Every spring and fall, the Stockholm Library Service rents a boat for a week. (Photo: Bokbåten Stockholms skärgård/Facebook)
Sweden and its Nordic neighbors have some of the highest literacy rates in the world. The Swedes view equal access to education and knowledge as a critical component to an individual's future success. This is true regardless of economic background and, apparently, geographic location.
Sweden has a floating library — the bokbåten — that brings thousands of books to people on dozens of remote islands in the Stockholm archipelago twice a year. Every spring and fall since 1953, the Stockholm Library Service rents a boat for a week, loads it full of books, and charts a course for about 23 inhabited islands. (Norway has one, too, called the Epos.)
When the boat docks, residents climb aboard to return books they borrowed during the last visit and check out the library's newest offerings. The boat carries about 3,000 books, and residents can put in requests ahead of time. The three or four volunteer librarians who take turns working on the ship say that, as you might expect, the latest best-sellers are in high demand.
In 2018, a woman named Maria Anderhagen took over managing the bokbaten — in part because she had the largest basement in town and could store all the books in between voyages.
The bokbåten brings library books to about 23 islands in the Stockholm archipelago in the spring and fall each year. This is Bokbåten Epos, which usually serves Norway. (Photo: Bokbåten Epos/Facebook)
Here's what the inside of the boat looks like, courtesy of Literary Hub, which got a tour:
There are tall wooden shelves, large tables displaying sturdy hardcovers, book carts on wheels, a long checkout table, even event notices taped against the wall. There are picture books for children, popular thrillers, large-print books, texts about history and science and knitting, cookbooks, and audiobooks. Since island residents can order copies in advance, boxes of books are stacked around the boat waiting to be delivered.
Culture of learning with an uncertain future
In addition to a library boat, Sweden also has library buses that bring books to people in rural communities. They also develop impromptu libraries in places such as stores and social gathering spots. The boat started as a service for fisherman and island workers but expanded to serve residents who prefer to read hard copies of books over e-books or audio books.
According to this 2010 study published in the Journal Resource Sharing & Information Networks:
The book boat is of great positive value for children and adults because they can in this way take part in the modern public library. The book boat has an important function as extraordinarily good public relations for the library's services and has the effect of promoting reading not only in the archipelago but elsewhere.
Even in a nation of book lovers, the future of the floating library remains uncertain. Anderhagen told Literary Hub that if the Regional Library cuts funding for the boat, the bokbaten will be no more. Such was the case recently in Finland. To mark its centennial, the nation gave itself a brand new library with a price tag of about $11 million. However, in the process, it cut funding for a library boat that had been in service for 30 years.
Hopefully, Sweden's bokbaten will continue to operate as a wonderful nod to past traditions while educating people for the future.