In the late 19th century, when huddled masses of Swedes began arriving in America in droves, they looked for whatever help and comfort they could find in adjusting to their strange new home. Relatives who preceded them established communities of countrymen, the church.
And for the 1.3 million Swedes who left their homeland for the promise of good farmland in the Midwest or jobs in industrial centers like Chicago, a flourishing Swedish-language press also helped ease that traumatic transition.
Now, an international partnership of the Royal Swedish Library, the American Swedish Institute, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., is leading an effort to digitize some of the more than 600 Swedish-language newspapers that were published in the United States in the 19th century and early 20th centuries.
The project not only will preserve a part of the immigrant story particularly significant to Minnesota, which became the most Swedish of the states, but it also will allow scholars, genealogists and curious descendants to easily access those newspapers for research — eventually including a translatable form.
One of the most popular and successful of those newspapers, Svenska Amerikanska Posten (The Swedish American Post), was published in Minneapolis from 1885 to 1940. Its innovative owner and publisher, Swan Turnblad, bequeathed both the newspaper and his fine mansion on Park Avenue in Minneapolis to the American Swedish Institute, which he founded.
The ASI houses in its collection bound copies of the newspaper’s complete run.
“These newspapers were extremely important to the Swedish-American community,” said Bruce Karstadt, president and CEO of the American Swedish Institute, adding that his organization is excited about the digitization project. “The Swedish-language immigrant press was the largest foreign-language press in America, second only to the German-language press.”
The Swedish-language press, like those of other immigrant communities, not only brought news from the homeland in the native language, but was instructive in the ways of American culture, Karstadt said, from social issues and politics to more practical information like cooking with unfamiliar foods. The press also linked the far-flung immigrant communities across Swedish America, and in some cases helped teach English.
“These were important tools that helped immigrants adapt to their new lives in the United States and become a part of American society,” Karstadt said.
The Minnesota Historical Society has been in the business of digitizing newspapers for nearly a decade, said Jennifer Jones, director of library and collections. Its digitized newspaper collection includes such defunct papers as the St. Paul Globe and Minneapolis Journal, and African-American and Ojibwe-language publications. Collecting and preserving newspapers is part of the society’s mission, mandated by state law requiring all newspapers that publish public notices to archive their publications.
The Royal Swedish Library has completed the digitization of about two dozen Swedish-American newspapers, Jones said. The national library has collected virtually everything printed in the Swedish language since 1661, and had original copies, which are superior to drawing from microfilm in the digitizing process.
The Historical Society, Jones said, is now taking the lead on the final phase of the project: making those images easily accessible.
“Since we have all the background in making that successful, we can build on that,” Jones said. “The real challenge for us is trying to find a way to make something written in Swedish usable for people in the United States.”
Online translation tools vary in quality, and Swedish also has three extra characters: ä, ö and å. But those issues are being resolved.
Another challenge is that, unlike hard copies and even microfilm, ever-evolving technology actually makes preserving important historic artifacts like newspapers and storing them in computers more difficult.
“If you find newspapers in the attic that grandpa left there three generations ago, that’s not really a problem,” Jones said. “But if he left his computer up there for three generations, then you’ve got problems.”
Still, the project that first started in 2008 is heading to completion, and Jones expects the Swedish-language newspapers will go online by late next year.
“We think people are going to be very excited about it,” she said.