practice hold a monopoly on societal documentation. Archival institutions are generally established and funded by the state, or by regional or municipal authorities, and they employ the great majority of the world’s archivists, whose task is it to preserve and make available the archives created by the institutions’ sponsors. Cook and Schwartz’ main errand is to make archivists aware of their own power, make them question how they use this power, and to encourage them to select and make available a more diverse and democratic public record. Their justification for this is that «[m]emory, like history, is rooted in archives. Without archives, memory falters, knowledge of accomplishments fades, pride in a shared past dissipates. Archives counter these losses. Archives contain the evidence of what went before. … Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories» (ibid). And I will add: archives must also remind us of our failures, our mistakes and our wrongdoings.

The European asylum crisis of 2015/16, when approximately 2,6 million refugees applied for asylum in European countries, set loose human behaviour in all its cruelty and beauty. Racist attacks on the one hand, but on the other volunteers travelling to Greek islands to help. Should such acts of hate and love be remembered? How should they be remembered?

The bicycles at Storskog do not exist anymore. They have been recycled (except for a handful that are exhibited at the local museum), but the traces may survive. The photographs, and (hopefully) the police records documenting the collecting and transferring of the bikes to the recycling company. And the asylum seekers’ case files, including their client biographies. Some traces may have been lost; for example the records from the provisional asylum centres.

Other traces were not recorded, the individual, personal stories with no relevance for the asylum processes; for example the young Afghan boys, who arrived in 2015, and lived in asylum centres, went to school, learned to speak Norwegian, played football in the local team, found Norwegian friends, and then, suddenly, maybe with the help of these friends, escaped to avoid expulsion, and today are trying to survive in Paris, or another European city. Their stories may be collected, with some help from their friends, if somebody cares.

The key mission of archival institutions is to provide sources for history. In the current hurly-burly of digital recordkeeping standards and digitisation, it is important to remember that the public records that are created by such standards will represent a selective societal memory that has to be supplemented by other records, created by organisations and individuals that do not use standardised recordkeeping systems, but use whatever apps that are available. One of the good news that has come from the United States during the last few years, is the Documenting the Now-project, which aims at developing tools and community practices that support the ethical collection, use, and preservation of social media content. Are archival institutions ready to use such tools to collect other evidence than what will be found in public records? Are they ready – for example – to initiate a documentation project to create a diverse and comprehensive record of the asylum crisis? It is not too late to do this.



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

Cook, T og Scwartz, J (2002): Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.  Archival Science 1-2, vol 2, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.

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.

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