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What Are You Doing on Jón Sigurðsson’s Birthday?

By Rob Olason

Editor's Note: Icelandic Roots is encouraging everyone to jot down a quick diary entry to document their day on June 17, 2024 to provide future generations a glimpse into what life was like on that day. Send your entry into Icelandic Roots where it will be archived.


Social History.


Barefoot Historian.

Emotional Communities.

These are some of the concepts that Icelandic Historian Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon works with on a daily basis.

Magnússon (author of Wasteland With Words, A Social History of Iceland) was host Judy Dickson’s special guest on the April 22, 2024 Samtal Hour.

He shared his research findings with the Samtal audience, which was very interested in the period of Icelandic history he focuses on: the 18th and 19th centuries. For many of the western Icelanders in the audience, this was the period where their ancestors struggled to survive the harsh physical and economic circumstances, before making the fateful decision to immigrate to North America.

Iceland of that time was unique among the European nations. Poverty trapped a majority of the population, just scraping by to stay alive. Funding relief for the poor consumed up to 75% of the Iceland government’s budget. At the same time, a majority of the population was literate due to the emphasis on preparing each child for confirmation. Magnússon described the peasant life as a relentless, ever-present struggle to merely survive.

To “escape” this grinding struggle, they would turn inward to a mental creative space, the world of thought through the medium of the written word. This diversion from their desperate circumstances provided some relief from their struggle. This action gave them a release from the drudgery of their daily existence.

The 19th-century “revolution” of relatively inexpensive paper and pens became the match that lit an explosive “fire” of self-expression. Written communication was no longer the realm of the wealthy, it was now available for the impoverished literate, the “barefoot historian.”

As these impoverished people observed the world around them, they began documenting what they saw in diaries, “newspapers,” and even hand-written “encyclopedias.” Magnússon shared the example of Jón Bjarnason who was born on a farm in Vatnsdalur in North Iceland in 1791. He had no formal education but stayed in contact with educated people he knew by means of letter writing. During his life, he explored math and astronomy and wrote over four hundred manuscripts on such subjects as religion, natural sciences, and agriculture, in addition to developing Icelandic and Danish dictionaries. He wrote a seven-volume encyclopedia that included five hundred illustrations.

In addition, their thirst for knowledge led to exploring the sagas where they found models of historical figures dealing with and persevering over hardships. The sagas also brought them poetry as a way to shape their own experiences. Additionally, this renewed interest in the sagas nurtured a shared national cultural identity.

The wealth of diaries and personal writings from the commoners of this era is unique to Iceland and provides a unique window into the lives of people often ignored in the history of nations. Magnússon was so impressed with the window into this period created by average people observing their world, that he led a project in 1998 to ask everyone in Iceland to keep a diary for one day and send their entry to the National Museum of Iceland.

The project was called “The Day of the Diary.” It took place on October 15, 1998, and more than three percent of Icelanders submitted an entry.

"Write your story today because it is in the present today. But after it is written, it is the window into the past that will be remarkable to future descendants." - Bryndís Víglundsdóttir

Which brings us back to the question, “What are you doing on  Jón Sigurðsson’s birthday?”

 Jón Sigurðsson is the 19th-century leader of Iceland’s Independence movement, whose birthday is June 17. When Iceland finally declared its independence in 1944, Jón’s birthday was chosen as the date of the declaration.

The Icelandic Roots Outreach Team wants to honor Iceland’s independence on June 17, as well as honor the Icelandic impulse to observe the world around them by asking Icelandic Roots members to “keep a diary of June 17,” and send your observations to What will you do that day, what will you observe about that day? Will your thoughts on that day be a description of the area you live in? A friend you meet? A poem? A photo? A recording?

During the discussion after Magnússon’s presentation on Samtal Hour, Bryndís Víglundsdóttir encouraged everyone to “write your story today because it is in the present today. But after it is written it is the window into the past that will be remarkable to future descendants.”

What story will you tell about your world on June 17, 2024?

The future awaits.

Note: Send your June 17th diary to where we will archive them for the future.


Email us your questions or join the conversation on our Facebook Group.

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