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What have we learned from implementing the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child? Experiences from some public libraries in Sweden

Published onMar 14, 2022
What have we learned from implementing the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child? Experiences from some public libraries in Sweden


The aim of this article is to give you some examples and insights from some ongoing processes of implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) at the Swedish public libraries. The article will present changes that some of the libraries have made, to strengthen the rights of the children, regarding the media, hiring of staff, media budgets, the library premises and methods to enhance children’s participation.

Der Artikel zeigt Beispiele und Prozesse auf, wie die UN-Kinderrechtskonvention in öffentlichen Bibliotheken in Schweden umgesetzt wurde. Dabei wird auf Veränderungen bezüglich der Medienauswahl, den Anstellungsprofilen von Mitarbeitenden, Medienbudgets, der räumlichen Gestaltung und der Beteiligung von Kindern eingegangen.

1. Introduction

There is an unequal power balance between children and adults. Children can’t vote and they don’t hold any positions of power in society. As adults we have the responsibility to compensate for the children’s lack of power. Children need our help to get their human rights fulfilled.

To our help, we have the 54 articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ratified by every single country in the world, except for one, the United States of America.

From the first of January 2020, Sweden has incorporated the UNCRC into the Swedish law, to further strengthen the rights of the child and to meet some of the critique from the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Now, public institutions of all sorts, including public libraries, all over the country are planning for, or already embarking on, a journey towards the fulfilment of the rights of the child. As well as many other institutions in Sweden, public libraries started to look around and ask for help; “We want to live up to the law and the UNCRC, where should we start?”.

2. Staying the Course

Some years earlier, starting in 2015, the four regional libraries of Sörmland, Örebro, Östergötland and Gävleborg had started a development process, where we wanted to explore different ways of implementing the rights of the child, in the whole library organization. The manager and everyone in the staff should be involved. We asked some of the public library managers in our regions if they wanted to explore this together with us and they all said yes!

The result of this process is a model, a tutorial in eight steps, described in the book called Staying the Course: the Library Director’s Strategic Model for the Implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Eriksson, Holmén, Wennerholm, & Blomberg, 2019). Thanks to the financial support of the National Library of Sweden, the book was published and sent by mail to all the 290 municipalities, and it reached every public library manager in Sweden.

The book that describes the model is written by library developers, in the regions of Sörmland, Östergötland, Örebro and Gävleborg; Ann Catrine Eriksson, Annika Holmén, Christine Wennerholm och Sylvia Blomberg. The model has been presented to an international audience at the Next Library Satellite Conference 2018 in Berlin and also at the IFLA WLIC 2019 in Athens (Eriksson, Wennerholm, & Blomberg, 2019). The book is used in the education of new librarians, students of the Master’s Programme in ALM (Archives, Libraries and Museums) at the Lund university in Sweden.

3. Why library managers and not children’s librarians?

Why did we target library managers when we developed the implementation model? Well, historically, at the regional libraries, we’ve been driving development projects about the UNCRC with the target group children’s librarians. Mainly because they play an important role, meeting children and designing activities and events for children in the libraries. Of course, every children’s librarian should be able to work according to the UNCRC.

But reaching out to children’s librarians was not enough. The knowledge stayed in the children’s library. We wanted the UNCRC to permeate the whole organization. Every adult person in the library should know about the UNCRC and be able to use it in their everyday work. Maybe children’s librarians weren’t the most important group to reach, after all. We realized that we had to aim higher to make a difference and to create sustainability.

4. All decisions made, must be based on the best interests of the child

One of the main principles of the UNCRC is stated in article no 3: All decisions made in an organization, should be made with the best interests of the child in mind. A lot of important decisions which have an impact on children is taken by library leaders; budget issues, staff education, setting visions, goals and plans.

Implementing the UNCRC in the whole organization, is therefore the responsibility of the library manager – not of the children´s librarian.

The UNCRC is not about working in a children’s library. It is not about children. It is about fulfilling the human rights of persons between 0-18 years. We wanted library managers to realize this and act.

