Early history of BiS

Early history of BiS

BiS. The forming and development of a left wing library society in Sweden.

Lennart Wettmark


My contribution to this conference is reflections on the 1960s and 70s from the perspective of the establishment of the Swedish organisation Bibliotek i Samhälle (Libraries in Society) – with the abbreviation BiS. My perspective is that of an activist who finally entered the library world in 1972 by registering as a student in the new Library School in Borås. I have ever since been a school librarian at upper secondary level and an activist in BiS.

My aim with this paper is to give you an idea of what happened in Sweden during this period from the viewpoint of a dedicated young generation of radical librarians. I have no other pretensions than to give you an account based on my own impressions supplemented with talking and re-reading of some of the material from the period, mostly published material in the journal named bis. I do hope someone in due time will conduct a more researched analysis of that vital period in which BiS played the role of a catalyst of new ideas.

The first years

BiS was formally started in 1969 at the Library School, at that time situated in Solna, outside Stockholm. It happened during the theoretically oriented final year of the library students training. It was a time of transition. A new generation of students and workers, fuelled by the possible emergence of a new society, organised themselves by protesting, striking and by establishing new left wing organisations. Those were anti-imperialistic, anti-capitalistic or simply critical. Many professionals were for shorter or longer periods organised in socialist groups. Socialist School Workers for instance released books on where to find critical literature if you were a teacher in literature and wanted to counter-educate your students.

The embryo of BiS was created in the springtime of 1969, when a small group of library students met in Uppsala concerned with the lack of freedom of expression in Sweden. An exhibition at a municipal art gallery in Lund had then been censored. The establishment was apparently trying to block new information and ideas.

The first programme of BiS indicated the ambitions in six paragraphs dealing with things such as being more open to the wishes of the library visitor as well as actively supporting those library workers who were trying to change the library in accordance with the ideas of BiS. This is what BiS’ first programme point by point wanted to achieve:

  • to promote democracy and distribution of power within the library, the position of the library user, geographical democracy, improved in service training and education to all library workers
  • to oppose concentration of power
  • to expose ”economic principles” of the culture and indoctrination – ”often unconsciously” – through the popular press, the classification system and the selection of magazines and papers
  • to analyse the role of the library in its position as facilitator of opinions
  • to be vigilant in regard to the issue of a library law and activities in the unions.
  • to support library workers when trying to implement the ideas of BiS

The first issue of bis, the journal of the organisation BiS, is dated 6 September 1969 and is a product of the examined students of the 1968-69 Library School. You can read that during the summer three branches of BiS had been established: in Lund, Gothenburg and the tiny municipalities of Laxå-Kumla. BiS had made itself known at the annual general meeting of the established national library organisation SAB, (short for Sveriges Allmänna Biblioteksförening, the national Swedish library organisation), by handing out leaflets about this new organisation to among others Olof Palme, at that time Minister of Education. The reporter in bis ( issue 1) is not quite satisfied with the one-sided focus of the press on ”all activity houses”, an idea also elaborated in the very first issue of bis from 1969 (”…The library, the all activity house, will become a building to be happy in, with some smaller room for different purposes and activities. Not a temple to admire for its architectonic beauty, artistic decorations and small ponds in the middle of the room…) That was but one of the items of the BiS agenda. One magazine is covering the discussion at the meeting, where BiS activists were accusing libraries of being undemocratic and not being concerned with ´the missing three quarters` (the majority of people how actually did not visit libraries). This was not altogether popular, the magazine reports -quoted in bis: ”Particularly hard was the hit back on their attacks on the municipal democracy. The libraries should not create aggressions someone said”. Librarians in Sweden were now aware of a new player on the arena.

The appearance of BiS certainly indicated a generation gap. Although many BiS members were – and have continued to be – members of SAB, BiS has stayed as a more or less distinct separate and alternative voice amongst library workers. The young librarians inspired by the ideas of BiS were not always fully embraced when they entered their first job. The image of the young generation made some established librarians frightened and suspicious. Some libraries were strong hierarchies. Sometimes freedom of expression in the workplace was not in high esteem. A BiS activist gives the following illustration from the early1970s when library representatives from the Apartheid South Africa visited Gothenburg city library:

”…Ulla came up with the idea that we should hand over a letter of protest to the chief librarian and I was ‘elected’ to write it. I did that literally during a coffee break and then went around in the house to collect signatures. It was not really a BiS protest, but a much broader one. It was, if I am not wrong, some 30 people, both young and old, who happened to be on duty that morning who signed it. My name came first and consequently I was made the scapegoat for the whole thing. The boss got furious and his anger lasted for a long time. Maybe the blow was harder since some old and not very left wing people backed up the letter of protest. Looking back, I suppose it was roughly formulated, but in those days, you tried to be striking.” (E-mail communication from Birgitta Forsman, May 2001)

