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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Expectation and a worthy, respectable position in society:
means and aims of library work within the early Labour Movement in Sweden

Magnus Torstensson
Swedish School of Library and Information Science
University College of Borás


"Ignorance of the people means its lack of power. Knowledge is power. Well proletarians! Evidently there is no other help than self-help. What society has neglected, You must yourself try to compensate for until you become masters of society. The education and cultivation of the workers must be done by the workers' organizations." (Axel Danielsson, Swedish labour leader in 1899)


Libraries only for or libraries as well for as through the workers

This paper will deal, as can be comprehended from the title, with libraries serving workers. From the title it might also be understood that the author is of the opinion that the founding and development of workers' libraries is a question of people who act and then use means to reach aims. Of course they do it under discernible economical, political and social conditions. With this I will say , that for me it is a question of actors as well as structures, I return to that below.

Libraries in Sweden were, during the early 20th century generally regarded as the most important means to attain the educational goals related to ordinary people after they had left the elementary school, at that time with a duration of six years. Educational work with that aim was then designated as "folkbildning". We still have that concept, but today it designates all educational work outsid e the ordinary school and university system. The concept "folkbildning" is very difficult and circumstantial to translate into English so I will henceforth use the Swedish word within quotation marks.

Around the year 1900 there existed mainly three ways of looking at what "folkbildning" meant in Sweden. They had of course their origin in different positions within the socioeconomic system but also in varying opinions about how the existing, very manifest, problems in society should be handled. Firstly it was the paternalistic view represented by old-fashioned conservatives. Secondly it was the philanthropical view represented by moderate conservatives and main stream liberals. Thirdly it also was the emancipatory view represented by socialists and left-wing liberals.

Historically the concept workers' libraries by us can mean some different kinds of libraries. Some, but not so many, factory-owners founded libraries for their workers in the late 19th century for paternalistic or philanthropic reasons. Most of those libraries, often called workers' libraries, were laid down rather soon. The concept "folkbildning" was in the middle of the 19th century, captured by philanthropic liberals who founded "Workers' Societies and from the 1880-ies Workers Institutes, which both aimed at educating the workers and the artisans. The main task of those associations were lecturing for the "working classes" but they also founded libraries. In some towns, such as Borás, Malmö and Umcá those libraries in the 1920-ies and 30-ies were transformed in to public libraries managed by the local authorities. Since the early 20th century, however, the concept workers' libraries has been restricted to mean libraries by socialist trade unions, associations and/or local organisations of the social democratic party. Those libraries were not only libraries for the workers but also such through them.

Let us now look at what ideas representatives of different interests and views could have on "folkbildning". We start with a socialist who in 1897 compared the prevailing situation with that of "a medieval serf longing for knowledge" and what such a person should say if he had the opportunity to compare, as K.J. Gabrielsson wrote "our time, when knowledge literally is scattered by the wind and w hen even the poorest can have his part of it with his time, when there were few books and when most people anyhow could not read them/.../ He should, I am sure, consider our time as a paradise. He should surely be surprised if he got to know that people with such resources still submitted themselves to 'slavery' due to ignorance", Gabrielsson also meant that "The people ought however to provide themselves with as much enlightment as is necessary for them in order to be able to judge in the circumstances of their own and their nation. Without an enlightment of that kind the people will never get rid of more or less self-styled guardians and that independently of changes in the political system /.../ We must be an enlightened people if we want to be an independent people." (Gabrielsso n 1897 p. 3-8) that is a typical socialist-emancipatory view of "folkbildning" from those days.