5. Implementing the UNCRC in the Region of Sörmland

According to the Swedish Library Act, each municipality shall have at least one public library.

6§ (…) Public libraries shall be accessible to everyone and adapted to the needs of their users. The selection of media and services in public libraries shall be characterised by versatility and quality.


8§ Public libraries shall devote particular attention to children and young adults in order to promote their linguistic development and encourage them to read, including by offering literature on the basis of their needs and prerequisites. (Swedish Library Association, 2015, p. 17)

In Sweden every region has its own regional library. The aim of the regional libraries is to promote the quality and cooperation between the public libraries in that region and contribute to the libraries’ business development.

At the regional library in Sörmland, I had the chance to work together in a two year long process aiming at implementing the UNCR, together with the leaders of the nine public libraries in the different municipalities of our region. In the process, most of the managers have chosen to follow the eights steps-model in the book “Staying the Course”.

Sörmland is situated in the middle of Sweden, 100 kilometers south of Stockholm. Sörmland consists of nine municipalities.

The role of regional library in the process in Sörmland, has been to inspire and support the library directors in the process, providing a time plan, arranging meetings and further education opportunities. But also putting some gentle pressure to act and writing plans for the implementation process in their organization.

6. What happened? Did anything change?

The result of the different processes, led by the managers, at the public libraries, has been inspiring to witness. A great deal of good ideas have come up and action definitely took place. I will highlight some examples.

At step two in the strategic implementation model, as described in the book, you, as a library leader, should take a look at your own operations. Step two involves surveying the current status of your municipality and organization. You conduct the survey in order to obtain knowledge of the target group (children in your municipality) and about the current state of the mission of working with the rights of the child. The survey also gives you a picture of your organization’s conditions, opportunities and obstacles, and an overview of how resources are currently allocated.

Media budgets, staff resources and premises

As a result, when the library directors in Sörmland looked at their media budgets, they discovered that there was no way, in the administrative economic system, where they could see how much money they spent on the purchase of children’s and young adults media versus the purchase of media for adults. So they decided to change that, by including it in their Action plan (writing an Action plan is step five in the strategic model).

Others discovered that the allocated budget for the purchase of media, for people over 18, was much bigger than the budget for the purchase of media for children and young adults despite the library´s intention to prioritize children. So they changed that.

Another example, also from the work being done at step two in the model: When some of the library managers looked at the number of staff, designated to work with children at their libraries, they discovered they were too few. At this time, a new grant was offered by the national  Swedish Arts Council, on behalf of the government. The grant is called Stärkta bibliotek (in English Enforced libraries) and it provides the libraries with the opportunity to apply for extra money. The purpose of the grant is to increase the supply and accessibility of library activities throughout the country.

As a result of the implementation process in Sörmland, some of the libraries have chosen to apply for these grants to allocate extra children’s librarians resources, targeting special groups of children, such as pre-school kids and teenagers with another first language than Swedish. And when they put out the job advertisement, knowledge about the rights of the child were an important part of the job description, and something that was expected from the applicant.

In the same process, some of the libraries discovered that the library premises were too small and not functioning for the different needs of families with small children and teenagers, for example. Those libraries started to plan for rearranging or rebuilding to create more and better spaces for different groups.

Age limits and fines

Even though the responsibility of implementing the UNCRC in every corner of the organization lies on the strategic level, at the library director’s desk, everyone working in the library plays a very important role in executing the work.

At step six in the strategic model of the book, the library manager continues to build knowledge together with the staff. The goal is to ensure that the entire organization and people in every professional category require knowledge about the rights of the child. All employees must be involved in the continuing professional training efforts.

When the library managers in Sörmland provided opportunities for the staff to get more knowledge and discuss issues concerning children’s rights and their operations, things really began to happen at the workplaces. The staff started asking questions and came up with ideas to improve different parts of the libraries services.

