History of the Danish folklore archives

Learn why the collection of folklore was created and gain an understanding of how it is built.

roll recording and write-down of popular traditions

Photo: H.P. Hansen

The history behind the Danish folklore archives is worth knowing when you search for specific materials in the collection, but also when you need them. The way the material is presented and arranged is connected to particular notions of what kind of material it was and what it was to be used for.

The collection of folklore begins

The Danish folklore archives were established in 1904, but the collection was based on cultural currents in Denmark and the rest of Europe in the 19th century. The inspiration came from the south, where the German philosopher Johann G. Herder (1744-1803) thought that the history writing at the time was too superficial in its focus on powerful men, political institutions, wars and the like.

Instead, history writing should focus on language, folk poetry, customs, and folk spirit. It was among the people of the countryside that the fundamental features of the nations could be found. Herder and his followers believed that the rural population had lived traditionally and largely unchanged for decades, and therefore had preserved the old intangible treasures that the folklore collectors now wanted to collect.

In Denmark, folklore had previously been collected more or less sporadically, but in the middle of the 19th century, NFS Grundtvig's son, Svend Grundtvig (1824-1883), took the initiative to systematically collect folklore in Denmark, and he established himself as the central figure for the collection and exploration of folklore. He organised a network of hundreds of people around the country who sought out the rural population and wrote down their oral narratives and childhood memories. Svend Grundtvig was particularly interested in folk songs, folk tales, fairy tales, folk life, folk beliefs, proverbs, idioms and the like. It was he who introduced "folk memories" as a term for this kind of material.

In addition to Svend Grundtvig, there were a number of other collectors of similar material, including philologist and priest HF Feilberg (1831-1821) and schoolteacher Evald Tang Kristensen (1843-1929). The collection work led to the formation of private collections of folklore around the country.

Establishment of the Danish folklore archives

As early as 1861, Svend Grundtvig had expressed a desire to establish a "museum for folk memories", but he never brought the idea to life. However, Grundtvig's student, Axel Olrik (1864-1917), became one of the driving forces behind the establishment of a central collection of folk memories in Denmark many years later. Olrik was an associate professor of folklore at the University of Copenhagen and had continued Grundtvig's work in several areas.

After Svend Grundvig's death, Royal Danish Library purchased his surviving folklore papers in 1884. Olrik had been promised that HF Feilberg's large collection of manuscripts and books would be transferred to the Danish folklore archives after his death, which it did. OIrik also assumed that Evald Tang Kristensen's large collections would be donated to the Danish folklore archives, which also happened.

The Danish folklore archives were established in 1904 as an autonomous department at Royal Danish Library with Olrik as director. Olrik worked as director until 1915, and it was Olrik who implemented the folklore archives' basic system structure in 1906, when he established a number of growing sub-collections that thematically covered the entire area of the collection.

Strategies for collecting folklore

He also initiated a renewal of the collection partly through a few paid employees, partly through agreements with private individuals and partly through a close, ongoing collaboration with Foreningen Danmarks Folkeminder (1908-) and Foreningen til Folkedansens Fremme (1901-). The resulting sub-collections are called the 1906 collections after the year they were created. They are among the most widely used sub-collections of folklore today. This is partly due to the fact that they are easy to access topographically - for instance if you are interested in a specific local area, parish or area.

It was in these collections that the archivists placed the many submitted written folk memories that they received from collectors around the country. The archivists sent out questionnaires with topics and questions that they were interested in getting records of. They also provided pre-printed forms of record, which ensured that consistent metadata about the record was preserved. Each record - whether it was a proverb, a legend or a song text - had to be written on a separate piece of record paper so that the archivists could easily place the record systematically and correctly in the archive.

The channels that Olrik used to collect material for the archives - his own employees, members of Foreningen Danmarks Folkeminder and collaboration with private collectors - have in principle been used ever since. Questionnaires have been prepared for the members of Foreningen Danmarks Folkeminder from time to time. These methods of collecting have been supplemented in particular by calls through the media (radio, television, newspapers and magazines) to submit material. Over the years, ordinary people have also submitted material that they thought might be of interest to the folklore archives.

Focus on the rural population

Characteristic of the work with the collection of folklore in the period 1904-1960 is partly the genre-specific collection, exploration and publication of the material, and partly the main interest in the orally handed down traditions of the rural population. In the series "Fra Dansk Folkemindesamling", the first issue in 1908 called for records of customs and beliefs in connection with parties and agriculture. They asked questions about daily life, nature and games, and asked for melodies for joke songs, nursery rhymes, singing games and the calls of street vendors.

In the 1960s, collecting via questionnaires was abandoned, and instead project-oriented collection was given higher priority. Taken as a whole, the period after 1960 is marked by a new paradigm: the interest in what is now affectionately called “popular traditions”. It is more contemporary and now also involves the urban population and new population groups. There is more focus on people (at the expense of the genres), and today most people are primarily interested in the context of traditions.

The Danish folklore archives today

The Danish folklore archives became part of Royal Danish Library in 2008 and was included on an equal footing with the library's other special collections.

The collection is vibrant and open, and we are constantly expanding and maintaining it with new material. In the past, the focus was more on the concept of "folk memories" with genres such as folk tales, folk songs, legends, folk beliefs and traditions, but today we have a broader focus.

The original collectors of folklore were particularly concerned with the culture of the rural population, but now we are interested in all sections of the population. We work both historically and with the present, and we continuously collect new material and expand the existing collection. We also continue to receive donations from individuals.