I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house with shelves filled with more books than they could fit – unfortunately they were mostly filled with the books my parents were reading rather than the books my teenage-self wanted to read. I lived my early teenage years with my nose firmly buried between the pages of books, in large parts thanks to the library, and especially the central library in Oslo.
For a while my parents would take me and my sister there on weekends, I was often worried the authorities would get hold of the list of books I was borrowing and deem me insane as they covered such a wide range of subjects – but that is the beauty of libraries – they can feed the curiosity of the curious without judgement – the library fed my addiction to information, to prose and beautiful, terrifying, grotesque and heroic tales of strange worlds and lands I would later get to visit.
In Oslo, the temple of literature is the Deichman Library which is the municipal library, the largest and oldest in the country. It opened its doors on the 12th of January 1785 with an endowment of 7000 books and 150 manuscripts from Carl Deichman. It’s mine, and should be everyone’s dream to have such a vast collection, and to make it available to the public.
Since the beginning, the library was open to all citizens – cementing it as a public institution giving access to literature to everyone. At the time this was rare as most libraries charged membership fees. However, as most of the initial collection was in German, French, Latin and Danish education was a significant obstacle to most readers without higher education.
Haakon Nyhuus became head librarian in 1898 and reformed the library to become a model for public libraries throughout the Nordics. Nyhuus had spent eight years in America and was inspired by the Carnegie libraries. He was responsible for adding books for young people and children, for which I, and the population of Oslo owe him a great debt of gratitude. He also established reading rooms, tripled the collection in size, and the borrowing of books increased 25 times with an estimated 4000 visitors a day.
Today the library consists of 23 branches spread across the city hosting not only thousands of volumes in a range of formats but also events, courses and classes – many have found a place of refuge among the books at the library.
Whoever you are, a Deichman library is a place for you. In our libraries you are welcome to spend time reading, working, relaxing, meeting friends, or enjoying some peace and quiet. – from the library website
Beyond Deichman there are more than 800 public libraries across Norway, including mobile units reaches the more rural areas of the country. From towns and cities all public libraries are connected in a national network meaning you can borrow books that may not be in the main collection at the library closest to you – ensuring that everyone has access to the knowledge they desire.
Although it’s never been the library closest to where I’ve lived the central library in Oslo, in its majestic building next to the government headquarters in Oslo holds a special place in my heart. It’s where I hung out in my teens, where I did my homework and explored the faraway world, and like myself and the city, it bears the scars of the terrorist attack in 2011 when the bomb planted in the government headquarters also damaged its façade and glassworks, closing down the library for two months.
In 2020 the main library will move into new buildings closer to the newly developed bay of Oslo, next to other cultural institutions such as the national opera and the new Munch museum – with it I hope we’ll bring the library into the future – at the same time I’ll miss the majestic building from 1933 on St. Hanshaugen with its halls, its stairs and nooks and crannies as designed by architect Nils Reiersen. I also worry what will happen to the collection as the new building is much smaller than the old one and an estimated 300,000 items will have to find a new home – yet with more space for activities and gatherings, with a modern building in a more central location I hope the library will live on, and provide a new home for crazy teenagers with a desire for knowledge and satisfy the need to learn about the world for generations to come.
One thing is for sure, I love my library, my city, my country and my culture would not be the same without it, and if you search for the key to unlock the values upon which the Nordic model is built you might just find it at Deichman – after all; whoever you are, a Deichman library is a place for you.