Cuno Bernhardsson in his office full of archives.

Every human being and every turn of the river has its history

Next summer, Cuno Bernhardsson turns 67. He has read millions of documents without getting bored. Quite the opposite, actually, it just gets better.

With one year to go until retirement, archivist Cuno Bernhardsson has no plans of phasing out. Where others see dusty shelves, Cuno sees life destinies and stories.
 
“I’m happy to have had the privilege of having an exciting job that offers me new perspectives and new insights every day. Through these archives, I can get to know the person behind the facade, and follow societal change,” says Cuno Bernhardsson, chief archivist at the Research Archives.
 
Most people at the University seem to have heard about Cuno. He has become an establishment figure himself. As if he has always been here. But he has only worked at Umeå University since 2004. The move was short, though — only from Gammlia where Cuno worked for 26 years with the Popular Movement Archives.
The starting point was the village Edsele in northeastern Ångermanland where Cuno was brought up. Already early on, he showed a talent for cataloguing events.
 
“I remember sitting along the village road noting down information from registration plates of cars passing by. Most cars were marked ‘Y’ as in Västerbotten, but sometimes cars came by marked ‘A’ — for Stockholm — and that was something special.”
 
 

University life became a shock. His father was a water power plant mechanic, which meant the family had to move to Sikfors along the Pite River. Cuno was first in the family to complete more than seven years of school. His upper-secondary school in Piteå was one of liberal arts. In 1973, he moved on to the education metropolis Umeå for university studies in history. The debut on campus and the first encounter with academia was a slight shock to the mechanic’s son from the countryside, but he soon picked it up. Cuno got a thirst for knowledge, and after three semesters in Umeå, he found himself curious about ethnology — a subject he had only vaguely heard of, and could not be found closer than in Uppsala.
 
“As a grownup in a smallholding society in the Northern country, I carried ethnology in my blood. In the village, folklore beliefs in Vittror nature spirits and Bjära troll cats, persisted well into the 1970s.”
 
Besides ethnology studies, he also took courses in museum technology and archiving in Uppsala. Thanks to those, he landed a job at the Dialectology and Folklore Archives in 1977, where he among other things transcribed recordings of dialects. In spring 1978, he moved back north for a job as an archivist at the Popular Movement Archive in Västerbotten. And a quarter century later, he made that final stones-throw-move from Gammlia to campus.
 
The Research Archives with its ten employees falls under the University Library spanning across roughly 800 running metres of archives of 206 individuals. The Research Archives focuses on people’s lives, whereas the University’s national duty to archive only applies to public records and falls on the university administration and departments.
 
 

Currently, Cuno is in the middle of sorting Professor Gunnar Kulldorff’s archive. He was one of the driving forces behind the University formation in the 1960s, and an individual who documented his entire life. This alone has resulted in 103 running metres donated from the mathematics and statistics department.
 
“So far, I have worked through 85 of those metres and I’m beginning to see a structure. In this material, it’s possible to follow the birth of the University and Gunnar Kulldorff’s great commitment. Once I get the material into archiving boxes, have labelled and registered everything, the feeling is hard to describe when someone comes to use the material.”
 
The office on top of the University Library already has a whole wall full of documents, but only the items that Cuno quickly needs access to if someone phones qualifies for this shelf. The rest goes in the archive. Even his spare time is spent collecting documents. In his apartment in Fridhem, a whole room is devoted to documents. Some of them will shortly move to the childhood cottage in Edsele, which Cuno inherited from his grandparents, and in which he is planning on building a library. Minimalism, Scandinavian white interior design, nor living in the moment is Cuno’s thing.
 
“I live in the moment as well, with gardening and my grandchildren. But I also keep in mind how boring life would be if all we could live off was what we had created ourselves during our short stop on Earth. We must have something to go back to in order to learn. Don’t forget. History is also what happened an hour ago.”
 
 

“Every human being and every turn of the river has its history. Every part of a village or suburb has its history. And I’m just getting more and more fascinated by this profession the older I get. It’s about the collective memory in society,” says Cuno.
 
