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Rural Norwegian-American Reading Societies in the Late Nineteenth Century
    by Steven J. Keillor (Volume 33: Page 139)

The historian Theodore Blegen once noted Norwegian Americans’ "marked tendency toward the formal organization of activity in every field into clubs, societies, lodges, leagues and lags." {1} The number of Norwegian-American reading societies certainly confirms this "marked tendency." A contemporary chronicler, Martin Ulvestad, reported approximately 300 such reading societies (læseselskaber) in existence in 1901. Only young people’s societies (1600) and women’s societies (1450) were more numerous. {2} Reading societies met a deep cultural need within the Norwegian-American community, especially in rural areas where settlers lacked easy access to books and magazines before Rural Free Delivery and public libraries provided that access in the first decade of the twentieth century. Many rural Norwegian Americans banded together to secure books and periodicals jointly — in the form of large lending libraries purchased and operated by self-governing societies of dues-paying members.

The records of the reading societies are a rich and relatively untapped source of information on nineteenth-century Norwegian-American life. {3} Here the Norwegian-American settlers can be observed as they organized a society, drew up a constitution and bylaws, laid down qualifications for membership, wrote articles for a journal, discussed or debated [140] important questions at periodic meetings, made book-buying decisions, borrowed the books they wanted to read — not necessarily what the minister or the schoolteacher thought should be read — and eventually decided to dissolve the organization when its usefulness ended. In all these activities, the settlers revealed much about the social and cultural needs of rural Norwegian-American communities.

A reading society (læseselskab or læseforening) was somewhat different from two related organizations, debating societies (debatforeninger) and lending libraries (folkebiblioteker, folkebogsamlinger or lejebiblioteker). The major difference between a lending library and a reading society was that the reading society met periodically for discussion and for self-government, whereas the lending library did not hold periodic meetings. The "church library" in northeastern Iowa described by H. F. Swansen apparently held no meetings for discussion and very few for governing purposes. {4} In a formal manner, a debating society discussed specific questions posed to the members, but some reading societies also scheduled such "debates." The essential difference was that a reading society’s activities centered on buying, owning, and lending books, whereas a debating society could conduct debates without any reference to books (though its members might privately own these). A reading society could come to take on other functions and was limited only by its members’ sense of the possible or appropriate; lending libraries and debating societies tended to be limited to those functions alone.

A rural reading society also differed from a literary society, which met to hear literary works or members’ papers read aloud, but presumed that its members had private libraries or access to public ones, and, thus, did not acquire books for their use. There tended to be a class difference between the two types of organizations: the literary society supplied the luxury of cultured entertainment and conversation to the middle and upper-middle classes; the reading society met the basic need for books and periodicals among the lower and lower-middle classes as well. {5}

Because they appealed to a broad segment of the [141] Norwegian-American population, held periodic meetings where discussions and decisions were recorded in regular minutes, compiled book lists which indicate reading preferences, and, most importantly, reflected local initiative rather than prodding from regional or national leaders — the rural reading societies provide unique insights into nineteenth-century Norwegian America. Fortunately, though most have been lost, records of the following societies (foreninger) have been preserved:

Holmes City Læseforening, Holmes City, Minnesota
Norsk Læse- og Samtaleforening, Silvana, Washington
Fremad Forening, White Bear Centre, Minnesota
Norden Læseforening, Glenwood, Minnesota

From these records, a composite sketch of the organizational life of a Norwegian-American rural reading society can be drawn. {6}

All these groups were located in areas heavily populated by Norwegian-American immigrants and all were organizationally embedded in church-centered, Norwegian Lutheran communities. Unlike the parish libraries (sognebiblioteker) in nineteenth-century Norway, however, most of them did not have a formal connection to the local church, its governing board, or its pastor. {7} Informal connections to the Lutheran church varied from group to group. Apart from occasionally holding its meetings at the local Lutheran church, the Silvana society appears to have had no such connections. Its original constitution said nothing about religion; its revised constitution stated, "the society is not a religious society." There were no religious requirements for membership. A local Lutheran minister belonged, but he apparently did not have a leadership role in the organization. {8} By contrast, the Holmes City constitution originally excluded those who "denied faith in the Holy Scriptures as God’s Word"; a later revision limited membership to those who professed the Christian faith. For a time, the pastor purchased the new books. {9} Between these two extremes, Fremad’s bylaws and constitution forbade discussion of "religious questions" at its meetings. However, it [142] frequently met at the Indherred Lutheran church; its lending library was kept at a farm located across the road from the church; the church’s first teacher was a Fremad leader; and many Fremad members also belonged to the Indherred congregation. In 1873 the society lent money to the congregation for improvements to the church. {10} In 1876 a committee of three Fremad members was chosen to "consult with Pastor Koefod about which books would be most useful to purchase." {11}

Thus, the Lutheran church did not start rural reading societies for religious purposes, nor did the state for educational purposes. Rural people themselves created these voluntary associations — in Silvana, "out of a desire for further progress and from a lack of opportunity for profitable use of idle time." The Silvana group’s formal purpose was "through the purchase and reading of good books together with conversation, to use the idle hours for cultural development." Fremad’s purpose was "to advance knowledge and education among the society’s members, and as much as possible to seek to maintain harmony and unity both inside and outside the society, and to help and support each other by word and deed." {12}

