Kungliga biblioteket: Preservation and Access in Sweden

Printable version Friday 11 May 2012 Last updated at 10:23

Since the first law on legal deposit was passed in 1661, the National Library of Sweden (Kungliga biblioteket, KB) has collected virtually all written material published in the country. Originally, this was a way for the government to exercise control and to impose censorship, but alongside the passing of laws for the benefit of freedom of the press during the 1700s and 1800s the legal deposit law increasingly became a means of preserving the Swedish printed heritage.

Photo Maja Kristin Nylander/National Library of Sweden.

The law on legal deposit has made it possible for KB to hold almost everything which has been printed and circulated in Sweden since the 1600s, but the collections also extend far back into the Middle Ages. In addition to its catalogue of Swedish book publishing, KB also has all Swedish newspapers and magazines as well as large quantities of postcards, posters, images, maps, sheet music, advertising, menus, school catalogues, annual reports and more. This collection of so-called ephemera includes more than 14 million publications. In total, KB’s physical collections occupy over 140 kilometres of shelves.

Vardagstryck Foto: Jens Gustavsson

KB also has large quantities of manuscripts, letters, portraits, photographs and other material purchased or donated to the collections including personal archives from famous Swedish writers and cultural figures such as August Strindberg, Dag Hammarskjöld and Astrid Lindgren.

At the beginning the library was located in the castle of Three Crowns. After a fire in 1697 which destroyed the castle, the collections moved around Stockholm and were subsequently brought together into a single collection when the current palace was constructed. In the 1800s the growing book collections made the premises too small. Proposals were put forward for a new library building at the park Humlegården modelled after libraries in London and Paris and eventually the commission to design the building went to the architect Gustav Dahl. 

The National Library of Sweden in Humlegården Park, Stockholm. Photo by: National Library of Sweden/Ulf Lundin

Work began in the summer of 1871 and seven years later the finished building could be seen in the park where it still stands today. The interiors of the main reading room are in the Greek style and were inspired by Crystal Palace in London. In January 1878

The main reading room at the National Library of Sweden.
Photo Istvan Borbas/National Library of Sweden

KB opened its doors to the public and almost instantaneously faced the same problem of limited space as the collections of material overflowed. Two wings were added to the building in 1926-1927 but they were only a temporary solution to the overcrowding. The first underground facilities was built in the late 1960’s and opened in 1970; however, even this was not enough. In the beginning of the 1990s a radical change of KB’s magazine and premises was planned. In early summer 1997 two large caverns, built under Humlegården, were opened; these two “rooms” could accommodate two five-story buildings with a total storage space of 160 kilometres of shelves. Today the majority of KB’s physical materials are located there.

National Library of Sweden underground stacks. Photo: Jens Gustavsson/National Library of Sweden.

In addition to ensuring the preservation of printed material, the legal deposit law has also allowed KB to amass a vast collection of music, multimedia and radio and TV shows. The importance of these collections was commented upon by the Minister of Transport and Communications in 1966 and these collections remain a vital part of Sweden’s heritage. Since 1979 the legal deposit law has covered radio and television broadcasts when the state commissioned the Archive of Sound and Image (ALB) to collect recorded sound and moving images. Since January 2009 these activities take place at KB’s Audiovisual Department (AVM) which collects, describes and provides access to this audiovisual material.

Prior to the establishing of ALB, KB had been gathering and listing sound recordings (phonograms) since the 1950s. Initially, record companies voluntarily supplied a copy to the then Nationalfonoteket along with discographies and record lists. With the foundation of ALB, Nationalfonoteket and its collections were transferred to the new archive, which later changed its name to The State Archive of Sound and Image (SLBA). This collection consists mainly of radio, television, film, video, music and multimedia, and currently includes about eight million hours making it one of the world's largest media archives. It contains most of what has been published, broadcast, and shown in Sweden in recent decades and almost all Swedish recordings from 1899 until today. In total there are over 200 000 phonograms in the collections. Some of the material offers fascinating resources for the music fan or researcher, such as these interviews from 1958 with Duke Ellington and Harry Bellafonte, while other programmes focus on Sweden’s relationship with the rest of the world, such as this short film about a football club tour of South East Asia in 1950 and the country’s role in the Cold War broadcast in 1971.    

 In January 2011 the Film Archive at Grängesberg was incorporated with KB. The archive was established in 2003 under the umbrella of the Swedish Film Institute. This archive takes care of Swedish 8mm and 16mm films which have never been shown in cinemas, such as home movies, industrial films, compound films, educational films and amateur movies. These films come from associations, corporations, municipalities, archives, museums and private individuals. It contains mainly factual and non-fiction films not produced for the cinema. Material includes this short film from 1968 made by two young filmmakers which offered a personal perspective on life in Yugoslavia.

 In making a range of this material available on EUscreen, KB offers a unique insight into its carefully preserved collections. This material ranges from the light hearted, such as this news item about the health risks of taking snuff from 1982 and this consideration of life through the eyes of a child from 1965 to this consideration of the plight of refugees in Sweden in 1959. EUscreen provides a single access point for this material and along with the other material supplied by other EUscreen partners enhances knowledge of a common European cultural heritage, a collective history that like a prism is multilayered with national peculiarities.



Christopher Natzén received his PhD in cinema studies from the Department of Cinema Studies, Stockholm University. Since mid-September 2009 Christopher has a position as documentalist and researcher at the Research Department, National Library of Sweden (KB). He works on the three year project EUscreen (2009-2012, euscreen.eu). In 2011 and 2012 Christopher is also responsible for KB's archival project around the August Strindberg anniversary.


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  1. Bill Dean-Myatt, MPhil.

    2014-03-16 11:41:02

    I am researching the history and catalogue of the British Imperial label. They issued a short series of Swedish language records of which I have the basic details of artists and repertoire. What I lack are the master numbers. If I could send you the list of records would you be able to supply any of the missing information, please?

  2. William Alschuler

    2013-04-08 03:35:07

    I wonder if you might have any holdings, in still photos, cinema, or newspapers that record images of the ceremony of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1908. I am working on a biography of the winner, Gabriel Lippmann. If there is a way to search your site, please tell me, and if you have suggestions of where else to look, I would appreciate that. Thank you.

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