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The Whalers’ Library Project

This season we started a project to catalogue the books in the library in the whalers’ church at Grytviken. The room holds thousands of books, so the cataloguing process will take some time. We have only catalogued about a tenth of the books this season, but we have already found some exciting things worth sharing. During the project, we were hoping to start to get an insight about the running and structure of the libraries in South Georgia. In our cataloguing of the library so far, we have found that the library houses books not only from Grytviken but also from the whaling stations at Leith Harbour and Husvik as well as several factory ships that operated in South Georgia waters during the whaling period. The library in Grytviken was run by Grytvikens Læseforening (Grytviken Reading Society) which, at least at one point, operated with its own rules and regulations for borrowing books on station. We have found these pasted inside the front covers of several books in the library today. Transcribed and translated they read:

A view of the library in the whalers’ church from the entrance to the room
Adgang til boklaan har enhver funktionær og arbeider ved Pesca hvalstation som betaler gjældende kontingent

Der utlaanes ialmindelighet en bok ad gangen, der av laantageren kan beholdes:

a)      Av skjónliterært indhold indtil 14 dager

b)      Av belærende indhold (*) indtil 30 dager

Beholder laantageren boken længre, betales 50 öre pr overskytende hel uke, medmindre han hos bibleotekaren har fornyet laanet, hvilke, naar dertil er anledning, vil kunne ske. Et saadant forlænget utlaan maa dog ikke strække sig utover yderligere henholdsvis 14 eller 30 dager.

Boken maa behandles forsigtigt. Skjödeslös behandling medförer fuld erstatning av bokens kostende.


Obs. Vask hænderne fór De tager i boken.

 (*) m/ B efter nummeret

Access to borrowing books has every official and worker at Pesca whaling station who pays valid deposit.

Normally, one book is lent out at a time, which by the borrower can be kept:

a)       Of prose fiction content until 14 days

b)      Of instructive content (*) until 30 days

If the borrower keeps the book longer, 50 öre is to be paid per excessive whole week unless he at the librarian has renewed the loan, which, when there is occasion for such, may happen. However, such a renewed loan must not last beyond an additional 14 or 30 days, respectively.

The book must be handled carefully. Reckless treatment will incur payment of damages to the value of the full cost of the book.

NB Wash your hands before you handle the book.

(*) with B after the number.

We were pleasantly surprised with the number of detailed bits of knowledge we could get from some books. In one, we found an inscription with the opening hours of the library at one point. In another, we found a card listing each person that had borrowed the book.

In this 1944 copy of Tuimata by Bjarne Kroepelien from Grytviken library, the librarian has filled in the opening hours for the library: Mandage 1900 – 2000 (Mondays 1900-2000).


This 1927 copy of En Blå Sofa by Cora Sandel from Husvik (Tønsberg Hvalfangeri) contains a bokkort (book card) listing each borrower of the book.


Small scraps of knowledge like this help us better understand the whalers’ lives in South Georgia beyond their work.

We are also starting to get a sense of the genre preferences of the whalers. There are lots of crime and thriller books in the library with a good amount of sailing and exploration accounts as well. There are also some political and biography books as well as some poetry. The books we have catalogued so far have been mostly in Norwegian – they have included a fair amount of Nordic classics and tales about home for many of the whalers.

Many of the books are well-used and often dirty. The older ones usually have multiple iterations of catalogue numbers handwritten by generations of librarians on the first pages of the books.

This 1917 copy of Holmgang by Sjur Bygd from Grytviken library is a classic example of an older book from the library. The catalogue numbers are handwritten and crossed out when replaced. The stamp of Grytvikens Læseforening and the rules for borrowing books pasted just inside the front cover.


The books often carry fingerprints left by the whalers. It seems the whalers either forgot or were unable to wash the grime off their hands before handling the books. The result is a very tangible remnant of the whalers’ presence here.

Close-up of a fingerprint in a 1908 copy of Fältskärns Berättelser by Zacharias Topelius from Grytviken library


The whalers also left other things behind in the library. So far, we have found both bookmarks and inscriptions left in the books. One of our favourite bookmarks is a magazine clipping of a young lady posing in a fancy coat and hat from a Norwegian magazine.

We found the magazine clipping bookmark in a 1914 copy of Jomfruen by Barbra Ring from Grytviken library.


Not all bookmarks are as deliberate. We also found a spent match in one of the books which appears to have been used as a makeshift bookmark. It is easy to picture one of the whalers relaxing with a book and a smoke after a long day at work, then making good use of the match after lighting his pipe or cigarette.

The match was used as a bookmark in a 1957 copy of Døden Leker Gjemsel by Quentin Patrick from Grytviken library.


The inscriptions put in the books take many forms, but so far a lot of them have been numbers and maths.

This 1887 copy of Hemsöborna by August Strindberg from Grytviken library has an especially high amount of numbers inscribed inside. Here the inscriptions are on either side of 11 torn out pages. It is uncertain whether the inscriptions preceded the pages being torn out.


It appears that books from the library might have been used as scrap paper for inventory taking, card games and other various calculations needing to be done on paper.

Some inscriptions are just one or two words. It seems like the whalers used the books to write down new words as they came across them or maybe when sharing and learning each other’s native languages.

In this 1953 copy of London Kaller Nordpol by H. J. Giskes translated by Arne Bang Andersen from Grytviken library someone has written: “Olav Sirevåg / Moi.s.t.”. Perhaps they had just seen the word moist or were trying to teach someone else how to spell it.


This 1929 copy of Sjöröver-Skatten by John Hunster from Leith Harbour contains two inscribed words: “Ni[q]th” and “FARVEL”. Farvel meaning goodbye. Maybe two whalers were exchanging languages and teaching each other parting words.

We also found things left behind by more recent visitors like a coin left in the library which looks like it could be a memorial to someone who has passed. It seems like the library is mostly used as an extension of the whalers’ church today. It is a peaceful place with beautiful light and a comforting scent of old books. It seems like the library, to some, has taken on a magical quality. Certainly, one visitor hoped for their wishes to be granted as they left behind a folded up post-it note with their wishes for the future on a shelf in the library.


Folded up post-it note found on a shelf in the library. The note is in Portuguese and reads roughly: I wish to meet a man I feel passionate about and that he feels passionate about me. And who respects me and be my friend. A man who wants to plan his future by my side a man who finds me beautiful in any way, who praises me, who is proud of me, who appreciates me and who wants to start a family with me.



Ruble coin from 1992 Kazakhstan, minted by the Bank of Russia. This was found on one of the shelves in the library. This coin was minted just before Kazakhstan stopped using rubbles as their currency in 1993.


We are very excited about the things we have found in the library so far. Though small, they are unique and incredibly vivid traces of the whalers’ presence in South Georgia. They might not offer much concrete information about the whaling stations, but they prompt us to consider the social lives and personalities of the whalers. They are fascinating traces of creativity and fun at the whaling stations despite the brutal work. It is also clear that the library remains significant to visitors today. We can’t wait to see what else might be hiding in the library as the project continues.