Next we take a moderate conservative, Karl Hildebrand, who in 1901 meant that: "Our society is divided and that mostly after fortune and income in different groups, and due to that the fruits of culture are more accessible for the higher compared with the lower groups. Culture is changing swiftly in our days. New guises and new ideas extend quicker than before, often forcing out what is old an d passed on by heredity. If all what is new only was in the favour of the higher classes, the difference between them and the lower should increase rapidly, not only concerning tangible assets but also in reflecting upon life and society. The people will burst into two halves, with different cultures and who in no sphere can understand each other. A people, which is too much divided, especiall y mentally, is surely doomed. Here the work of "folkbilding" has an important mission. The treasures of knowledge must become the property of the whole people and the fruits of literature must be accessible to everybody./.../ The state authorities should be interested in the extension of "folkbildning" as ignorance and brutality are dangerous forces within the people. It is a question of surv ival for our people and culture." Hildebrand continued by meaning concerning the work of "folkbildning" that "Already by this work, that aims at laying a basis, cooperation is necessitated between the educated ("bildade") and the uneducated ('obildade'). Mainly this will occur in this way that the former are willing to give and the latter to receive. The former have with greater knowledge and more quiet conditions of life gained a greater responsibility against the society. Because of this it is their task to enter into a relationship with the people with their task to enter into relationship with the people with their fruits of education and offer it to those who want to have it." (Hildebrand 1901 p. 18-20). The last quotation here is from a bookpurchase-catalogue edited by the Swedish Society for Sobriety and Upbringing of the People. The Swedish Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the Royal Patriotic Society. They meant in 1904 that the benefit of the public libraries was that their books: "Give joy to idle moments, counteract the inclination for bad company, public-life, drinking of alcohol and card-playing, diminish the circulation of indecent literature, ennoble home life, give practical knowledge that increases the work capability, strengthen the judgement in political and social matters and by this contribute to foster well-informed citizens, who understand to use their rights in central, regional and local politics to the general advantage". (Boktitlar ur vár senaste mansalders svenska bokskatt 1904 p. 5). The three quotations above are a sign of that something new was developing in Sweden around the turn of the century. Representatives of the upper classes increasingly realized that the workers and other parts of, what was at that time designated, the lower and broader classes, no longer could be regarded only as a rude, ill-bred and threatening amorphous mass. At the same time representatives o f the workers realized that knowledge was needed if society was to be reformed in the interest of their class.

This was in the 1890-ies and early 00-ies, a period of very rapid industrialization. Many of our later leading export companies founded on Swedish inventions were established then. It was a period with great emigration to U.S.A., and also great internal migration. The towns grew quickly, something that resulted in social problems such as overcrowding and insobriety. The socialist labour movem ent had been agitating since the early 1880-ies. Many socialist trade unions had been founded and the Social Democratic party had existed since 1889. During the period there was not only an industrialization but also a democratization. For long were few Swedes had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. In 1890 42% of all adult male Frenchmen, 37% of do. Germans and 29% of do. English men were allowed to vote. In Sweden at the same time it was only 10%. The struggle for universal suffrage was an important issue for the social democrats and left-wing liberals in the late 19th and early 20th century. Universal suffrage was in Sweden gained at the end of World War I under the pressure of the revolutionary upsurge in Germany in November 1918.

We have seen above that upperclass persons began to realize that there no longer was a feasible strategy to keep the labouring classes down in ignorance. In order to counteract, what they called "vulgar demagogues" they felt an ever increasing need to "go down to the uneducated masses and educate them". Even if they were conservatives, they were aware of the need to carry out some reforms if th ey wanted too preserve their rule and their privileges. They had to change to keep.

The development of workers libraries in Sweden and some questions it raises

When Swedish public library development is analysed, I think there are two conditions that are of special interest. One is all the endeavours since the 1970-ies concerning different outreach activities. (Torstensson 1993 p. 61-62). The other has to do with the precursors of the public libraries. They were mainly of three kinds. The first were the parish libraries run by the Church of Sweden from the early 19th century with greatest activities in the 1860-ies and an evident decline in the late 19th century. The second were the liberal-philanthropic libraries mentioned above. The third, and that is what is especially interesting with our public library development, are the libraries founded and managed by our three great popular movements; the revivalist, the temperance and the (soc ialist) labour movement. The interesting thing is not, I think, that the movements founded libraries with literature in the fields of the movement but that the libraries within the temperance and labour movement developed to libraries intended for the whole population of the local community. I will from now on mainly treat the libraries within the labour movement but the temperance libraries wi ll not be totally forgotten. After all they were very close related to the libraries of the labour movement as well in ideology as in practical library work.

In the work of "folkbildning" within the labour movement books and libraries were central issues from its beginning in the 1880 ies. The popular libraries, mainly parish libraries, at that time were very small and insignificant. They oftenly missed the books the workers wanted and needed. Because of this the organisations within the labour movement began to build up their own libraries with a slow start in the 1880-ies. The libraries were initially mainly financed through subscriptions and surplus from entertainment within the movement, from trade-unions fees, from fees for borrowing, etc. The books in workers libraries were seen as important means in the struggle for the emancipation of the workers.

