Chapter 7: Sweden – Public Libraries and their National Policies




Originally, Swedish libraries had a strong mandate of education, teaching Swedes how to read the Bible and improve household abilities. In the early twentieth century Valfrid Palmgren brought her experience with the American public library system to Sweden and true public library service began to develop. The development of public libraries in Sweden took a step backward in the 1960s when Sweden abolished its public library law and did not replace it for 30 years. Since then, however, Sweden has put together a healthy system of standards and legislation to guide the growth of its libraries.

Key words

public library standards

multi-source funding

school library cooperation

Historical background

Like in many Western countries, public libraries in Sweden began largely at the mandate of their local communities. The first institutions resembling public libraries were established as parish libraries, minded by the parish vicars, in order to give the populace the necessary literacy skills to study the Bible. This system was established in 1842. The parish libraries contained largely a collection of religious texts and useful household instructions. By the end of the century, however, parish libraries were becoming out-of-date and inadequate and started to be replaced by ‘study circle’ libraries. These libraries were created by the various social movements that were becoming active in Sweden at the time, such as the temperance and labor movements. Study circles were seen as a way to educate the public so that they could take part in participatory government, but also as a way to advance the agendas of their establishing organizations (Thomas, 2010).

The movement towards true public libraries began in the early twentieth century. Valfrid Palmgren, who would become the Swedish equivalent of Ranganathan in India, studied the American system of public libraries and returned to her native Sweden to become a champion of public library service. In 1912 she was appointed by the Swedish government to conduct a survey of Swedish public libraries. Her report would become the basis for public library service in Sweden (Thomas, 2010).

Since then, public libraries in Sweden have developed apace, albeit with a few hiccups. Sweden abolished its public library law in 1965, and until 1997 enacted nothing to replace it. Once the law was abolished (because of a change in the way the state issued its subsidies), Sweden found it very difficult to agree on a replacement piece of legislation. The general feeling was that public libraries, being a local service, were best left to local authorities and no ‘interference’ by the national government was necessary. However, when a few local authorities began to consider charging library usage fees in order to save money (seemingly the ubiquitous goal of local authorities worldwide) a push was made to pass a national library law (the Library Services Act), which was passed by a very narrow margin at the end of 1996. The law mandates that, among other things, libraries must lend material free of charge (Thomas, 2010).

Current framework

Sweden has adopted a cultural policy which states that its overarching goal is to ‘increase access for all who live in Sweden to culture, both via contact with culture of high quality and through creative activity of their own’. In general, cultural spending in Sweden is spread across several levels of government. The national government chips in 47 percent of funding, municipalities 43 percent, and county councils provide the remaining 10 percent (spending on culture makes up approximately 0.7 percent of Sweden’s national budget). Cultural policy is set by the parliament and executed by the Swedish Arts Council. The Swedish Arts Council, formed in 1974 and situated within the Department of Culture, is the body responsible for allocating funds for all the cultural objectives of the Swedish government, such as libraries but also including literature, the performing arts, museums, and various other institutions. It is also responsible for executing the broad mandate of providing access to culture for all Swedes, as well as the more humdrum tasks of gathering statistics from Sweden’s various cultural institutions and reporting to the government on their operations, including those of its public libraries (Swedish Arts Council, 2010a, b).

In total, Sweden has over 1,300 public library locations open to the public. Public libraries are largely financed by their local municipalities. There are also county libraries, which are funded by the county councils. Funding also comes from the national government in the form of grants, which make up about a quarter of public library funding in Sweden. As of 2011 the National Library of Sweden is responsible for doling out these funds. It is also responsible for collaborating with public libraries at the county level to make sure that the Library Services Act is properly implemented. The county libraries will also be in charge of gathering statistics relevant to the Act (Playing together, 2010; Time for culture 2010).

School library partnerships in two Nordic countries

Like their counterparts in Finland, Sweden’s public libraries cooperate extensively with Swedish public schools. A total of 80 percent of Swedish public schools reported collaborating with public libraries in some way in 2008. While the close relationship between schools and public libraries in Finland could be attributed to the virtual absence of school libraries in that country, 67 percent of schools in Sweden report having a library of their own (although some of these libraries are integrated with a public library). Interestingly, almost none of the partnerships between schools and public libraries in Sweden are governed by a written agreement between the two parties. Schools in both Sweden and Finland make extensive use of the widespread mobile library services available in both countries (Swedish Arts Council, 2009b).

Like most of its Scandinavian and Nordic neighbors, Sweden has a very highly developed network of public libraries and a robust set of standards and legislation to guide it. The Swedish population is served by 290 public library systems. All publicly financed libraries in Sweden are open to the public, which means that Swedes have access to many university libraries – university libraries are required to provide free access to their collections to the public and school libraries (Thomas, 2010). For these and other reasons, Sweden, along with neighbors Denmark and Finland, boasts some of the better environments for libraries in the world.

Legislation and legal structure

The public library law of 1997 required that all 290 local municipalities establish and fund a public library system, with the effect that libraries in Sweden are numerous and evenly spaced (Thomas, 2010). There are also 20 regional public libraries that assist the local libraries, performing duties such as interlibrary loans. The regional libraries also provide training and other professional development opportunities. Atop the entire system sits the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs, which is a government-appointed board tasked with supporting libraries at the national level. The Council collects statistics, issues reports, and generally makes sure the country’s libraries are on track (Calimera country report: Sweden, 2005). The Swedish Library Act required that all local municipalities enact plans for its library activities, but as of 2008 (the most recent year for which the author could find statistics) only 59 percent of municipalities had done so (Swedish Arts Council, 2009a).

