Until about 1900, most Norwegians lived in rural areas, where farming was the way of life for hundreds or even thousands of years. They tended to live in solitary homesteads scattered across the landscape, rather than clustered together in villages.
The bygdebøker give information about the people living on the farms in these communities as well as a history of the communities themselves. Rural communities or districts, called bygds, often encompassed numerous farms. Over time, each bygd experienced a unique history. Families, who often lived on farms for many generations, had their own stories. So did the land, as it cycled through seasons of plenty and want. Local history unfolded in each bygd’s churches, schools, courts, and community gatherings.
Gathering the History of Bygds
In the early 1900s, the Norwegian Historical Association began a significant, ongoing effort to document the history of each bygd. They laid the groundwork as local historians began researching the histories of farms and local communities. The writers compiled narratives from parish records, legal records (such as tax, court, or estate documents), and other historical sources as well as from interviews with residents.
The practice of creating bygdebøker remained strong throughout the 20th century. In 1955, Norway’s parliament established a permanent organization to support the ongoing creation of more community histories, which by then also included urban and regional coverage.
Some bygdebøker focus on a general history of a locale. Most bygds have produced multiple volumes—sometimes even annual volumes. Some cover the genealogies of specific families, the histories of individual farms, or updates to the community’s history. They may document how various families are related to each other or divulge some of the dramas and disputes they shared. Many include information on emigrants—people who left for other lands—including their names, destinations, and sometimes even accounts of their lives in North America or other new homelands. Bygdebøker published in recent decades are often more complete and detailed.
Norwegian Family History in Bygdebøker
Family historians who explore Norwegian ancestry consult bygdebøker as key resources. Some bygdebøker chronicle several generations’ worth of genealogical information. Because bygdebøker are compiled sources, their contents should be verified with original records, but they are rich in local history, so these books also provide valuable glimpses into what it was like to live in a particular time and place.
In fact, bygdebøker are so valuable that FamilySearch volunteers in both Norway and the United States have been harvesting genealogical data from them for many years. They are using this information, in combination with other sources, to reconstruct and document many family lines in free community trees. More than 150 community trees have been created, each containing thousands of names.
Those who are building their Norwegian family trees may want to consult copies of bygdebøker. First, you need to determine the name of an ancestor’s community or parish. Then you can look online and in major libraries for copies of bygdebøker for that area. You can also explore Norwegian community trees built by Family History Library experts.