Each group was organized in an orderly and legal manner, with a constitution and bylaws that established rules for membership, election of officers, voting, quorum, operation of the lending library, payment of dues, conduct of meetings, and rules for amending the constitution or bylaws. The following table presents the rules for three societies. {13}

What the bylaws ordered did not always occur. Though membership in the Silvana society was open to women, no women’s names can be identified from the membership lists or the minutes. Although Fremad long denied women the right to vote and to speak, women attended their meetings; the minutes for December, 1873, report the president’s satisfaction "at seeing so many gathered of both sexes." About 1903, Fremad granted speaking rights to single women, and, apparently, full membership rights to widows of Fremad members. Despite the limits on women’s membership rights, almost [143]

forty percent of the members of the Holmes City group were women. {14} Reading societies did not necessarily meet as often as the bylaws stipulated. Though their rules called for monthly meetings, Fremad soon stopped meeting during the busy summer and harvest periods. Finally, in 1883, the constitution was amended to call for only two meetings a year. Apart from an annual July 4th celebration, the Silvana society did not meet in the summer or early fall. {15} Haying and harvesting took precedence over reading and talking.

The rules said little about what was to be discussed or done at each meeting. The Silvana constitution referred to a book exchange at each meeting; the minutes verify that this customarily took place. {16} Functioning also as a debating society, the Silvana group often announced a discussion topic for the next meeting, and then held a formal discussion on that topic. The following subjects were discussed in the society’s first two years: [144]

1) "What is the best occupation for a newcomer in America?"
2) "What is a Norwegian American’s relationship to Norway and things Norwegian? to America and things American?"
3) "What are the consequences of drunkenness and the best ways to oppose it?"
4) "How should our journal ‘Tolken’ be edited and has it been edited properly?"
5) "Is it beneficial that we imitate the Americans around us?"
6) "Should women be given the vote?"
7) "Should voting rights be given only to the educated?" {17}

By contrast, Fremad adopted no formal agenda and its meetings were open to almost any topic that the members wanted to bring up. The secretary noted the following for the 7 November, 1875, meeting: "after everyone had had a good lunch, the meeting was opened, but then everyone began to speak about this and that, so that there wasn’t anything to write down, and after an hour everyone began to go home again without either adjourning the meeting or deciding where the next one should be held." {18}

Despite some idiosyncrasies, these reading societies shared certain common characteristics. Three of them attempted to produce a monthly journal made up of handwritten articles submitted by members: the Silvana society journal was called "Tolken" (The Interpreter); Fremad’s was named "Nybyggeren" (The Settler); Norden’s was "Nordlyset" (Northern Lights). In the latter two cases, this effort was apparently short-lived. Of these journals, only one year of "Nordlyset" has been preserved. {19}

All of these societies generally conducted their meetings in the Norwegian language. Fremad’s bylaws, for example, provided that "all debates are to be conducted in the Scandinavian language and partly in English." Some members desired to use English, for at the December, 1870, meeting it was [145] decided to conduct the January meeting in English. However, the experiment was not repeated: "because many absented themselves, it was proposed and accepted that discussions be conducted in the Norwegian language." Many Fremad members felt strongly about continuing to use Norwegian. In June, 1900, Fremad protested when the White Bear Lake Insurance Company, which had been started "in the Norwegian language" by Fremad members, proposed to use English instead of Norwegian at its meetings. {20} Because they conducted their business in Norwegian and ordered primarily Norwegian-language books, these rural reading societies indirectly furthered cultural preservation, though this was not their explicit purpose.

Apart from their common use of Norwegian and the shared functions of a reading society, each group could develop its own unique character, since each was a voluntary association organized by local initiative according to whatever rules seemed locally appropriate. That was unlike the situation in Norway, where laws were passed in 1876 and 1886 prescribing the form for the government-initiated folkeboksamlinger (people’s libraries). For example, under the law of 1876 the local minister had to be president of the board of directors of the community’s library. {21} In America, of course, the state paid no attention to the cultural needs of rural Norwegian Americans; they were free to find their own solutions and to elect their own officers.

Norwegian-American settlers near White Bear Centre, Minnesota, immediately after the Civil War, seemed to realize that they would have to provide for their cultural needs themselves. White Bear Centre was a small crossroads community in northern Pope county, some three miles north of the small village of Starbuck. A church and a rural school provided the main excuses for farmers to gather there and for the crossroads site to bear a name. It was not surveyed until 1866 and the first wagon trains of Norwegian settlers did not arrive until October, 1868, just a little over a year before the Fremad reading society was formed in March, 1870. {22}

Fremad was a pioneer reading society, organized when [146] the settlement was still at a primitive stage, in a community so small as to have no other institutions except a congregation, a township board, and perhaps a school board. For these reasons, Fremad became an all-purpose farmers’ club that met many needs in addition to the need for a book collection. Perhaps inspired by the American Grange movement, it became in effect a Norwegian-American Grange in its early years of existence. {23} It purchased a memorial plaque for a deceased member, functioned for a time as a singing society, asked the township board to buy poison for the farmers to use to kill blackbirds, encouraged local farmers to grow sugar beets, campaigned for a candidate for county commissioner, and started a farmers’ mutual insurance company, the White Bear Lake Insurance Company. In March, 1874, in response to wheat marketing problems or complaints, it ordered its corresponding secretary to ascertain whether "the railroad company will let us send our wheat direct to Chicago," and "how great a commission traders in Chicago demand for selling our wheat." {24} As a farmers’ club, Fremad unanimously adopted a resolution that "the library not be moved to any incorporated city or village." {25}

In many of these instances, it is impossible to verify that Fremad or its officers followed through and took the agreed-upon action; however, discussion of these issues illustrates the wide-ranging agenda at Fremad meetings.

