Ingvar Carlsson: “Libraries are a cornerstone of democratic society”

When democratic ideas are under attack, libraries become even more important as assets for free speech.

Ingvar Carlsson grew up in Borås but left the city when he started studying in Lund, where he received a Master’s in Political Science. But even prior to this, he had become involved in politics by joining the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League, as he believed that the school system at the time was inequitable depending on one’s background.

Directly after his studies in 1958, he entered the corridors of politics in Stockholm as a secretary in the Cabinet Committee under then Prime Minister Tage Erlander, and in 1965 he became a Member of Parliament.

During Olof Palme’s terms as Prime Minister, he was Minister of Education and Minister of Housing as well as Minister of State responsible for future issues and Minister of the Environment.

Accomplished the relocation of librarian education within Sweden

And it was during his time as Minister of Education, 1969–1973 that events tied him to Borås again. He was the one in the government corridors who pushed for librarian education to be relocated to Borås. This in turn formed a basis for the formation of the University of Borås in a merger with the Pre-School Seminary in 1977.

“This investment in Borås was part of a gigantic expansion of higher education and research that was carried out from Luleå in the north to Blekinge in the south. If we were to be able to meet the demands of the future, a major investment in improved knowledge and competence in society was needed. All of Sweden needed to be involved in this. In my opinion, we succeeded quite well. For Borås, it felt natural to bring the various parts together into one university. The most important of the issues that I have worked with specifically regarding the University of Borås was probably this relocation,” he said.

But in 1981, librarian education in Borås was threatened with closure. By then, the Social Democrats had lost power and were the opposition party. “I myself had left education policy and had to take over responsibility for energy policy with the then burning issue of nuclear power. I was very surprised by the idea of ​​discontinuing the education of librarians in Borås,” he said.

Honoured in the name of the students’ magazine

In connection with the relocation of the librarian education programme, the students at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science published a magazine named in memory of Ingvar Carlsson, In Carlsson’s Glue (in Swedish, I Carlssons klister). It was published until 1994 and during all those years, Ingvar was presented with a copy of each publication. If anyone is wondering whether he read them, the answer is yes.

“I followed the magazine with interest. The government had to face the fact that some students had preferred another place for their librarian education. The relocating of government activities is almost always debated.”

How do you see education in Sweden today?

“We have a well-developed educational system with generous conditions for students in Sweden. This applies not least to higher education and research. But recently, two serious problems have been discovered in primary, lower-secondary, and secondary schools. Study results in Sweden are worsening and the differences between different groups is increasing. Here, powerful measures must be put in place to reverse the trend,” said Ingvar Carlsson.

We then discussed the role of the University of Borås in terms of education and research.

“The university’s task is to offer education of the highest quality in important areas of society to interested students. It also makes the university an exciting strategic player in the Sjuhärad region. I think this is extremely important for the region’s development and attractiveness,” he continued.

After his time in politics, Ingvar has published several books in which he talks about his political activities and views on politics. In his latest book, In the Company of Death (in Swedish, I sällskap med döden), he expresses how democracy is threatened and how people can support human rights. Questions about media and information literacy, disinformation, and how information is created and affects us are issues that are highly relevant for today’s librarians, as well as for the research environment of the Swedish School of Library and Information Science and society at large. His own relationship with books and libraries stems from when he was a child and often visited the City Library in Borås.

Grateful for the library

“In the fall of 1941, aged seven, I visited the library for the first time and registered as a borrower in the children’s and youth department. For long periods of my growing up, I came back every week to borrow new books. For me and my personal development, this took on a meaning and value that is almost unimaginable. I feel great gratitude both to the library and the staff who discovered my love of reading and constantly gave me new tips. This came full circle as my life partner Ingrid later trained as a librarian,” he recalled. 

“In a democratic society, libraries are an indispensable resource, yes, actually a cornerstone. When democratic ideas are under attack, libraries become even more important as assets for free speech. Any attempt to circumvent or diminish the role of libraries must therefore be rejected. Libraries must remain important elements of free states,” he emphasised.

