When you get into Norwegian genealogy, it does not take long before you come across the word “Bygdebok” or plural “Bygdebøker”. In international genealogy forums I have even seen the “Norwenglish” word “Bygdebook(s)” be used.
Helped by various sources, I will try to give an explanation to what the “bygdebok” is, what we can expect to find in them and things we need to be aware of when buying/borrowing and using these books. In this article I will use the word Bygdebok (pl. Bygdebøker).
Bygdebøker is a very diverse genre. I am trying to cover all bases, so I hope you will stick with me to the end.
There may be many different ways to title bygdebøker; “Bygdebok for X” e.g. “Bygdebok for Lesja”, “Soga om X” e.g. “Soga om Gloppen og Breim” or simply “X-boka” e.g. “Hitraboka”. There are also many other ways to title these books, but to all intents and purposes they are what we call bygdebøker. As far as I know there are no Norwegian bygdebøker published in any other language than Norwegian. If you don’t read Norwegian, you may still get some useful information from this article as there is a number of people who owns bygdebøker and volunteers to do look-ups (I am one of them). You can also use online services like Google to translate shorter passages.
Some books are kalled “ættebok” E.g. “Ættebok for Kyrkjebø”. These most often belong in the same genre as bygdebøker. There are, however some books that uses “ættebok” in the title that tells about one specific family.
The first bygdebøker in Norway was written in the early 1900’s. Since then a large number of books have been published (Sandnes 1975:20). I tried to make an estimate as to how many there actually are, but I very soon gave up. No other country can boast such a large catalog of bygdebøker.
What is a bygdebok?
The short explanation is that a bygdebok is a book that present local-historical information about a certain geographical area. In this context I consider “a certain geographical area” to be smaller than a county.
There are no set rules as to how a bygdebok should be organized and what it should contain. There are many different ways this has been done over the years. In general, we divide the books into three categories (Sandnes 1975:24):
- General local history arranged in a chronological order.
- A topical history where different parts cover local topics such as geology, language (dialects), education, church-life, clothing, handcrafts, music etc.
- Farm and family history where the different farms and the people who live(ed) there are presented. This usually covers the people on the farm starting as far back as the sources permits and follows this property, often up until right before the printing of that book.
The town history books are also interesting to the genealogist and they belong in these local historical categories. It is a bit strange though, to call them bygdebøker as the Norwegian word “bygd” refer to a rural area. The town-history books mainly belong in the two first categories. Only two books can be placed in the third category. These are Rørosboka and Kristiansands bebyggelse og befolkning I eldre tider. Both books are published in several volumes (Sandnes 1975:31) My source for this is a bit old, but I have not been able to find other town-history books organized in such a manner.
The “Farm and family books”
As a genealogist you may find interesting information both in the general-, and the topical history books. Initially it is the farm and family history books that are the most exciting to look through. If we are lucky we may find a lot of valuable information about our ancestors. One word of caution though; In some of the older books the people that was not part of the farm family/household(s) might not be included (Dyrvik 1998:149). This means that cotters (husmenn), lodgers (inderster), paupers (legdslemmer), servants/farmhands (tjenere/tjenestejenter/drenger) and others may not be found in the book. In newer books it is usually the intention to include each and every person who has lived in the area the book covers (Kjelland 2015). I will return to this question below as I discuss the quality of the information found in bygdebøker.
For the rest of this article I will focus on the farm and family books. I will continue to refer to them as bygdebok (pl.bygdebøker).
How is the area covered by a bygdebok defined?
This question has been, and still is a problem for the authors. Administrative borders are in some cases just lines drawn on a map. They may not tell much about the communities, in the true meaning of the word. Where did the people go to attend church, to trade or to find spouses? With whom did they socialize? (Sandnes 1994:10)
These questions are still relevant in modern times where the farm has been reduced, and the owner is perhaps just a part-time farmer. Most of the farmland might have been turned into residential areas where the car quickly brings the residents to work, friends and activities in other parts of the municipality or in the nearest town (Fladby 1973:92)
One may ask how much of a problem this really is? If the book is a mere transcription and listing of the sources, it might not have that much relevance. On the other hand, if the author wants to bring the sources to life through thorough discussions about the people’s lives, we can easily see that what area chosen to be covered by the book is highly significant (Fladby 1973:92).
As we study different bygdebøker we see that the problem has been solved in many different ways. Some books list the farm alphabetically based on the name. This means that neighboring farms might end up in different volumes. Some books go by the farmnumber (Gardsnummer) starting with number one in the municipality. This does to a larger extent keep neighboring farms together. Some books are defined by a general idea of a community, like a village or a hamlet and some are defined by a geographical feature as a valley, bay or island.
I have tried to place the different bygdebøker into some very generalized categories based on the size of the area they cover.
There are books that cover
- a district. (Two or more municipalities)
- one municipality (kommune)
- a parish (prestegjeld)
- a sub-parish (sogn)
- smaller areas that cannot be defined within the categories above like a village or hamlet.
Books in any of the categories can be published in one or more volumes. In the larger areas the likelihood for multiple volumes is greater. A book in the last four categories can be either an independent work, or part of a series of volumes belonging to a “higher (bigger area) category”. Books in any of the categories may also be divided into different volumes by period.