Fremad’s role as a substitute for the Grange was explicitly advocated in November, 1873, when the Wollan brothers, owners of a hardware store and Fremad members, proposed that the reading society’s members form a joint stock company (axi-selskab) together with them, to replace their sole proprietorship in the store. Michael A. Wollan pointed out the advantages of such an arrangement and "how impossible it would be to come to such an agreement if they organized into a so-called ‘Grange,’ which would be a terrible mistake in itself besides." The members approved the plan, and the Fremad Association eventually became the largest retail establishment in the nearby town of Glenwood. {26} Clearly, it was almost impossible to limit a farmers’ reading society to a [147] book-buying agenda. Given the informality of rural life, topics of compelling current interest were sure to be discussed whatever the formal purpose of the organization.

The Silvana society, on the other hand, was not a farmers’ club. It was formed in 1884 in northern Snohomish county, Washington, an area heavily populated by Scandinavian immigrants. Stanwood was the largest Scandinavian community in the state of Washington, and Norwegian Americans soon developed a rich organizational life in this area. Around 1900, a contemporary chronicler contrasted the Stanwood area with Scandinavian-American settlements in the Middle West: "Here is more life, more freedom, and English the prevailing language, especially among the younger folks." {27}

While this last generalization appears too sweeping, the early settlers in this area do seem to have been less tied into the institutional network of Norwegian-American Lutheranism. An adventuresome group, many had come from established Norwegian-American communities on the Great Plains, and, by coming, had passed far beyond what was then the frontier of Norwegian-American settlement. The first Norwegian Americans came to the Stanwood-Silvana area in 1876, and several of these first settlers were prominent members of the Silvana reading society when it was formed eight years later. {28} In a 1937 letter to the Norwegian-American Historical Association, the donor of the Silvana society’s records claimed that the Silvana members were much less dependent on the cultural leadership of the Lutheran church than was the custom in Norwegian America. He asserted that "it was the folk [high] school spirit, which later has had so great an influence in Norwegian cultural life, that set its stamp on the first members of this society." In particular, he cited the society’s first president, Nils Bruseth, "who had attended a folk school in Denmark." {29}

Though the opinion of a donor writing forty years after the society disbanded might be distrusted, the type of books purchased and the subjects of the debates held by the society confirm his judgment. This was not a society formed to purchase light fiction with which its members could while away [148] the long winter evenings. It was a serious society dedicated to the cultural enlightenment and moral uplift associated with the folk high school movement among the rural classes in Scandinavia. The charter members first chose the name "De unges forbund" (The young people’s society), presumably after Henrik Ibsen’s political-satirical play of the same name, written in 1869. A year later, the name was changed to the more descriptive "Norsk læse- og samtaleforening" (Norwegian Reading and Conversation Society). {30} A Grundtvigian character is discernible in an anti-pietistical discussion over the causes of natteløberiet, or night courting, among Norwegian peasants, and in the selection of many books that were popular in folk high school and Grundtvigian circles. {31} The Silvana society also drew members from a wider geographic area — and more distinguished members — than did the normal rural reading society.

Clearly, in a voluntary association not subject to regulation by church or state, the members determine what the organization will become. Thus, the religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, occupation, and educational background of the members were very significant factors determining the character of reading societies. Of course, the society’s character also determined what type of individuals it would draw as members. The serious, Grundtvigian nature of the Silvana society was probably both a cause and a consequence of the fact that unlike the Minnesota groups it drew members from a wide geographic area and from the leadership class in the communities. Its membership lists include: a banker, several merchants, a territorial legislator, two county commissioners, a county auditor, and a Lutheran minister. It recruited members from the widely-separated communities of Stanwood, Silvana, Norman, and Fir, located in two different counties.

The first officers of the society all came from Nordmøre, a district on Norway’s northwest coast, and seven of the eleven charter members came from the Øksendal area in Nordmøre. {32} Common regional origins may have facilitated the formation of this reading society. Otherwise, there is a wide variation in place of residence and occupation. It may [149] have become impractical, however, for members living at a great distance to make it to the meetings. Four of the five members from Fir, a town located far to the north in Skagit county, later resigned from the society. {33}

By contrast, the members of the Holmes City Læseforening were drawn from a much smaller geographic area and almost exclusively from the farm-owning class. Of the seventeen male members for the years 1877—1878 who can be identified from the 1880 census, ten are listed as farmers, two as farm laborers, two as grocers, one each as minister and blacksmith, and for one the occupation is not listed. Of the ten female members, five are listed as "keeping house," one as a servant, one as a student, and for three the occupation is not listed. Thus, only four of the twenty-seven members can be definitely considered as members of a non-farm household. {34} Examination of the 1886 plat map of Douglas county reveals that as many as nineteen members lived within easy walking or riding distance (four miles) of the church that was the society’s probable meeting site. {35} Instead of a society of community leaders drawn from a wide area, this was a society of ordinary farmers and their wives drawn from a quite limited area. Unlike the Silvana society, it was not an association of male leaders in their thirties and forties, but a neighborhood group including the elderly, farm wives, and teenage boys and girls, as well as young farmers.