South Africa

Our best known activity for the last ten years is probably the BiS relationship to South Africa. In 1970, Swedish library relationship to South Africa was in focus for the first time in BiS’ history. A delegation from South Africa also officially visited both the city library of Malmö and the company Bibliotekstjänst, the official provider of media and library material to Swedish public libraries and owned by the libraries. BiS activists protested both in the bis journal and in Biblioteksbladet issued by the established Swedish Library Organisation, SAB and contested opinions put forward by people who were less willing to boycott and exclude South Africa from the international arena. BiS had introduced itself at the last year’s annual general meeting of SAB. During the 1970 SAB meeting representatives of BiS put forward a resolution in the section of private members urging SAB to repudiate any kind of visits from South Africa, Rhodesia or South West Africa and asking SAB to raise the issue of excluding South Africa from IFLA. A SAB initiated, less stronger, counter-resolution condemning the policy of segregation in South Africa and disassociating itself from co-operation and exchange programmes did win by a small margin. After the meeting BiS working group wrote to SAB urging – in consequence with the resolution – SAB to work actively at the IFLA Moscow meeting to expel South Africa.

BiS Programme

The BiS programme and the ideas put forward in the journal indicated a strong egalitarian approach, at times inspired by Chinese ideas of exchange of labour within the library. Many people within BiS were critical during the academic union strike of 1970 (including doctors as well as librarians). The editorial of bis 11 is in opposition to the idea that someone with a higher level of education should have more power (including a higher salary): ”Don’t support the master race mentality!” You can find what possibly could be a minority position in this issue of bis as well, saying if this strike fails it will effect the outcome of other strikes.

The formation of BiS was inspired by Danish contacts. ”Young Librarians” was the organised opposition to the old establishment in Denmark. One of the radical Danish librarians Per Nyeng, at that time working in Northern Sweden, critically followed the development of Young Librarians of Denmark and the emergence of BiS. In BiS he could find quite a motley crew ranging from ”hardened reactionary pillars of society to ascetic culture revolutionary socialists”. He scrutinised the first issue of bis and found to many vague expressions and articles. Who are BiS trying to hit, he asked in his review in Biblioteksbladet,. And indeed bis was a modest product, very much like other poor bulletins of the period. From the very start you could find the classical mark of the Swedish radical generation in our journal: the provoking call to support the people of Vietnam channelled through the growing Swedish Vietnam movement: ”Support the National Front of Liberation, postal account 400 499 Stockholm K”

In January 1970, BiS changed its programme in at least one important way: ”BiS is on socialist basis working to promote progressive libraries.” The editorial of bis issue 5 tries to explain: ”Socialism should to the journal bis mean that we are trying to encourage the alternative library debate, the one running beside the sweeping debates of principles from the well established senior officials”.

The result was of course that some non-socialists left BiS, including the Gothenburg branch with six months of enthusiastic reporting of activities in bis.

In bis you can now continuously see how new, alternative and left wing ideas are introduced. Alliances are established; writers and representatives of progressive organisations are contributing and BiS is even discovered by the right wing reaction. In a book from 1972 Christoffer Jolin first distorted, pretended to quote, and then interpreted the BiS programme: ”Librarians should fight to make the public alert and on socialist basis reform the activities at all the libraries of the country’ [underlined by Jolin]. The wording is typical communist propaganda and the aim is communistic. Those progressive librarians see as their primary objective to prioritise socialist literature and actively stimulate their patrons to read the ‘right literature’. Progressive (read communist) exhibitions followed by ‘progressive’ lectures and appeals supplement the municipal cultural service”

My impression is that BiS from the very start attracted a very dedicated and creative group of young people, concerned about developing libraries in a direction of social responsibility. Some of those people were absorbed by new positions, while others stayed behind. Within the framework of BiS people were personally developing using their spare time and consequently contributed positively to the advancement of their own librarianship. BiS has been a forum for ideological discussions of library issues, and to a smaller extent an arena of general political studies. A Swedish characteristic is the work done by organisations to influence the policy of the government. Not in the modern way of lobbying, but by reading and discussing relevant official reports – formally submitted or not – and providing an officially written response. The first official report to be commented on was about the reformation of the librarian’s education. Nine densely printed pages are attached to bis issue 5. More were to follow throughout BiS history.

In specific areas, BiS activists played a significant role. This is particularly obvious when it comes to the provision of literature and developing library service to immigrants, which was elaborated in the beginning of the 1970s and was presented in issues of bis.

The establishing of the revised and enlarged Library School in Borås 1972 meant that a growing number of students gathered there for two years. There was definitely a boom of left ideas those years. All kind of left wing organisations were represented at the school, the number of enlisted members in BiS grew, finally reaching figures such as 425 members in 1976. Some left wing organisation – those in favour of the popular front idea – actively stayed out of BiS in opposition its socialist platform.