Some of the workers' libraries, as those in Helsinborg, Malmö and Stockholm developed to important cultural institutions in the early 20th century. The Stockholm Workers' Library was during the first decade of the 20th century the greatest popular library in Sweden together with the privately, by the Dickson family, paid and managed library in Gothenburg called "Göteborgs stads folkbib liotek". The Stockholm Workers' Library, however, was the best managed of the two and with the most comprehensive stock of books. A Finnish observator in 1906 said that "The most important and up-to-date popular library in Stockholm is the Stockholm Workers' Library". (Sippola 1906 p. 57). That a workers' library could be the best popular library in Sweden in the early 20th century is a sign of the backwardness of the Swedish bourgeoisie. Sweden developed very fast from the late 19th century from a society based upon four Estates to one where the labour movement got great influence. The bourgeoisie got strong economically but not ideologically. It did not e.g., like in England and USA, found important cultural institutions meant also for the workers, with some exceptions like that in Gothenburg. The liberal philanthropist were mostly petty bourgeoisie without resources for greater undertakings. An investigation in 1917 showed that Sweden at that time had at least 54 workers' libraries. At that time there were also 254 study-circle libraries within the labour movement (Hugo 1917 p. 237). More about that below.

In 1902 a new way of studying began within the Good Templars in Lund with Oscar Olsson as an enthusiastic prompter. The point of departure for the new method of studying was a criticism of the old procedures. The old more school-like courses had presented a lot of problems. Most of the participants left the courses before they were finished. Olsson found that there was no good in putting men and women in a desk after a long working day. They needed something else - something for their lives. What was needed was the joy of knowledge and not school-knowledge. For Olsson the book, especially fiction, got central for the study-circle, as the new way of studying was designated. Olsson's idea was that every circle should buy as many books as there were members in it. At the end of eve ry year the books should be given to the lodge to form a library for all its members. Olsson thought that the importance for the lodge of a good library could not be estimated high enough. For him the study-circle was the best, simplest and cheapest means to establish and supoort up to date first class libraries all over Sweden. Many municipalities at that time had no popular library.

This way of studying after a few years spread to the labour movement especially to the Social Democratic Youth League and to the socialist temperance organization Verdandi. In 1912 the Swedish parliament (Riksdagen) decided that study-circle libraries could be granted state subsidy if they belonged to a national organization with at least 20 000 members within which books were bought for at leas t 6 000 SKR. At that time a book cost around 1-2 SKR. As a result of the parliamentary decision the educational work within the labour movement soon was gathered within ABF (Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund Workers' Educational Association) the same year. Most earlier founded workers' libraries were during the following decades transformed into study-circle libraries within ABF. Some, often t he largest, managed without state aid and remained outside ABF and were later merged into the local municipal public library system. The same occurred also with the study-circle libraries within ABF. When the number of study-circle-libraries was at the peak in 1939 there were 5 500 of them of which 1 500 belonged to ABF and most of the rest to the temperance movement. Torstensson 1990 p. 21 an d 1992 p. 88).

Between specially the years 1906-1912 the questions of "folkbildning" and culture were very central within the labour movement. Most active were the young social democratic activists. In this short period the educational question became a leading question within the whole movement and a major issue at congresses and in the labour press. As Richard Sandler, one of the leading labour educational ists had pointed out, the labour movement had let the liberals to have the initiative too long; it was necessary for the labour movement to organise its own educational work. It was not so much a critique of liberal work of "folkbildning" itself, but reflected rather the labour movement's insistence on organisational autonomy. The question was not so much about "what is wrong with capitalism" b ut rather "what can we do today". The answer to the last question was political consciousness-raising and educational self-improvement. Young socialists workers entering politics often faced an essentially negative image of themselves, either openly, or as in the case of liberals, sympathetic but condescending. What they needed was respectability. They wanted to show that they had a better mo ral than the "the bourgeoisie youth from the grammar school who sat at the restaurants all night drinking punch and who left their girls after they had made them pregnant". Of course they understood that drunk, illiterate and irresponsible workers were nothing to build a labour movement on. If they were to attain more influence in society they had to be shown respect as a sound participant in t he political and social discourse. (Berggren 1990 p. 474 479). The above presented ideals of conduct for workers have been characterized as "skötsamhet". It can be translated as "conscientiousness" and it denotes much more than sobriety and diligence. In the old working-class culture it also signified a consciously controlled life : the control over one's own actions required to change society in an organized way and to develop as a person. Knowledge and education were important parts of the notion of "conscientiousness". Ignorance was an enemy on a par with drunkenness : both reduced the worker to a slave of circumstances. (Abmbjörnsson 1990 p. 4 and 9). As earlier the bourgeoisie had tried to overcome the nobility, not only with money, but also with the arms cultiva tion, respectability, thrift and control of instincts, now the social democratic activists strived to increase the influence of their class in society by partly the same means.

