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Arland O. Fiske: The story of Jens Hanson and the Vatican Library

Jens Hanson was only 9 in the summer of 1873, when a relative from America was visiting in Valders.

The visitor, Rev. Ove Hjort of Paint Creek, Iowa, asked Jens’ father, a government official, to send one of his seven children back with him to America. Jens was selected to make the trip and was promised that he would be able to attend Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Thirty-four years were to pass before he would return to Norway. He never saw his parents again. That was the case with most of the immigrants.

Traveling through Chicago, Jens kept a wary eye for bandits, for even at that time they had an international reputation. Arriving in Decorah, he was given private instruction. The following year, he was admitted to Luther College at age 10. That may be a record for the school. Though young, Hanson remembered college with a great deal of fondness, especially in sports.

In 1882, Jens went to study at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. It was common in those days for the Norwegian Synod students to study theology at the Missouri Synod school. But after two years, he realized that he should not be a pastor. So he took a job teaching in a Norwegian parochial school (a congregation’s religious school) on Chicago’s northwest side.

One time he arranged a wrestling match between a Chicago champion and a member of the church’s Young People’s Society. Being the only one present who knew the rules of modern wrestling, he was the referee. He was severely criticized for this by a Norwegian language newspaper.

Hanson’s education continued at Cornell University. He studied history with some of the best professors of the time. He was also Cornell’s star baseball pitcher. These studies led to his joining the staff at the University of Wisconsin in 1893. From there he became chief cataloger at the Library of Congress in 1897. In 1910, Jens joined the University of Chicago Library staff where he rounded out his career.

One of his most interesting assignments was four months in 1928, when he was loaned to the Vatican Library in Rome to introduce the Library of Congress cataloging system. Upon arrival in Rome, the Americans were given a private reception by Pope Pius XI, who himself had once been a librarian. When the Pope learned that his guests spoke German, he talked very openly and cordially to them. The Vatican Library is the world’s richest treasure house and is said to occupy more 11,000 rooms.

Hanson enjoyed Rome. Since the International Bibliography Congress was to meet the following year in the Eternal City, he was asked to serve as one of 11 delegates on the planning committee. Imagine his surprise when he found out that two of the others were not only from Norway but also from Valders.

One of the strange things about Hanson’s story is that when Jens first arrived in America, he wrote letters to his family pleading that he be sent home to Norway “by mail.” Who can guess what is in store for a child? Hanson reorganized five major libraries and is the chief author of the cataloging rules used today throughout the world. What a loss to the world would have occurred if his parents had sent him a return ticket.

Next week: Knute Reindahl, violin builder.

Arland Fiske, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books.