The email was clear.
Staff and volunteers of the Danish American Archive and Library (DAAL) had two days to pack up and move tens of thousands of documents, photos, books, equipment and furniture before the doors to the Dana-LIFE Library would be locked.
Only about a week earlier, officials with Dana College, where the archive originated and was located, had announced the 126-year-old institution would close.
“It was like a member of your family had died,” Sandra Wigdahl, a DAAL volunteer and a former Dana College employee, said of the college's closing. “It was really a blow to everybody.”
Ten years ago, the future of the DAAL was uncertain.
Today, the now self-sufficient nonprofit is prospering and has nearly recovered what it lost when Dana College closed.
How the archive began
The DAAL can trace it's beginning to two Danish American organizations — the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (UELC) and Dana College.
Both were concerned with an evangelical mission and with helping Danish immigrants gain the skills needed to succeed in a new homeland.
However, some of their leaders — P.S. Vig and H.F. Swansen — also collected and preserved materials documenting the experiences of Danish immigrants.
“It really was just a blending of earlier archives,” Wigdahl said of the archive's history.
The first systematically organized archive began in the 1960s when Dana library director Ron Johnson and English and Danish professor Norman Bansen began searching for Danish American materials.
Only a small percentage of Dana's students claimed Danish heritage, and the UELC had merged with much larger Lutheran bodies. Both Johnson and Bansen realized Danish heritage could easily be lost.
In 1986, John W. Nielsen, Dana professor of humanities and religion, brought the Hansen-Mengers collection, which included more than 13,000 letters, to the archive, which prompted an expansion.
Nielsen became the executive director of the archive in 1990 — a position he held for more than 20 years.
Packing up and moving out
After initially being stunned by the news the DAAL would have to move rather quickly, volunteers, alumni and community members stepped up to help.
More than 100 volunteers packed hundreds of boxes of documents, books and artifacts, as well as the shelving and furniture. Many brought trucks and trailers to haul items from the basement of the Dana-LIFE library to temporary storage.
“We were working right up until the last,” Wigdahl said.
All materials and books were stored on pallets at Professional Forms in Blair. The furniture and equipment, including computers, desks, bookshelves, tables and chairs, were stored in private homes or buildings.
“We had stuff all over town,” Wigdahl said.
Volunteers removed most everything that was archival. However, some items, including books on Danish subject matter, were left behind as they had belonged to the college.
“We didn't feel right taking because that was theirs,” Wigdahl said.
In 2016, though, then-campus owner Frank Krejci allowed DAAL volunteers to return to the library to retrieve some items, including a large set of “Dansk Biografisk Leksikon” (“Danish Biographical Lexicon”) and a set of Danish encyclopedias, among other materials.
Finding a new home
When Dana College suddenly closed, the DAAL lost more than just its home. It lost its endowment and operating funds, which totaled about $300,000.
At the time, the DAAL was not an independent corporation.
“We had an agreement (with the college) and it was just a gentlemen's agreement, there was nothing in writing. But it was understood that Dana College would keep any funds that were earmarked for the archive separate from the Dana College funding,” Wigdahl said. “They didn't live up to it. They spent it.”
Rebuilding would be a challenge.
“It was scary for us to be just set loose in a sea,” Wigdahl said.
Volunteers met weekly with Nielsen and Jill Hennick, who worked part-time at the archive. A steering committee, which would later become the DAAL's first board of directors, was formed, and they began looking for a space to rent. The DAAL also became an independent 501(c)3.
The DAAL found its new home at 1738 Washington St., a former pharmacy. The space, Wigdahl said, was just what they needed.
“This will work for us,” she said.
After a few renovations, the DAAL moved in Oct. 1, 2010, just in time for its volunteer week.
After the closure
Since Dana's closure, the DAAL has flourished and its collections have grown. It's hosted interns from several area universities, collaborated with the University of Nebraska at Omaha to create a photo exhibit featuring Danish children, provided resources for other exhibits and hosted Dana College alumni at Kringle and Mingle each homecoming.
The archive has also continued its volunteer weeks, hosting as many as three a year.
Since 2010, the DAAL has attracted 3,400 volunteer and visitors to Blair.
The archive has prospered financially, too.
“We're really frugal and careful with every dime we spend,” Wigdahl said. “We never want anything like that to happen to us again.”
“We have had a surplus every year,” said Hennick, now executive director for the DAAL.
In July 2015, the archive purchased its building, paying off a five-year mortgage two years later.
Hennick expects by September the DAAL will have regained the endowment in lost a decade ago.
“We're pretty close,” she said.
Connections to Dana
With all the recent developments and changes to the former Dana campus, Wigdahl and Hennick said the archive is one of the last connections to the college in Blair. The Dana College Room holds photos, documents, memorabilia and memories from life on the hill. But it's more than just that room.
“It spills out everywhere. We have publications of Dana. A lot of the collections are either pastors who had gone to the seminary there or alumni or families,” said Hennick, who now serves as executive director. “There are a lot of connections in the whole building that is Dana.”
“What there is of Dana lives here,” Wigdahl added.