Even though they have no national library plan at the moment, the Swedes pay very close attention to their libraries. They’ve been collecting statistics on their public library system since 1950, and have recently begun a new push to improve the ways in which statistics are collected. A general survey revealed that many library professionals did not believe that the statistics being collected gave an accurate representation of their activities. For example, year after year throughout the 2000s, statistical surveys showed the number of circulations in research libraries to be steadily increasing. However, upon closer examination it was actually renewals that were increasing, as circulations of individual items overall actually showed a yearly decline in the same period. This type of statistical aberration is important because many municipalities determine the funding for their local public libraries based largely on statistical indicators like these. If circulation goes down, for whatever reason, a public library could see its funding cut (Lindmark, 2010).

At least one individual library system decided that current methods of gathering statistics were not satisfactory, and set about finding ‘new scales of measurement’ to better reflect what it is that public libraries do. The Stockholm County Library, one of the regional libraries mentioned above, collects data from the other county libraries that are complimentary to national data. The libraries’ efforts to coherently analyze the data they collected eventually took the form of a book, called Measure and Evaluate. The book examines whether statistics accurately describe the value of library activities, and if they are an efficient means of judging a library’s operations (Ögland, 2010).

Another project designed to improve upon the assessment of public libraries in Sweden that was also initiated by actors outside of government was the Swedish Quality Handbook Project, an initiative that led 50 public libraries to begin to perform ‘systemic quality management’. While this project also promoted the use of some of the metrics normally seen on public library usage surveys, such as library visits per capita and program attendance, it also made attempts at measuring some of the more intangible aspects of library use whose absence is often cited by librarians as leaving out crucial perspectives on library service. Such factors include basic metrics as patron satisfaction, but also things like collection turnover (measuring not just circulation, but how fresh the librarians are keeping the collection), percentage of the target population reached by electronic library services, and hours open compared to demand. The authors of the project note that the project is not only about improving these facets of library service, but also simply encouraging libraries to self-examine (Adrial et al., 2005).

In 2010, having finally recognized the need for input at the national level, the Swedish Royal Library Expert Group commissioned a report on possible ways to improve the gathering of statistics from the ground up. A group that was managed by Lund University began by searching out input from practicing librarians on what types of user features they would like to see in a future data reporting system. After this, the group investigated the reporting systems in use in Finland, Denmark, and Norway. The third stage was to take the requirements given by the librarians, along with the best practices gleaned from neighboring countries, and mold them into a proposal for the collection of statistics in Sweden. This report was put forth in December of 2010 (Jorgensen, 2010).


Like its Scandinavian neighbors, Sweden’s system of public libraries is very healthy when compared to most countries worldwide. Public libraries in Sweden are consistently ranked more ‘trustworthy’ than other public institutions in Sweden. Persons between the ages of 15–29 are the heaviest library users in Sweden. However, there are also certain indicators that paint a slightly troubling picture for the future of public libraries in the country. While the youth of Sweden are the heaviest users of the public libraries, their use is declining. In 1998/1999, 78 percent of boys and 88 percent of girls had visited a Swedish public library. By 2006 those figures had decreased to 47 percent of boys and 66 percent of girls. As the non-profit Swedish Library Association points out, one in four library branches in Sweden has closed since 1990 and funding levels have decreased slightly in the past few years (Swedish Library Association, 2009). Swedish ten-year-olds’ performance on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (2006) has also steadily declined since 1991, a factor which may or may not be related to the decreasing role of the public library in Sweden (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, 2006).

Sweden seems to suffer from the over-localization that afflicts public libraries in certain countries. One of the Swedish Library Association’s main advocacy goals is the adoption of a comprehensive Swedish national library policy. Policy at the national level could conceivably help to stabilize funding by taking away some of the uncertainty in the current local funding model; it could also replace the need for each municipality to come up with its own library plan (half of which seem loath to do so). The library act of 1997 is currently under review by the national government, the result of which could change (positively or negatively, one can never be sure) the public library system of Sweden.


Adrial, C., Edgren, J., Nilsson, J., Månsby, S. Together we shape better libraries: The Swedish Quality Handbook Project. IFLA Journal. 2005; 31(2):188–193.

Calimera Country Report. Sweden. Available at, 2005.

Jorgensen, P. National reporting system for library statistics in Sweden: Investigation of existing national solutions in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden plus description of proposed new national system in Sweden. Available at, 2010.

Lindmark, C., Measure correctly or do the right thing? A national perspective on statistics and indicators. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly. 2010;43(4). Available at.

Ögland, M., Measure and Evaluate: About statistics and efficiency at public libraries. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly. 2010;43(4). Available at.

Playing together SOU 2010:11 Regional cultural activities with government support. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly. 2010;43(2). Available at.

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Available at, 2006.

Swedish Arts Council. Public Libraries 2008. Available at, 2009.

Swedish Arts Council. School Libraries 2008. Available at, 2009.

Swedish Arts Council. Areas of operation. Available at, 2010.

Swedish Arts Council. Cultural policy in Sweden. Available at, 2010.

Swedish Library Association. Swedish Library Association. Available at, 2009.

Thomas, B. Swedish libraries: an overview. IFLA Journal. 2010; 36(2):111–130.

‘ “Time for culture” Government draft bill 2009/10:3’. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly, 43(2). Available at, 2010.

Useful websites

Cultural Policy in Sweden (English version):

Public Libraries 2008 (English version):

Swedish Arts Council (English version):