A former porn shop employee has revealed that the library's archives contain thousands of pornographic magazines, including several titles featuring young children.
In the 1970s, Valentin Bart spent a year working in a pornographic book store near Stockholm’s central train station which at the time was known as the city’s red light district.
One shelf at the store displayed magazines featuring child pornography, which was legal in Sweden at the time.
“They were really repulsive,” Bart told The Local.
But on a recent visit to the National Library, he was surprised to learn that magazines featuring boys he estimated were as young as 10 or 11 years old were being held by the institution. Bart noted the irony in Sweden's national library - called Kungliga Biblioteket or 'Royal Library' in Swedish - containing materials that Queen Silvia has passionately campaigned against for years
“It was so easy to gain access,” he said of his visit, which took place in the autumn of 2008.
“All I did was sign up to check out books and send a letter explaining my reasons for wanting to view the material. Anyone could have done the same thing.”
In his letter requesting access, Bart said he was investigating the history of child pornography in Sweden in order to tell the “long, secret story” of how “child pornography was legal and commercially exploited in Sweden”.
The presence of child pornography in Sweden’s National Library stems in part from the library’s legal obligation to collect everything printed in Sweden or in Swedish, including pornographic magazines.
While it’s widely known that a wave of liberal thinking about sex and pornography swept across Sweden in the 1960s, fewer people are aware that it led to the legalization of child pornography.
The government at the time initiated a review of freedom of speech laws in 1965, looking closely at provisions governing the portrayal of children.
In 1971, a new law was passed which made it legal to buy, sell, and possess child, animal, and violent pornography in Sweden.
In the wake of the relaxed restrictions, a number of pornographic magazines were produced with names like Teenangels, Bambino and Lolita, each sending obligatory issues for archiving at the National Library.
According to the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), Swedish attitudes towards child pornography were extremely liberal at the time.
Citing “the child’s right to sexuality”, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (Riksförbundet för sexuellt likaberättigande – RFSL) launched a 'paedophile working group' to lobby for lighter sentences for sex crimes against minors and for a lower age of consent.
RFSL’s efforts paid off in 1976, when a government commission issued a proposal including both suggestions, as well as the decriminalization of incest.
The bill never became law, however, and Sweden eventually recriminalized child pornography in 1980, and RFSL switched positions on the matter.
By then, however, the archive of child pornography at the National Library had continued to expand and remained largely accessible to the public until Bart brought the issue to the library’s attention.
Bart is hesitant to call himself an anti-child pornography advocate. Rather, his motivation in pursuing the issues stems from what he sees as a contradiction in Swedish law.
On the one hand, it is illegal to possess or distribute or show child pornography in Sweden; on the other hand, the National Library is obligated by law to archive everything printed in Sweden, including magazines featuring child pornography.
“I just want to shed light on this issue,” he said.
“Call it a paradox, call it hypocrisy, call it what you will, but we’ve got laws in this country that work against one another.”
National library spokesperson Sara Bengtzon admitted the library has a “a lot of sensitive material” because of its obligation to archive, but access to the material is restricted to researchers, journalists, and others who are deemed to have a “highly credible” reason for wanting to view it.
“We decide to grant access on a case by case basis,” she added, admitting that there is no concrete set of minimum requirements for who is allowed access to the library’s sensitive material.
Since Bart warned the library they could be breaking the law, officials have reviewing their collection for issues of magazines which may contain child pornography.
“Everyone can make mistakes, even the National Library,” said Bengtzon, although she refused to elaborate on whether the mistake was allowing Bart access to the collection or some other shortcoming in the access restrictions.
“We welcome this test. It’s always good to review the restrictions we have in place,” she said, adding that the library began a comprehensive review of its access rules at the start of the year.
Despite the library’s restrictions, Bengtzon admitted they are by no means fool proof when asked whether or not paedophiles may have unwittingly been granted access to the library’s collection of child pornography.
“I can’t say that it has happened, but I can’t say that it hasn’t happened,” she said.
“But over all those years it’s certainly a possibility. I’d need to investigate further.”