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50 States of Preservation: The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois

August 31, 2017
A display case at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center
Photo caption

A display case at the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College

This feature is part of a series we call “50 States of Preservation,” in which we are touring small and mid-sized museums, libraries, historical societies, and other repositories across the country to show how they are helping to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.  Read other entries in the series here.

For most Americans, the story of Swedish immigration to the United States, if familiar at all, has been shaped over the years by Wilhelm Moberg’s classic novel The Emigrants – and the epic 1971 film it inspired starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow – or perhaps even more so by Garrison Keillor’s satirical portrayals in the radio series A Prairie Home Companion.  The full account, of course, is much more expansive and nuanced.  Preserving and making this history available is the mission of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, located at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center
Photo caption

The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College
Swedish Hospital Nurses' Home (Kansas City, Mo.), undated
Photo caption

Swedish Hospital Nurses' Home
(Kansas City, Mo.), undated

From collection: Augustana Book Concern
(Rock Island, Ill.) photographs - See more at: http://augustana.pastperfectonline.com/photo/
FAF85A01-9649-4792-AF29-400932125472#sthash.ms9AAiyw.dpuf

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College

The center was founded by Birger and Lyal Swenson on December 31, 1980. Birger Swenson emigrated from Sweden at the age of 17 and graduated from Augustana, one of several colleges established by Swedish immigrants in America.  The Swensons were part of a mass migration of some 1.3 million people from Sweden to the United States from roughly 1840 to 1925, an exodus driven largely by economic hardship at home and the prospect of a better life in a new, expanding nation. The largest initial settlements emerged in the Midwest, in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.  This pattern broadened to coastal and urban areas as industrialization became increasingly prevalent in the American economy by the late 1800s.  While Swedish newcomers proved more likely to stay in the United States than immigrants from most other parts of the world, nearly one in five ultimately did return home.

Arthur Helge Swan waving hat.
Photo caption

Arthur Helge Swan waving hat. Photograph of Arthur Swan aboard the boat to England December 8, 1909. He is standing on the deck waving his hat as he departs from New York.

From collection: Arthur Helge Swan papers - See more at: http://augustana.pastperfectonline.com/photo/
CBF2C839-D66B-44CE-8B7D-322256634564#sthash.BsgoauVM.dpuf

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College
Group Photograph from Bookbindery at the Augustana Book Concern, 1910s
Photo caption

Group Photograph from Bookbindery at the Augustana Book Concern, 1910s 

From collection: Gustaf Adolf Magnusson photographs (Augustana Book Concern), 1905-1960s - See more at: http://augustana.pastperfectonline.com/photo
/4C5204BF-0371-43ED-9BD9-862097074747#sthash.a6fJi03g.dpuf

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College

The Swenson Center documents these demographic developments and much more, through diaries, letters, photographs, publications, memorabilia, and organizational records produced by Swedish immigrants and their descendants.  Included are more than 20,000 books, 800 linear feet of personal papers and records, and large numbers of newspapers and serials, many of them short-lived and scarcely available.  The materials chronicle the efforts of Swedish communities throughout North America to sustain their cultural traditions while forging a new identity in a new land.

Augustana Book Concern truck, late 1920s
Photo caption

Augustana Book Concern truck, late 1920s

From collection: Gustaf Adolf Magnusson photographs (Augustana Book Concern), 1905-1960s - See more at: http://augustana.pastperfectonline.com/photo/
E49DAF66-5202-424C-80BB-001710513613
#sthash.p0dUameI.dpuf

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College
The photograph most likely shows the Centennial Parade.
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The photograph most likely shows the Centennial Parade. Driving down the middle of the street are many dark colored cars, presumably carrying Prince Bertil of Sweden and the Official Swedish Delegation along with members of the Swedish Pioneer Centennial Committees. Standing on the side of the street and on top of buildings are women, men and children. 

