Digital archives - A way of integrating history teaching in Europe

By Jan Oldervoll
Department of history
University of Bergen

History teaching tends to be rather national, even regional in its approach. There are several reasons for this. One is of course that history traditionally has been used for building national (or regional) identity. But one can also find a prosaic reason. History is of course heavily depending on sources. A very small proportions of the sources are printed. An historians has to spend a large proportion of his or her time in archives. For very practical reason tends to concentrate what is close, what can be found in local archives. This is true for established historians, but it is even more true for students of history, on every level. To be able to widen the scope of history it is important to make archives more easily available. Computers and even more networks makes this possible.

The Department of History, University of Bergen, Norway has been working within this field for thirty years. We have been building archives and we have been developing systems for analysis of these sources. During the last three years we have been making web systems for analysis of these sources. This is one of the most visited history sites internationally. Our goal has been to make as much sources as possible digitally available for our own students, and for students of history everywhere.

But this goal could not possibly be fulfilled by the History department alone. We had to established alliances. Our most important partner is the National Archives of Norway. On January 23, 1998, we opened the Digital Archive of Norway ( This is a joint project between The National Archives of Norway and the Department of History. The purpose is to make sources available on Internet. We have started working with sources that has been keyed into a digital form. For the moment we have 4-5 million records, mostly from demographical sources. The number will at least grow with 1 million records a year.

But the Digital archive is more than making records available on the net. We will also make facsimile of archival holding available. Our short term goal is to present what could be called the active part of the Bergen Regional State Archive, 5 million pages. Even if this constitutes only 5% of the total holding, the user will experience the Bergen Regional State Archive as a digital archive, he or she will find whatever needed on Internet. This goal will be achieved within a few years.

It is not enough to make the data available on the web. We also have to develop suitable tools for veb-based analysis. A simple solution will of course be to make it possible to download data for further analysis on your private computer. The very size of the material makes this impossible. Even today our total holding will occupy 5 GB in a standard database system. Both transporting and storing even a fraction of the material will be practically impossible. This is true for researchers, but even more so for students. For students to be able to use this kind of data it absolutely necessary that the syste is web-based and the main part of the analysis will have to be done on the server. There is no suitable software available to do this. We have had to develop it ourselves. The database engine is finished. It is extremely fast, compared to anything available. This makes it possible to make fast and flexible function, well suited for the historians’ need. Some of these functions have already been introduced, other will be shortly.

Here and now I am not going to write about what the system can do, now or in the future. The important thing is that other institutions find the system useful and want to use it. We have already hosted the Vienna Family database, consisting of data from the Austrian Empire. Other institutions is interested. We hope to develop a model where institution ether can host their data with us or they can have our software and host data themselves. In any case, the user may receive data from different part of Europe in a consistent way, using the same interface. We are going to develop the software but cannot of course guarantee that it will be used by other institution. But even if this is not going to be the case, our goal is to set a standard for who this kind of material should be presented. We feel that we are doing it now. We also feel that it is appreciated. We have approx. 500 visitors a day, requesting 15.000 documents.