The journal bis was supplemented by a bulletin specially distributed to the members containing debates, clips, announcements of up-coming internal activities etc. During this period the number of branches of BiS was growing allowing the work with the journal to be done on circulating bases throughout the country. Weekend seminars were held where the subject was answering official reports, refining the programme of BiS or looking more closely into special subjects. Every such meeting also included cultural programmes, food and wine. Moreover, the participants evenly shared the costs of the train tickets.

Local Activities

I was part of the branch of the county of Värmland. One obligation of every branch was to contribute to the national level. BiS did not have any board – and still have no chairperson -, but the branches circulated the vital tasks. The whole process of planning and making a camera-ready proof for the printing office of the journal was continuously circulated and so was the making of the newsletter to the members, the arranging of weekend seminars. Some activities were fixed during the 1970s: the annual general meeting was held in Borås for many years, a working group with co-ordinating functions as well as the treasurer and register holder were elected annually.

My branch started its activities in 1977. From a potential target group of about 20 library workers six to seven people from four different municipalities started working together. From the minutes kept you can follow a mixture of obligations to the national movement, such as reviewing the present issue of bis or preparing ideological issues to be debated on the national weekend seminars. However, as a branch, you were also free to act locally and we did indeed! One of the actions during the last years of the 70s tried to hit against the fact that the County Council in their waiting rooms in hospitals and elsewhere bought copies of Donald Duck far exceeding the money the Cultural Section spent on children in their programme. That was the most spectacular activity of the branch and our action was well covered by media and did effect the future policy. We had plans for other local actions directed against the mass market literature, but finally put our efforts into the miserable state of school libraries on primary and lower secondary level and made a revealing and demanding exhibition that circulated within the county.

That exhibition was in the end informally taken over by the County Library – primarily because one of the BiS activists could use it later on. I believe that this was a typical feature. By that time a lot of BiS members were becoming established part of the libraries, some advancing to senior positions and most of us in a position of actually being able to implement our ideas in reality. And at the same time exposed to the risk of being absorbed – or at least affected – by the ”system”. In 1979 my branch arranged the first of a great number of national summer camps – a summer week open to whole families, and in the beginning with high ideological ambitions. BiS members were growing older.

If you look at the library history of Sweden you will find a mixture of influences behind the developing of the modern public library system. However, the role of libraries I believe has been that of a guide to literature and information, from different viewpoints. The efforts of BiS I am convinced will to a certain extent be described as part of a traditional popular education concept. You can actually already find academic papers dealing with the BiS reluctant attitude towards the commercial mass market literature. During the later part of the 1970s, many BiS activists were sympathetic to the revival and work around the broad left wing journal Folket i Bild/Kulturfront. One particularly attractive part of that movement to librarians was the renaissance of progressive, often working class, writers from the past as well as present. The focus of BiS gradually changed from opposing to promoting. The expressive actions of the early period, including things such as a special issue on a prisoners’ strike in 1970, markedly decreased.


Obviously BiS did not fulfil the expectations of many of its early activists. In an issue from 1980 (bis 100) devoted to the 20th anniversary, one of the early and at the time most dedicated BiS activists Karin Oscarsson wrote a personal and pessimistic summary of the period entitled ”The Dream of the New Man”:

”My most intense desire during the red years of the 70s had the goal of the New Man, she who all the revolutions and processes of liberation all over the world was going to give birth to, she who would have a new, gentle and loving attitude to the world she was responsible of.

On the everyday level it was the Man of Solidarity we were hoping for – especially within the newly started organisation Bibliotek i Samhälle. We were going to work for fair distribution of the knowledge hidden in the bookshelves of the library, only available to few people.

However, the solidarity should to the same extent cover our fellow-workers in the library work. We were supposed to oppose hierarchies controlled from the top, we were to work in self-governing minor groups. The pyramid was to be replaced by a circle with the ideological goal as the centre. The group and not any individual boss was in charge. The power had to be distributed to as many as possible in order to be transformed into common knowledge and skills. In conflicts in the work we should have supported and encouraged one another. No one should risk being exposed to competition and profiting by others.

Not much came out of this. Today competition with others is in rule and so is the care of the own preserve in too many of our public libraries. Smartness, efficiency and prestige is highly esteemed and those who question that and dare show human imperfection and weakness should keep away”

This is as far as this account goes. BiS did manage the backlash years of the 1980s and is presently in fairly good shape. Focus has changed to include more international contacts and projects. Many of the members of the early days do remain activists or at least members, although in a more reformist and up-dated way; The idealism and utopian thinking of the 1970s have partly been transformed into a defence of what was achieved during those years. Internet is challenging the idea of keeping libraries as the traditional domain of popular education and is bringing up the debate of freedom of expression, now when pornography and hate sites are on the doorsteps of the libraries. Will BiS survive when the generation of the 1960s and 70s retire? There is a growing interest from the younger generation of enrolling BiS. We have re-established contacts with library schools – the natural nurseries for radical ideas, which is a hopeful sign for the survival of BiS. Will the heritage of the 70s inspire or block a younger generation?

That will remain a cliff-hanger for another five or ten years.