From collection: Allan Kastrup collection. The Swedish American News Exchange.  http://augustana.pastperfectonline.com/photo/
CECFAF0C-C99A-4665-8410-959876379259#sthash.1Oq9cV3n.dpuf

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College

Although the bulk of Swedish immigration occurred well over a century ago, few archival repositories have devoted their mission to documenting this experience.  Among them, the Swenson Center has been a leading force in ensuring that this gap is successfully filled.  Highlights of the collection include the records of Upsala College (234 linear feet), established by Swedish immigrants in East Orange, New Jersey in 1893 and closed in 1995.  The records underscore the importance placed upon higher education in the Swedish immigrant community – Augustana itself being another example – and the challenges of sustaining such community-based institutions in difficult economic times.

Official Swedish Delegation traveling by Zephyr from Minneapolis to Chicago.
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This photograph shows the Official Swedish Delegation traveling by Zephyr from Minneapolis to Chicago. This is possibly the Twin Cities Zephyr. Those photographed from left to right: Olof Rydbeck, Karin Koch, Gunnar Hirdman[?], and Dr. Gunnar Granberg. They all sit with their newspapers. June 1948.

From collection: Allan Kastrup collection. The Swedish American News Exchange.  http://augustana.pastperfectonline.com/photo/
052F3A1F-5691-4A28-986B-300570624723#sthash.H9CgftT9.dpuf

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College
A little girl and a little boy portraying the Swedish tradition of Sankta Lucia.
Photo caption

This photograph shows a little girl and a little boy portraying the Swedish tradition of Sankta Lucia. The little girl is dressed as Sankta Lucia with a wreath of candles in her hair, a long white robe, and a colored ribbon around her waist. She carries a plate of food. The boy standing next to her is clothed as a Star Boy. His is wearing the Star Boy hat, a long white robe, a colored ribbon around his waist, and he holds a star wand. 1974.  From collection: Allan Kastrup collection. The Swedish American News Exchange.  http://augustana.pastperfectonline.com/photo/
CBB98A50-EC78-4CCF-A247-752671000170#sthash.iwBTL4ih.dpuf

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College

An NEH Preservation Assistance Grant for Smaller Institutions supported a preservation needs assessment of the Swenson Center’s collections by Frances Harrell, a preservation specialist for the Northeast Document Conservation Center.  The grant had immediate impact.  In addition to the consultant’s assessment, grant funds enabled the center to purchase temperature and humidity readers and dehumidifiers for each floor of the facility.  Archivist/librarian Lisa Huntsha reports that this turned out to be “serendipitous timing as the air conditioning in our building went out right after this. Those dehumidifiers were a lifesaver!”

Reading Room at The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center
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Reading Room at The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College
Students at The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center
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Students at The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College

In addressing recommendations made by Harrell, Swenson Center staff produced a disaster plan, along with a five-year preservation plan, and updated its loan practices.  The center also created a new budget line for preservation/conservation activities, including book repair, reformatting, purchasing tools, and more.  That budget permitted Huntsha to attend a multi-day book repair course at the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation (now known as the International Preservation Studies Center) in November 2015.  Huntsha comments that as a result of this training, “it has been incredibly helpful (and has saved us money!) to be able to do in-house book repair and make custom enclosures for some of our higher need materials, undoubtedly extending their life.”  With much of the center’s documentation reaching back to the 19th century, the importance of these preservation skills for its small staff is particularly great.  Thanks in part to NEH, the Swenson Center will continue to ensure that an important chapter of American immigration history can be effectively studied and understood.

Students at The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center
Photo caption

Students at The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center

Image courtesy of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center, Augustana College

In every state, NEH supports organizations that preserve humanities collections.  Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions (PAGs) fund projects that help safeguard photographs, letters, documents, prints, moving images, sound recordings, maps, drawings, artworks, textiles, furniture, and artifacts, making them available for future generations.  These collections help researchers, educators, and members of the public better understand the complex stories of the various cities, towns, and tribal groups that make up our nation.

Since 2000, NEH has made nearly 2,000 Preservation Assistance Grants to small and mid-sized organizations to preserve and care for their humanities collections.  In all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, PAG awards have funded preservation assessments, purchase of shelving, environmental monitoring equipment, and preservation supplies, and training for staff.  Organizations in all states and U.S. territories are eligible to apply, and the program encourages applications from those new to NEH.  The next application deadline Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions is May 1, 2018.  If you have any questions about this grant program, please contact us at preservation@neh.gov or 202-606-8570. 

Funding information

The Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center at Augustana College received support from Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, PG-52484-15.