He remembers when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and many believed that democracy would triumph over the world.

“And that’s how it was to begin with. But now the tide has turned. Democratic institutions and values ​​are being questioned in the world, in Europe, and in Sweden, as well. For centuries, humanity has tried to live under different social models. Even with its flaws, in my opinion, democracy is by far the best. That is why it is so important to stand up now for freedom of expression, the rule of law, and other democratic values.”

Gender equality to the highest level

Equality issues have also been and are important to highlight for Ingvar, both as a politician and as a citizen. As a politician, he invested purposefully in elevating women to important political positions.

“After the 1994 election, I formed the first equal government in the world with as many women as men. Compared to other countries, Sweden has come relatively far in terms of gender equality. But we still have a lot to do. For example, it is sad that we are not yet able to achieve equal pay for equal work in all areas,” he said.

In the world of the library and books, he found a book that particularly left a mark when it came to equality. It was the work Sara Videbeck and the Chapel (in Swedish, Det går an) by Carl Jonas Love Almqvist.

“I borrowed and read it for the first time in the early 1950s. It is about two young people, Sara and Albert, who meet on a trip between Stockholm and Lidköping, which was partly on a passenger boat on Mälaren. I was entranced by the fine and beautiful portrayal, but over the years I have become increasingly fascinated by Sara’s desire for a freer and more equal life. The book was written in 1838 and already here Almqvist presents a kind of feminist manifesto. Almqvist was truly far ahead of his time. It is the book that I have re-read the most times.”

So what are Ingvar Carlsson’s driving forces in life and in politics? The answer is short and concise: “To live in a country where all people have value.” 

And what kind of role models have you had?

“I have had the privilege of living with many fine role models. I want to mention three of them here. My mother Ida who, with a low female textile worker’s salary, was able to take responsibility for her family and made it possible for her sons to take advantage of the new opportunities for education. Tage Erlander became my political mentor and role model. For 23 years, he was Sweden’s Prime Minister and had perhaps more influence over our country than any other politician. But he remained completely uncorrupted by power. And finally, Nelson Mandela, who was forced to spend nearly three decades in prison because he demanded human rights and democracy. When he was released, he could have called for vengeance and retribution, but instead he preached reconciliation and cooperation across racial lines.”

How do you see your role as honorary doctor at the University of Borås?

“At the age of 90, my possibilities are perhaps limited. But I would like to increase awareness in the rest of Sweden about the competence and the opportunities that the University of Borås offers.”

And what about his ties to Borås? Ingvar left the city in 1956.

“My best contact is with Elfsborg (IF Elfsborg is a sports association in Borås) and I still show up at Borås arena from time to time to cheer on my team. I talk to some friends from my youth on the phone relatively often and I follow what is happening in the Sjuhärad region by reading the local newspaper Borås Tidning online. When I was recently appointed Borås Ambassador for a year, I also was very happy and honoured.”

Ingvar Carlsson held the position of Prime Minister from 1986–1991 and 1994–1996.

Honorary doctorate 2024 – Ingvar Carlsson

“Ingvar Carlsson has been one of Sweden’s most influential politicians over 40 years as a cabinet minister, party leader, and Prime Minister. During his time as Minister of Education, he was something of a patron saint of the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, as he was instrumental in moving librarian training from Stockholm to Borås. With a twinkle in their eye, the librarian students named their union magazine “I Carlssons klister” (in English “In Carlsson's Glue”). In his latest book ”I sällskap med döden” (in English “In the Company of Death”), Ingvar Carlsson describes how the library was where he discovered culture. In his book, he expresses how democracy is under threat, and how people can unite around human rights. Questions about media and information literacy, disinformation, how information is created and affects us are issues that are highly relevant for today's librarians, as well as for the research environment of the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, and society at large. “

Ingvar Carlsson will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Library and Information Science.

Lecture: "Borås City Library: That's how it started."
2 May at 11:30 (in Swedish) in Sparbankssalen, University of Borås.