A small-town society and an offshoot of the farmer-oriented Fremad society, Norden had a membership that was drawn from the working class and the middle class. The day laborer, the real estate dealer, and the minister belonged; apparently, no women were members. In a town of around 2,000 population, it was possible to restrict membership to men and still have enough members. The following table gives the relevant data for the borrowers — there is no extant membership list for Norden — in the 1899—1902 period who can be identified in the 1900 census lists. {36}

With an average age of forty-six years, Norden members clearly tended to be middle-aged males who had been born in Norway, had come to America in their teens or early [150]

Table II

Borrower Age Born Emigrated at Age Occupation Own/Rent/Board
Jorgan Aal 46 Norway 1865 11 Clerk Owns House
Ole Aasve 76 Norway 1857 33 Milk Sales Owns House
C. Abrahamsen 51 Norway 1870 21 Day Laborer Rents House
Edw. Grottum 35 Norway ? ? Sailor Boards
Halvor Hagen 32 Minnesota Farmer Owns Farm
Leon. Knudson 27 Norway 1891 18 Clerk Boards
Eilert Koefod 35 Norway 1881 16 Real Estate Owns House
H. O. Koefod 54 Norway 1880 34 Minister Owns House
Gustav T. Lee 35 Minnesota Minister Owns House
Peter Melby 40 Norway 1882 22 Carpenter Owns House
Thore Sagvold 42 Norway 1879 19 Stonemason Owns House
Casper Susag 51 Norway 1881 32 Tin Smith Owns House
Ole Susag 41 Norway 1881 22 Carpenter Rents House
Rafael Susag 39 Norway 1882 21 Painter Owns House
Theo. Thorson 43 Minnesota County Sheriff Rents House
Peter Weeg 37 Norway 1883 20 Day Laborer Boards
B. O. Wollan 46 Norway 1867 13 Merchant Owns House
M. A. Wollan 56 Norway 1860 16 Merchant Owns House

twenties — the average age at emigration was twenty-one — had already established themselves in business or a trade, and had purchased a home. Thus, Norden’s membership more closely resembled Silvana’s than Holmes City’s, most likely because of the greater "pool" of potential members to be found in a town. All but four of the above Norden members were married, and all the married members had children living at home.

What is especially interesting is the fact that none of these men left Norway as infants or young children — that is, before receiving some education and the imprint of Norwegian ways. They were either born in Minnesota of Norwegian-born parents, or they came to America during or after their formative years. Also, there were no recent arrivals from Norway; all had been in the United States for at least seventeen years and all had been naturalized. Perhaps these reading societies had difficulty recruiting members among those settlers who had not received some education in Norway, or who had only dim memories of Norway. Some memory of and nostalgia for Norway seems to have been a requisite for joining this rural reading society. A certain maturity also seems to have [151] been a common trait. There is a noticeable absence of men in their late teens or twenties.

The reading society’s journal, consisting of short articles written by the members, is a good source of information on the membership and their viewpoints. Unfortunately, only Norden’s journal, Nordlyset, has survived, and only one year’s issues (1888—1889) at that. Sounding rather dutiful, one member wrote, "Norden’s members were indeed enjoined to write in Nordlyset for the next meeting." And so he wrote a piece, which was in the form of a letter to the editor. These handwritten pieces were then pasted by the editor onto pages of the bound journal. Two subjects predominated: liquor and books. Nordlyset contained several articles expressing varying views on the issues of liquor licenses, saloons, and prohibition. On the issue of books, two articles criticized the book-lending policy or its enforcement, while one expressed outrage over the cost of a bookcase that Norden had decided to purchase, another lamented the large number of inferior books ("daarlig literatur") nowadays, and still another poked fun at moralizing books "that should . . . make me into a model of a moral person." There were also some political pieces, many jokes and anecdotes, a letter and an article from Norway, and at least one poem. It is unclear whether this journal lasted only one year or whether that is all that has been preserved. {37}

More central to a reading society’s existence than a journal, of course, was its book collection. Each society had its own procedure for deciding which books to purchase. During its first five years, Fremad made book-purchasing decisions at its regular monthly meetings. In 1871 it decided to subscribe to the journal For Hjemmet, to accept donated books from its members, and to purchase dime novels, Verdenshistorie, and Holberg’s Komedier. In 1874, it decided to buy a Norwegian as well as an English version of a history of the United States. Purchasing decisions were generally made at the end of the winter period of greatest borrowing. For the next five years, Fremad members appointed a three-man committee or its librarian to select the books to be bought, but their choice was subject to the members’ approval at a regular meeting. {38} In [152] 1885 the three-man committee was given the authority to purchase the books without further approval; for the remaining twenty-two years of Fremad’s existence, the purchase of books was delegated to the committee. This change coincided with the decline of Fremad as a discussion group, the increasing delegation of authority to the officers, and the switch to only two meetings per year. {39} Those chosen to be on the three-man committee exercised the dominant role in book selection, but the committeemen varied from year to year.

What type of books were selected and how did these book collections compare with each other and with similar ones in nineteenth-century Norway?

