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From Voss to New York. Norwegian Transmigration to America and the Use of Virtual Worlds in Historical Research

f. 1967, PhD 1994, Professor of the History of Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, UK.

The principal aim of this article is methodological: to assess the value of 3D virtual worlds for historical research on the one hand and for the dissemination of history on the other (section 7). The case study (section 4) is a virtual world portraying migration from Voss to New York in 1882 via the ports of Bergen, Hull and Liverpool (section 3). The historiography of 19th-century migration has tended to emphasise the Norwegian and American ends of the journey (section 2), but the virtual world discussed here focuses on the lesser-studied middle stage of that journey: the transmigration across England (section 5). The second aim is to assess (and to champion) the value of microhistorical materials (specifically indirect personal stories) as historical sources (section 8).

From Voss to New York. Norwegian Transmigration to America and the Use of Virtual Worlds in Historical Research

The discipline of history has embraced the research opportunities offered by the rapid development in digital humanities over the past decade or so. Computer technology has enabled text mining and the analysis of large bodies of data to an extent that would have been impossible a generation earlier. The latest generation of interactive applications and user-generated content (‘Digital History 2.0’), however, allows for a different approach to presenting and researching the past. In the research project which underpins this article we use an online 3D virtual world not only to portray emigration from Norway to America but also to pioneer a new approach to historical research. Freely available virtual world software (Open Sim) was used to recreate the journey of an emigrant travelling from Voss to New York in the early 1880s. The Voss farm and the port of Bergen are included in the virtual world, as is New York. A particular emphasis, however, is the lesser-studied ‘England leg’ of the journey, via Hull and Liverpool, which had become the standard emigration route by the 1870s, and we describe this journey in some detail. We also describe the experience of creating a historical virtual world to guide others interested in this means of historiography. Aside from official records, there is frustratingly little evidence of the experience of Norwegian migration, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of individuals were involved. Just as fictional accounts have gained credibility as valuable sources of information ‘from below’, we make the case that the «indirect personal stories» of descendants and their contribution to microhistory need to be given proper consideration as potential sources. Given how widely dispersed the informants are, we argue that online interactive spaces are an essential tool for historians, and we should not be put off by current technological limitations and challenges.

Keywords: Emigration, Norway, England, Virtual Worlds.
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