Just to trow in some extra confusion we should note that the area the book covers is probably based on the borders as they were at the time the book was printed. These might not be the same as today.
If your ancestors owned their farm (var selveiere) through the centuries, you most likely will find several generations in the same book. If your ancestors were renters (leiglendinger/bykslere) or cotters (husmenn) they might have moved around a bit and, if they are mentioned at all, they, their parents and their children might appear in different volumes
Some time ago someone on an on-line genealogy-forum shared a link to an auction where one volume of “Bygdebok for Nesset” was for sale. I felt obligated to point out that the municipality of Nesset has published 11 volumes of their bygdebok. It would be too bad if someone paid the fairly high asking price and ended up with a book that didn’t mention a word about their ancestors.
What can we find in family and farm books?
I have already suggested that initially it is the farm and family books that might be the most interesting for the genealogist. You find these organized in many different ways.
Earlier I wrote that there are no set rules as to how a bygdebok should be organized. That is the reason why you will find a whole variety of layouts. Even though I am trying to give you a detailed description of what you can expect from bygdebøker, I have to generalize a bit with the farm and family books.
The book may have an introduction to the geographical area. Then follows the farms listed one of many different ways as mentioned above.
There is often an introduction to each farm stating the farmnumber (Gardsnummer, abbr. G.nr.) and the borders of the farm. Sometimes a little bit about the etymology of the farmname. Some books may tell about the natural resources at the farm. There may be information about the taxation of the farm. There might be presented any kind of additional information relating to the farm. This might be a court-case or reference to a natural disaster that hit the farm. Unfortunately, much of the information is often presented in a summarized fashion as the author often don’t have the time and space to put it into a context and make it really interesting. The Norwegian historian Arnfinn Kjelland who has written, and been a consultant, for several bygdebøker describe this as sometimes being a problem due to time-, and budget limits put in place by the producer of the book(s) (Kjelland 2015).
After the introduction of the farm, the sub-divisions (bruk) are listed in numerical order starting with number one (Bruksnummer 1 abbr. Br.nr 1). Here the different people who have lived at the farm is listed.
Can we trust the information we find in bygdebøker?
This is a very difficult question to answer due to the variety of the books. I will give you a few things to consider when you look at a bygdebok.
- There are no formal requirements for people who wants to write a bygdebok. Earlier the work often started as a labor of love by someone interested in local history. Today there are many well-educated historians who writes bygdebøker. If the author is not a historian, the book-project is usually supervised by one. Based on this, one can say that, in general, newer books are better than older ones.
- Even with database software it is a formidable task to keep track of all the people who has lived in the area over the last 400+ years. As I mentioned above; cotters (husmenn), lodgers (inderster), paupers (legdslemmer), servants/farmhands (tjenere/tjenestejenter/drenger) and others may be hard to track as they often moved a lot within the area (Kjelland 2015). Hans Hanson Berg may be the same person who, a couple of years later, is listed as Hans Hanson Dal. If he was a farmhand, he might have changed workplace. (See my article about Norwegian naming). In addition, they often left very few tracks in the archives.
- Many bygdebøker are, in parts, based on information provided by the people in the area (Kjelland 2015). We know how easy it is to get names and dates mixed up.
- I would be very suspicious about books that draws the genealogies much beyond the year 1600 – 1550. Before this the sources were scarse and many of them have questionable quality. If this is a frequent occurrence in the book, it may and may indicate poor quality of the information.
- Bygdebøker are, of course, a transcribed (secondary) source.
Any of the above listed points may introduce errors, and we do, from time to time, find errors in bygdebøker. You should always check the information you find in bygdebøker with a primary source such as church records or other primary sources.
How can you obtain a bygdebok?
Newer bygdebøker can be purchased by contacting the municipality where they are published. Older books can be harder to find. I use to search a chain of antiquarian book stores at http://antikvariat.net. Sometimes books come up for sale at online auctions.
There are a number of larger libraries in the USA that have bygdebøker in their collections. You may check with your local library if they can arrange an inter-library loan.
There are bygdebøker available on-line. Unfortunately, many of them are presented through the National Library’s online collection. These are only accessible for Norwegian IP addresses.
As you can see, the bygdebøker is a highly varied genre. By being detailed in the description, I hope I have been able to prepare you for some of the confusion and frustration that you may experience when trying to find the books you want. As a consolation I can tell you that it is often difficult for us Norwegians too, even we are somewhat prepared for what to expect.
I hope you find this information useful. Don’t hesitate to contact me or comment below if you have questions or comments on this topic. There may be things that should be added or things that needs clarification.
Dyrvik, Ståle: “Demografi og slektshistorie” in Slekt og lokalsamfunn, ed. Harald Winge 148 – 159. Oslo: Norsk lokalhistorisk institutt 1998
Fladby, Rolf: “Behandlingen av de små enheter I bygdesamfunnet” in Lokalhistorie frå gard til tettsted, ed. Rolf Fladby, Steinar Imsen 90 – 98. Oslo Cappelen. 1973
Kjelland, Arnfinn: “Bygdebøker som slektshistoriske kjelder” Online lecture. Slektsgransking SLG121MOOC. Høgskulen i Volda, Fall semester 2015 (My notes)
Sandnes, Jørn: “Håndbok I lokalhistorie – Faget og metodene” Oslo: Universitetsforlaget 1994