Book lists are available only for the Norden and Silvana societies, and they show two groups with significantly different collections. In both, books in Dano-Norwegian made up about 77-78 percent of the collection, with English-language books making up almost all of the remaining number. However, Norden members chose primarily works of fiction (53 percent to only 23 percent non-fiction), whereas Silvana members preferred non-fiction (54 percent to only 35 percent fiction). The Dano-Norwegian works in Silvana’s collection were almost entirely written by Danish or Norwegian authors, whereas many of Norden’s books were Dano-Norwegian translations of popular fiction written by "foreign" authors. {40}

The more serious, more idealistic and pan-Scandinavian nature of the Silvana society is clearly reflected in Silvana’s much greater percentage of non-fiction, and of books by Norwegian and Danish, often Grundtvigian, authors. By contrast, Norden owned a great many fictional works written by English, French, Swedish, German, and American authors and translated into Dano-Norwegian. Such popular authors as Captain Marryat, Topelius, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas père, and Bulwer-Lytton are well represented in the Norden collection — in Dano-Norwegian translations. Norden’s Norwegian and Danish works tended to be popular fiction by Carit Etlar (J. C. C. Brosbøll), Constantius Flood, Rollo, [153] C. Georg Starback, and Elise Aubert — rather than the classics of Bjørnson, Kielland, Ibsen, Garborg, or Vinje. Quite the opposite was the case with the Silvana collection, which was dominated by the classics and marked by the total absence of Etlar, Flood, or popular fiction in translation. {41}

The Norden collection represented what culturally-minded Norwegians rightly feared was characteristic of the lending libraries and reading societies in Norway, whereas the Silvana collection represented what serious librarians hoped the people’s libraries would become. Arne Kildal quotes an 1887 report from the Bergen public library: "The mass public’s prevailing interest in mere light reading carries with it the danger that the library could sink down to a lending library’s inferior level and lose its character as an educational and civilizing institution that can demand the support of society and the local government." Norwegian readers preferred the same light fiction, sea stories, and medieval romances that Norden’s members preferred. In Bergen in the early 1 890s, Carit Etlar, H. F. Ewald, James Fenimore Cooper, Captain Marryat, Jonas Lie, and B. S. Ingemann were among the authors most in demand — just as they were among the Norden borrowers in Glenwood, Minnesota, over the twenty-year period 1889--1908. {42}

In Norway, the people’s libraries were governed by the central government’s laws, which meant a paternalistic book selection by the local minister or librarian, a selection of books that would be good for the populace, instead of merely books that would entertain them. The effects of this selection process can be seen in Table III, which compares the book collection of the Trondheim folkebibliotek in 1862 with Norden’s book collection in 1889—1908 (the thirty-year time span between the two collections might very likely be a factor in Norden’s larger collection of fiction, since much was written after 1862). Trondheim’s librarian selected more serious works — religious, historical and scientific — than did Norden’s membership. {43} [154]

Of course, everything that was purchased by the reading societies was not necessarily read by its members. Only a "utilization analysis" (Kermit Westerberg’s term) can determine borrowing patterns. Only the Norden circulation record covers a sufficiently long period to make possible such an analysis. The following table compares the book stock, 319 volumes, with the utilization pattern, 1240 borrowings, in Norden from 1889—1908.

Both English-language books and works of non-fiction were under-utilized in comparison with their numbers in the collection. Conversely, Norden readers preferred fiction and Dano-Norwegian works, and tended to borrow them at a higher rate than would have been predicted based on their proportionate share of the book collection. {44}

The following examples of books borrowed frequently and very infrequently tend to support the generalizations about Norden members and their literary preferences. The following classics of Norwegian literature were very [155] infrequently borrowed in the period 1889—1908 (the number of times each title was borrowed is given in parentheses):

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Kongen (0) and En fallit (1)
Camilla Collett, Sidste blade (0), Erindringer og bekjændelser (2)
Henrik Ibsen, Et dukkehjem (0), Brand (1), and Samfundets støtter (2).

The following books were some of the ones most frequently borrowed:

H. G. Heggtveit, Fra Nordens natur og folkeliv (15)
Zacharias Topelius, Feitlægens historier, Vol. 1 (14)
Erling, Glade sjæle (13)
Captain Mayne Reid, Adela, eller freist af en engel (12).

In addition to these books, several sea stories by Constantius Flood and Captain Marryat show nine or more loans. No Norwegian literary classic was borrowed more than ten times during this twenty-year period. Norden members showed a marked preference for popular fiction in their book borrowing as well as in their book purchasing.

Borrowing patterns can suggest additional characteristics of rural reading societies. An analysis of book borrowing by month for the years 1889—1898 reveals that 69 percent of book borrowing occurred in the three winter months of January, February, and March, while the spring, summer, and early fall saw only 17 percent of the borrowing activity. This confirms Swansen’s observation about the Northeast Iowa church library — that it was patronized "less frequently during the busy months of July, August, September, and October." {45} Norden’s members, however, were not primarily farmers, but small-town merchants, clerks, and tradesmen. That fact makes the winter borrowing pattern that much more striking.

Norden members tended to borrow newly-purchased books. In the years 1903—1905, from 41 percent to 48 percent of the books borrowed in a particular year were books that had been purchased within the past two years. This only confirms the common sense observation that people are most [156] likely to borrow the books that they have not read and that have not been available for them to read before.