History — not least academic history — revolves around a fair few men, hence several running metres in the archive are taken up by men and their life stories. You can follow Gustav Rosén’s entry into the Västerbotten newspaper market when he took over the local paper Västerbottens-Kuriren, or when Gösta Skoglund came to Umeå in the 1920s from a fishing family in Hälsingland. Gösta Skoglund became editor-in-chief of a fishing magazine, led a choir and then climbed all the way up to the Government, where he became Minister of Communications and one of those who made sure the fifth Swedish university was placed in Umeå.
 
Cuno also got in touch with the Luleå-borne poet Folke Isaksson before he passed, and hence his entire archive was donated to Umeå, including his 180 editions of Gulliver’s Travels.
 
Quite a number of interesting female life stories can also be found. Known — such as the Swedish author Sara Lidman who donated her entire archive — as well as lesser known women. One of them is a midwife in Jämtland, Julia Wiklund, whose husband Thunström was a school teacher who was discharged from the Ragunda School and was sent packing. Eventually they found themselves in Missenträsk where he became teacher to Sara Lidman’s grandmother and an inspiration to her authorship. But destiny had other plans for the midwife. She divorced teacher Thunström who was heavy on the drink. And she had fallen pregnant with the Ragunda postmaster. Later on, Julia Wiklund followed her son, who now carried the grand name Garibaldi, when he moved to Stockholm in the 1880s.
 
 

Another literary character with a completely different life story was Siv Cedering who immigrated from Överkalix to the US with her dad. Siv Cedering was long the Swedish literary voice in the US and the archive accommodates a fascinating correspondence with American underground poets. Transporting an archive of 70 running metres across the Atlantic is tricky, but the most important perspective is the contact with the person in question and their next of kin.
 
Cuno also got in unexpected touch with the US through another archival life story. An Olof Petter, who after a violent dispute on a dark night had to spend three-and-a-half years in prison and then immigrated to North America. Later on, the fighter ends up in the archives as deputy sheriff. Olof Petter’s grandson now lives in Salt Lake City and found out about Cuno’s investigations of the grandfather and invited him to the States, where Cuno has spent nearly a year combined since 2005. Apart from an acquired archive, Cuno has also visited the University of California in Berkeley, the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington. It has also given him a chance to practise his English.
 
A chef wants people to eat his dishes, a musician wants people to listen to his songs. And an archivist wants other people to acquaint themselves with all exciting information that is hidden in the carefully arranged shelves. And certainly, people do. Lately, even other people than the usual visitors, the researchers that is, have shown an increased interest in the collections. Among these you find authors, directors and artists diving into the archives.
 
“That gives you increased energy in a way. Artists can spend much more time than researchers, sometimes years on end, diving into individual people’s destinies. In return, they instead become less bound to the material and it’s very exciting to see the results.”
 
 

Despite intense diving into archive details, you sometimes never find what you are looking for. It might simply not exist. One of those things is the mysterious contract that said maids and farmhands should be spared from being served salmon every day. Neither Cuno nor any other archivist has found evidence of such a contract. It seems like a tall story. Another uncertain anecdote is how the Västerbotten cheese derived by accident as a consequence of an Ulrika Eleonora Lindström’s love affair in Burträsk. The archives show that the cheese first turned up at an 1872 agricultural meeting in Åsele, without links to Burträsk nor Ulrika Eleonora.
 
“On the other hand. Why ruin a good story? I don’t begrudge Burträsk to be home to the cheese,” he says.
 
And then the inevitable question about the name. No, Cuno is not short for Carl-Uno. His name really is Cuno and has been so from day one. It is an unusual name not shared with many, 260 Swedes to be precise. And only 27 of them spell it this way. Those who do a Google search for Kuno together with Umeå University will end up at the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts at which Kuno is the name for a Nordic network of art programmes. His parents wanted to call him Karl after his grandfather on his mother’s side, or Olov after his father, but then the grandmother stepped in — yet another strong woman — and decided that the boy was going to be called Cuno after a certain somebody in a popular song. And that was that.
 
Next summer, Cuno turns 67, and what happens after that is still uncertain. Maybe he will get more time for holding lectures on all the interesting people, places and events he has learnt about. Maybe there will be more time for gardening, fishing and spending time with grandchildren and others in his vicinity. Maybe some discussions. And of course more time to build the library in the cottage in Edsele.

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