Bringing home ideas

In 1871 a big fire destroyed most of Chicago City. Three hundred people died, 100.000 became homeless (total inhabitants at the time was 300.000) and the material damage was devastating. Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland at the time, felt, say the story, such compassion with the inhabitants of Chicago that she quickly decided to send a large box of books with the thought that all their literature must have gotten burnt up. What she didn’t know was that Chicago didn’t have a public library and hadn’t had one. With all these books arriving from across the ocean, something had to be done and the city quickly decided to build the first one.

The Swedish right-wing politician Valfrid Palmgren was a lady in forefront. She had a remarkable career and was, one of many things she achieved, 1905 the first female Amanuensis at the Royal Library in Stockholm. In 1907 she went on a long trip to USA to investigate the idea of public libraries for all. In USA libraries was seen as a civic right, placed in the center of cultural and educational politics. She was quite cultural conservative, it’s said, at the same time as she fought philanthropic values and saw it as her task to bring the idea of public libraries to Sweden. Literature should be accessible to everyone, and is a right beyond questions of class, was her idea and she hoped libraries could act to mitigate class differences. Libraries should not be led by politics, market or religious ideas. The librarians should therefore be people with education and expertise. Back in Sweden after her trip over the Atlantic, she within four years founded the first children and youth library in Sweden in 1911.

In Chicago, the city in 1991 built a ten floor high new public library on South State Street, this is, I am told, the world’s largest. True or not (there are many things we are told during the visit in Chicago are the biggest, widest, largest). Nevertheless, it’s an incredible building; the architecture is post-modern with reminders of old pompous eras, the collection of literature impressive with books, journals, magazines, audio for every taste.

Read the article written by Swedish cultural journalist Ingrid Elam in Dagens Nyheter of Valfrid Palmgren (in Swedish), published in June 2007 as a reflection concerning the then newly formed the Committee of Inquiry of Cultural Policy, with the task of revising Swedish cultural policy. You can also download it here: allmanna-bibliotek-en-borgerlig-ide-dn. Read posts on the Swedish Cultural Policy here, here and here. And libraries and entrepreneurship here.

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Lotta Lekvall
Director of Nätverkstan, a Cultural Organisation in Sweden. Nätverkstan provides services …

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