Finally, from the 1900 census data on Norden borrowers and the circulation record showing what books individual members chose, it is possible to examine borrowing patterns according to socioeconomic status. Book loans were totaled for the following two typical groups:

What is noticeable here is that lower-class readers were largely confined to books in the Dano-Norwegian language as compared with middle-class readers. The lower-class readers borrowed more fiction. {46} Also, middle-class members were much less likely to read works translated into Dano-Norwegian, primarily popular fiction by such writers as Marryat, Jules Verne, and Bulwer-Lytton. The middle-class members did read popular fiction, but works by Norwegian [157] authors like Flood and Rollo. The classics were not favorites of either socioeconomic group. {47}

Mention of the middle class brings us to the reasons for the decline and end of the rural reading societies. All of the rural reading societies analyzed in this study were dissolved within an eleven-year period from 1897 to 1908: Silvana in 1897, Holmes City in 1905—1906, Fremad in 1907, and Norden in 1908. {48} The Fremad minutes are quite explicit about the reason: "Since hardly any books are now lent out either to members or to non-members, and it thus appears that interest in the library is declining more and more, and that the number of members rather decreases all the time, therefore it is unanimously decided that the Fremad Society is dissolved." {49}

It is possible to speculate on the reasons for dissolution of the neighboring Fremad (White Bear Centre) and Norden (Glenwood) societies. Rural Free Delivery began out of the Starbuck post office to White Bear Centre and other rural areas in October, 1901. Rural Free Delivery greatly increased rural residents’ access to printed materials, though there was a limit of four ounces per package, which would have precluded the shipment of books through the mail. {50} Perhaps more importantly, public discussions began in 1907 about accepting Andrew Carnegie’s terms for a $10,000 grant for construction of a Carnegie library in Glenwood. The terms were accepted. By March, 1907, the State Library Commission had sent 125 books, "including twenty-five books for little readers; twenty-five for boys; fifty for adults; and twenty-five in the Norwegian language." The new library was opened in early August, 1908, two months after the last book loan recorded in the Norden circulation records. On September 3, 1908, the Glenwood Herald printed the long list of Norden books that had been donated to the library. {51} Norden was dissolved.

Clearly, the availability of a public library eliminated the most essential function of a rural reading society — providing a lending library for its members. This was the primary purpose for which rural Norwegian Americans built their reading societies, not such relative luxuries as cultured conversation, [158] public readings, or even member-written journals. These societies could not survive the loss of this function.

Some authors, like Jon Gjerde in From Peasants to Farmers, have suggested that culture and reading became primarily feminine pursuits in rural immigrant communities in the early twentieth century. {52} He demonstrates a process of "bourgeoisification" whereby women took on the responsibility for cultural and literary matters and rural males increasingly withdrew from these realms. This process may have been one reason why the male-dominated Norden and Fremad societies were unable to attract new members among younger males in the first decade of the twentieth century.

What is certain is that Rural Free Delivery, the later addition of parcel post service, and the construction of public libraries in the small towns all spelled the end of rural Norwegian-American reading societies. Before their demise, these reading societies fulfilled the cultural needs of rural residents — as defined by them and not by church or state. Primarily, they were not self-conscious attempts to preserve Norwegian culture and language in America, but attempts to obtain diverting, entertaining books for farmers and their families to read during the winter months. They were malleable institutions that conformed to their members’ local needs and desires. When their members no longer needed them and the books they provided, no extended battles occurred to save them. They were simply dissolved.


<1> Theodore C. Blegen, Norwegian Migration to America: The American Transition (Northfield, Minnesota, 1940), 577.

<2> Martin Ulvestad, Norge i Amerika med Kart (Minneapolis, 1901), 623—624.

<3> No previous study focuses precisely on Norwegian-American rural reading societies. Odd S. Lovoll includes a brief treatment of them in his The Promise of America: A History of the Norwegian-American People (Minneapolis, 1984), 138. For Swedish-American reading societies, see Kermit B. Westerberg, "Books and Reading in a Swedish-American Immigrant Community" [159] (M.A. Thesis, University of Minnesota, 1977). For reading patterns in Norway, see Johannes A. Dale, Litteratur og lesing omkring 1890 (Oslo, 1974).

<4> H. F. Swansen, "A Pioneer Church Library," in Norwegian-American Studies and Records, 11(1940), 59-60. Swansen does not indicate the existence of a minute book, but cites only the congregational minute book for organizational details.

<5> The Ygdrasil Literary Society and its women’s auxiliary, the Gudrid Reading Circle, of Madison, Wisconsin, are good examples of literary societies. See Harald S. Naess, "Ygdrasil Literary Society 1896—1971," in Brita Seyersted, ed., Americana Norvegica: Norwegian Contributions to American Studies Dedicated to Sigmund Skard, 4 (Oslo, 1973), 32—33, 39—42.

<6> Lyngblomsten (later Aftenro) Society in Duluth, Minnesota, was not rural nor exactly a reading society, but its minutes will be used for purposes of comparison. The Holmes City and Silvana records are in the archival collection of the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota; the Fremad and Norden materials are at the Pope County Historical Society (PCHS) Museum in Glenwood, Minnesota; the Lyngblomsten records are at the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), Duluth, Minnesota.

<7> Swansen, in "A Pioneer Church Library," 58—60, 62, describes a parish library in Iowa whose book collection was purchased by the pastor, formally acquired by vote of the congregation, and loaned out only to the congregation’s members, who paid an additional fee for membership in the library.

<8> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book 1884—1895, i, 2—4, 27, NAHA; Ulvestad, Norsk-amerikaneren. Vikingesaga samt pioneerhistorie, statistik og biografiske oplysninger om nordmænd i Amerika (Seattle, 1928), 269—270.