Why did the organizations within the labour movement in Sweden lay so much stress on the work of "folkbildning" with own libraries as a central issue during the late 19th and especially during the early 20th century? That is a question I will deal with in the last section of this paper. Before that, however, I will give my picture of how an analysis of some kind of development in society could be accomplished.

Actors and structures

As written above I intend to take actors as well as structures into consideration when analysing the development of the work of "folkbildning" within the labour movement in Sweden. For me, actors as well as structures always have effect on the object of study, but where does the influence of structures end and where does that of actors start? That is a question that is very difficult to answer in an empirical study. It can be very tempting to incline mainly to either. In functionalism the role of structures might be overemphasized. Functionalist theories tend to turn human actors into exponents of social relations, actors who don't base their actions on knowledge and intention. (E.O. Wright 1938 p. 14). The other extreme is an analysis, in which structures are almost invisible and in which the actors have a very great freedom of action. The analysis can in that case tend to turn into a kind of voluntarism characterized by an obvious overestimation of the independence of the human consciousness.

When I am studying some kind of development in society my starting point always is the intentional action by actors. You can never explain only through an analysis of structures. The explanation goes by way of the actor. The actors acts because he/she has an interest in the planned outcome of the action. There might be a possibility that can be fulfilled or a threat that can be overcome. The actor however always acts within a structure that puts some limits on his possible range of actions. The structures, however, not only put limits to the actors, they also decide the "value" of their different qualifications. The structures work in the advantage of some qualifications of the actors and in the disadvantage of others. Structures can be seen as the intended or unintended conseque nce of the actor's doings. (Lundquist 1984 p. 9).

Structures are creations of man, but at the same time, when created, they, as noted above, imply restrictions, on the range of actions. We here approach the opinion of Anthony Giddens, when he says that structures don't determine the actors' range of action but rather put limits to them: they enable as well as constrain.

Interesting points of view when discussing the role of structures and actors has been expressed by Alex Callinicos. He uses the concept agent instead of actor. He means that "An adequate theory of agency must be a theory of the casual powers persons have, intentional explanation of human action, invoking beliefs and desires of reasons for acting, are necessary because of the peculiar kind of li ving organism human beings are. Action explanations contain a hidden premise referring to the agent's power to perform the action in question /.../ Structures play an indeterminable role in social theory because they determine an important subset of human powers. These are what I have called, following E.O. Wright, structural capacities, the powers an agent has in virtue of his or her position within the relations of production. Viewing structures from this perspective involves breaking with the idea of them as limits on individual or collective action, providing a framework within which human agency can then have free play." (Callinicos 1987 p. 235).

An actor acts because he/she thinks he/she can influence a future development. He/she must think that the development isn't given autonomously e.g. by the Almighty. If he/she has experienced many and great changes in the near past, he/she is more inclined to believe that changes can occur also in the future, and, that he/she him/herself can influence what the future society will look like. His /her experiences affect his/her expectations. Reinhart Koselleck has written about the concepts experiences and expectations. He means, that until about 200 years ago, there was no big difference between the experiences and expectations of ordinary people, but, due to the swift transformation of society since then, there has been a widening gap between experiences and expectations since then. Experienced changes make society seem unstable and the future open and possible to influence, not least through expectations. Koselleck's thesis is that expectations have become relatively more important than experiences during the last two centuries, when the concept progress started to influence people's minds. (Koselleck 1985 pp. 267-288).

Analysis and conclusions

I don't think that there are any "laws of library development" to be found. Instead I think that an analysis where as well actors as structures are included can help us to explain and understand why libraries are founded under the conditions in question. The analysis, of course, will differ with different kinds of libraries, countries, periods of time, etc., involved. Many such analyses, I thin k, can lay a sound basis for comparative studies within the field in question. (Torstensson 1993 p. 63 68). In the analysis I will start from the actor and through his/her ideas we can notice the influence from the structures. Below I will initially analyse the statements in the question of "folkbildning" by Hildebrand och Gabrielsson.