<9> Holmes City Læseforening, Records, 1877—1905, 24—26, and handwritten constitution, Rule #4, NAHA. Reverend Christian Saugstad, a Lutheran minister, was one of its charter members.

<10> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 13, 16, 34, 35, 112—113, Pope County Historical Society (PCHS) Museum; "Indherred Menigheds Historie 1870—1920," 8—9, 15, PCHS Museum; Indherred Lutheran Church, "90th Anniversary 1870—1960," PCHS Museum. The teacher, and Fremad’s librarian, was Syver Johanneson Hatle. A list of the members of the Indherred congregation during its first fifty years is given in "The Secretary’s Record of the First 50 Years of the Indherred Congregation, Pope County, Minnesota," 43—44, PCHS Museum.

<11> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 61. Since the constitution, bylaws, and minutes of the Norden group have not been preserved, it is impossible to ascertain that society’s relationship to the local Lutheran church.

<12> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book, 1, 2; "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 13, 16. [160]

<13> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book, 2—4; Holmes City Læseforening, handwritten constitution; "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 13—19.

<14> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, "Foreningen ‘De unge forbunds’ regnskaber over kassen og bibliothekar," i. 2, NAHA; "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 19, 37, 146; Holmes City Læseforening, Record, 3. However, the December, 1873, meeting of Fremad was an especially important one at which the formation of a joint stock company was discussed; it may have been uncommon for so many women to be present at a normal meeting.

<15> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 16; Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book, 11.

<16> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book, 11, 12, 26—2 7.

<17> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book.

<18> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 60.

<19> Norsklæse- og samtaleforening, 1884—1895,6, 12, 13—14; "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 47; Norden, "Nordlyset," PCHS Museum.

<20> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 8,9, 13, 142.

<21> Dale, Litteratur og lesing omkring 1890, 155.

<22> Starbuck Times, November 21, 1968, clipping in PCHS Museum, Glenwood; "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 1—2.

<23> Strongest in the early 1 870s, the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange, actively promoted the social, educational, and economic improvement of the American farmer, but it appealed primarily to old-stock Americans and had only limited appeal to the immigrant farmer.

<24> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 26, 3 1—32, 36, 40.

<25> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 139.

<26> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 35—37; Glenwood Herald, January 1, 1897, clipping and typescript copy in PCHS Museum.

<27> Thomas Ostenson Stine, Scandinavians on the Pacific, Puget Sound (Seattle, 1900?), 140. For further information on this region, see Kristina Veirs, ed., Nordic Heritage Northwest (Seattle, 1982); and Jorgen Dahlie, A Social History of Scandinavian Immigration, Washington State, 1895—1910 (New York, 1980). In January, 1891, Stanwood-area Scandinavian Americans strongly protested when it was decided that the Norwegian-American Pacific Lutheran University would not be located in the Stanwood area. In 1910, Snohomish county had the second highest percentage of Scandinavians among the counties in Washington; sixteen percent of its residents were so categorized in the 1910 census. See Kenneth O. Bjork, West of the Great Divide: Norwegian Migration to the Pacific Coast, 1847—1893 (Northfield, 1958), 528—535; and Dahlie, Social History, 42—43.

<28> Ulvestad, Norsk-Amerikaneren, 266—267, 27 1—272. Two pioneers who belonged to the Silvana society were O. B. Iverson and N. P. Leque. See Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, "Foreningen ‘De unges forbunds’ regnskaber over kassen og bibliothekar," i, 2.

<29> Andrew Fjaerli to Norwegian—American Historical Association, [161] April 1, 1937, filed with Norsk læse- og samtaleforening Records, NAHA. Fjaerli states, "What is peculiar to this society is that at that time and under the then-existing conditions, it was organized without any real affiliation to the church."

<30> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book, 1, 19. For an analysis of Ibsen’s play, see Edvard Beyer, Fra Ibsen til Garborg, vol. 3 of Norges litteratur historie (Oslo, 1975), 281—283; and Brian W. Downs, Modern Norwegian Literature 1860—1918 (Cambridge, England, 1966), 57.

<31> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, Record Book, 16—18. N. F. S. Grundtvig was a nineteenth-century Danish clergyman, a prolific author and hymn writer, and a leader in the movement to establish folk high schools for the education of the farming class. By the 1890s, the Grundtvigian movement had diverged from the more pietistic Inner Mission movement. Silvana’s members argued that the pietists’ gloomy view of life pushed Norwegian youth toward anti-pietism and toward sexual promiscuity in their night courting activities.

<32> For biographical data on these Silvana members, see Ulvestad, Nordmaendene i Amerika, 418, 521, 603—605, 627, 761, 863, 948; Ulvestad, Norge i Amerika, 199, 378, 468, 485; Ulvestad, Norsk-amerikaneren, 266—272; Stine, Scandinavians, 142—143, 148—149, 156, 158, 167, 183, 189—190.

<33> Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, "Foreningen ‘De unges forbunds’ regnskaber over kassen og bibliothekar," i, 2.

<34> 1880 United States Census, microfilm copy, Reel 618, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

<35> Plat Book of Douglas County — 1886, 27, microfilm copy, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

<36> 1900 United States Census, microfilm copy, Reel 782, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul. This microfilm copy is illegible toward the bottom of each page, so that it was not possible to locate all of the borrowers. All except Halvor Hagen resided in the Glenwood Village census district.

<37> "Nordlyset," 1898—1899.

<38> "Protokol for ‘Fremad.’"

<39> "Protokol for ‘Fremad. "The committee for 1878 also seems to have purchased books without formal approval of the society. See "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 73.

<40> The book lists are found in Norsk læse- og samtaleforening, "Foreningen ‘De unges forbunds’ regnskaber over kassen og bibliothekar," 21—24; and "Kattalog for Nordens Bibliothek," booklet mistakenly identified as belonging to Fremad Association, PCHS Museum, Glenwood. Information on individual books has been taken from the following sources: Norsk bogfortegnelse, Dansk ogfortegnelse, Norsk biografisk leksikon, Dansk hiografisk leksikon, and Skandinaven Boghandels Katalog 1898, 1902, and 1908. In addition, some titles were looked up in the LUMINA system at Wilson Library, University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, and classified as to [162] language, type of book, and author’s nationality according to the classification in LUMINA. It was not possible to identify 100 percent of the books as to language, type of book, and author’s nationality; therefore, the percentages should not be regarded as exact figures.

<41> Both the Norden collection and the Silvana collection resembled in some ways the collection of the Swedish-American Vega Literary Society of St. Paul. Of the latter, Kermit Westerberg observed, "it is 19th century fiction in the Swedish language, then, which is the mainstay of the Library’s bookstock (roughly 80%)." About 75% of the fiction was "of direct Swedish authorship" and only about 25% was Swedish translations of foreign authors. Norden and Silvana both show the same paucity of works by Norwegian-American authors as the Vega society does of Swedish-American works (only 7 titles). Westerberg, "Books and Reading in a Swedish-American Immigrant Community," 51—53, 58, 61—62.

<42> Arne Kildal, Norske folkeboksamlinger fra leseselskapets tid til bibliotekreformen av 1902 (Oslo, 1949), 195—199; Beyer, Fra Ibsen til Garborg, 82—84; Dale, Litteratur og lesing, 144—158, 161—162.

<43> Kildal, Folkeboksamlinger, 57, 88; Dale, Litteratur og lesing, 155—156. The Trondheim data is from Kildal, Folkeboksamlinger, 178.

<44> The source for Tables IV and V, and for the next paragraphs, is the Norden circulation record and book list, in the PCHS Museum. Both are incorrectly labeled by curators as the property of the Fremad society, though the book list has the following notation on the back cover— "Kattalog for Nordens Bibliothek" — and the circulation record has a shorter book list with the heading "Fortegnelse over Bøger i Norden Bibliothek." In addition, a clipping from the Glenwood Herald, March 22, 1907, at the Glenwood Public Library, lists the books "Donated by Norden Library" to the public library. This list is in the same order as the longer book list. Both items are clearly the property of Norden. The circulation record covers the period December 1883-June 1908. It gives the book number, the date the book was checked out, the borrower’s name, and the date the book was returned. The book numbers on the first pages, however, appear to refer to the shorter book list. The book numbers for the years 1889—1908 in the circulation book, however, correspond to the book numbers in the longer book list. The main evidence for this is the fact that books #193—205 are not checked out before 1890, books #205—212 before 1891, books #213—231 before 1893. In other words, successive blocs of books on the longer book list are checked out for the first time in successive years in the circulation record. Also, books of obviously low potential popularity (for example, Diseases of Cattle, Statistics of Minnesota, Report of the Commissioner) are indeed checked out infrequently, whereas books of high potential popularity, such as Ingemann’s Valdemar Seier, are checked out frequently. Johannes Dale, in Litteratur og lesing, 162, reports the following figures for loans from Bergen’s [163] kommunebibliotek, probably for the year 1891; Fiction — 69%, Non-Fiction — 23%.

<45> Swansen, "A Pioneer Church Library," 63.

<46> The difference is partly due to a large number of borrowings of the periodical For Hjemmet ("et Tidsskrift for nyttig og underholdende læsning," a journal for useful and entertaining reading) by one middle-class individual. This periodical probably contained both fiction and non-fiction pieces, and is not counted in either category in Table V. For information on For Hjemmet, see Ulvestad, Nordmaendene i Amerika, 435.

<47> For purposes of Table V, "classics" are defined as those Norwegian works mentioned in Norges litteratur historie, volumes 2 and 3, plus the works of B. S. Ingemann, and recognizable English-language classics such as Dickens’ novels.

<48> Andrew Fjaerli to NAHA, April 1, 1937, Norsk læse- og samtaleforening Records, NAHA; Holmes City Læseforening, Records, 32; "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’ " 151—152; Norden circulation record, 73; Glenwood Herald, September 3, 1908, clipping in Glenwood Public Library.

<49> "Protokol for ‘Fremad,’" 151—152.

<50> Starbuck Times, October 4, 1951, clipping in Starbuck Post Office file at PCHS Museum, Glenwood.

<51> Glenwood Herald, February 8 and March 15, 1907, and August 7, 1908, clippings in Glenwood Public Library file in PCHS Museum, Glenwood; James Bertram to W. F. Dougherty, May 2, 1907, and R. A. Franks to W. Dougherty, May 31, 1907, both in Glenwood Public Library; Glenwood Herald, September 3, 1908, clipping in Glenwood Public Library.

<52> Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (New York, 1985).

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