For Hildebrand the then present situation in society was filled with threats and he is looking for means to treat them. He considers the work of "folkbildning" to be such a means. His utterance, I mean, clearly shows that he is looking for a new kind of integration, in which common people could have the possibility of getting knowledge of all the matters of the day, and not for confrontation, a s one of the means that could redress the prevailing political and social unrest. The different classes of society must learn to understand each other and meet in common interests. To understand Hildebrand we must consider his experiences of the development of late 19th-century Swedish society. He sees a working-class organize. He hopes that the workers through studies get moderate and realiz e that all classes in society have a common interest in developing the society from its present basis instead of overthrowing it. His expectations for the future do not seem to be high. Primarily it is a question of keeping as much as possible of the older order. When he tries to do that he does it within the Swedish traditions of integration. In doing that he is part of Swedish way of thinki ng with long traditions. We might say that qualitative aspects of the structures are integrated into the actor's mind. That is another way of saying that the structures "provide a framework within which human agency can have free play". The framework here for me is the idea of integration.

Gabrielsson's words give the impression that a new era is approaching, an era with many possibilities. After all there was much better possibilities than before for the workers to acquire knowledge and be enlightened. What was now important for them was to acquire knowledge enough to be able to manage by themselves the matters of their own and their country. The experiences frightened Hildebra nd but nourished a hope for the future for Gabrielsson. The workers now had better possibilities to organize and spread their ideas. They had got greater "structural capacity". Trade unions and social democratic organizations had been established. They founded their own newspapers and magazines. From the late 1890-ies they began to enter Parliament and local political bodies through cooperat ion with the liberals. Through these circumstances the workers got new experiences. They learned that struggle could be rewarded. They saw the changes of the society and got expectations of greater influence for their organizations. The expectations mobilized new struggle and so on. The setbacks were not so many. There was one serious in the lost general strike in 1909 but it was rather soo n recovered.

That so many and important libraries were founded within the labour organizations was not anything obvious even if we consider the attitude of leading social democratic activists to knowledge and respectability. If there had been other libraries with the book they needed they would had been less inclined to found own libraries. They early meant that libraries should be managed by society. The Council of the Social Democratic Party at the Party Congress in 1908 was of the opinion that "Public library activities are fundamentally a question for the State and the local authorities and the Council will urge the member of the party to try to exert influence on the managing of the existing city and parish libraries. In that way the libraries in question could develop to meet their needs." (Förhandlingarna vid/.../ 1908 p. 182). The council at that time had hope for a democratization that could transform the existing state of the upper-classes to "their state". At the same time they had much confidence of what a democratic local community could do.

In the early 20th century the Swedish state started to act in many new fields that earlier were considered to be private matters or something belonging to the local communities. That can be seen as a new kind of integration to meet threats and needs in a period of swift changes. Now, from 1905, the State also began to grant money to popular libraries; from 1912 also to study-circle libraries be longing to popular movements. Local authorities also began to allocate money to worker's and later on to study-circle libraries from the early 20th century. That must surely be seen as an act of integration. The threatened classes gave money to organizations that threatened them! That of course they did because they thought that the threat through it could diminish! Through money from the state and the local authorities, besides their own contributions, the library activities within the labour movement increased for some decades until the libraries were incorporated into the municipal libraries.

The idea of a learning respectable worker within the labour movement can, in the Swedish connection, be seen as part of a reformist strategy for social change. That was very clear for Oscar Olsson, member as well of the labour as of the temperance movement, who in 1911 meant that: "It isn't the intellectually badly off crowd of serfs with their bitter rage, but the self-educated free team of wo rkmen with their fervent indignation that will win the final and concluding battle for the material and intellectual emancipation of the class." (Olson 1911, p. 60). That a reformist strategy was chosen by the labour movement in Sweden can be seen, I mean, as a part of a long tradition. The authorities and leading circles in general have for long been well disposed towards "the lower and broad er part of the population". They have avoided confrontation. Integration has for long been pleaded for even if it until the democratic breakthrough was an integration on the conditions of the rulers. The rulers were early interested in the opinions of also lower classes and that was in an effort to keep the prevailing system with smaller changes and without greater confrontations. With democr atization the strategy of integration changed shape. Now it was important that workers with right to vote through knowledge used that right in a proper way. The workers acquired simultaneously knowledge through their own organizations because they were convinced that knowledge meant power. The reformist strategy got fuel as well from the then leading upper-classes as from the workers themselve s. In that strategy the expectations of the workers can be seen as a means in the struggle for the aims: a worthy respectable position in society.

I will end this paper with some words by our late Prime Minister Olof Palme at the Congress of the Social Democratic Party in 1969. He then said that: "Sweden is fundamentally a study-circle democracy. It is through study-circles that generations have got practice in making critical analysis in order to reach sensible decisions. This they have done working together without giving up their per sonal ideals. It has often occurred that proposals for changes of society firstly have been presented within study circles."


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