In one of the libraries, the staff discovered that they started to send fines for delayed books to library users from the age of fifteen. Way back they had taken a conscious decision that no children should pay fees at the library, but suddenly they discovered that they were sending fees to children (!), since the UNCRC defines a child as a person under the age of 18 years. As a consequence of that finding, the library changed the routine immediately. And they continued to investigate if there were other age limits that weren’t in line with the UNCRC.

Activities and events

In Sweden, our Library Act provides us with additional reasons to work in accordance with the UNCRC. Through the UNCRC, our country has committed itself to convey knowledge about the convention’s content to children and adults. This is fully in line with § 2 of the Swedish Library Act (SFS no: 2013:801), which states that libraries must work to promote democratic social development by contributing to knowledge sharing and the free formation of opinions.

As part of their implementation processes, several of the libraries in Sörmland have been creating events and activities for the public, such as theatre performances etc, spreading information to adults and children about children’s rights. They’ve created special bookshelves with media about children’s rights issues and used social media to communicate the UNCRC, giving recommendations about books on different children’s rights issues on Facebook and so forth.

7. The Swedish Library Association’s Children’s Rights Award “the Elephant”

The basic mission for all libraries, as stated in the Swedish Library Act §2 is to

promote the development of a democratic society by contributing to the transfer of knowledge and the free formation of opinions. The libraries in the public library system shall promote the status of literature and an interest in learning, information, education, and research as well as other cultural activities. Library activities shall be available to everyone. (Swedish Library Association, 2015, p. 7)

As you can see, a lot of the formulations is fully in line with the aims of the UNCRC. Promoting a democratic society is really what libraries do, especially when they try to compensate for the children’s lack of power, by using methods for enhanced participation. Children are very competent. When we listen to the children expressing themselves creating the library that fulfills their needs, we get a better quality of our services and children get democratic training.

In the northern part of Sweden, you´ll find a very good example of getting the children’s help in creating a library for everyone. In Kiruna the library and the whole city (!) has to move to another location because of a big mine, undermining the whole city. To get the children’s ideas on how to improve the library in the process of moving it, two children’s librarians used different user-centered methods for talking to a lot of children in the municipality. In 2020 they were rewarded the very first Children’s Rights Award of the Year, called “the Elephant”, that is handed out once a year by the Swedish Library Association.

The aim of “the Elephant Prize” (Elefanten in Swedish) is to promote the important role public libraries play in the lives of children. The prize is awarded to an activity or person who, in a library context, has made significant efforts strengthening the rights of children, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2021 the Elephant Prize was awarded to the sixteen “barnrättsombud” (childrens’s rights representatives, in English) at all the seven public libraries in Västernorrland. The jury of the prize motivates their choice by pointing out that the children’s rights representatives have created a structure that enables long-term and systematic work with children’s rights. They have involved politicians, managers, employees, democracy coordinators, youth councils and children themselves in the process.

A particularly important achievement is the efforts made to include children and young people in the development of libraries. Children’s rights ombudsmen have collected ideas from children and young people on the ski slopes, given young people the opportunity to ask questions to politicians and interviewed students about their views on the library.

Children’s rights ombudsmen have initiated activities and provided continuous competence training for library staff on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Together with the library managers, they have also begun surveys and carried out child impact assessments for changes in the library environment.

The children’s rights representatives in Västernorrland have come a long way in their work on children’s rights. Together, they are a good example of how public libraries can organize sustainable child rights work. Through their extensive and long-term work, the children’s rights representatives have created a platform for continued successful child rights work in Västernorrland.

The illustration promotes The Swedish Library Association’s Children’s Rights Award the Elephant

It’s also worth noticing that on an international level, the IFLA Libraries for Children and Young Adults Section decided in their Action Plan that the Section’s activities and focus for 2020–2021 should have the UNCRC as a point of departure.

Implementing the UNCRC also strongly contributes to the fulfilment of several of the Sustainable Development Goals, for example Goal 10. Because when we, as adults, help the children to use their rights, their voices, their powers and competences – we assist in reducing inequalities between people.

About the author of this article

The article is written by Ann Catrine Eriksson, who is the editor and co-author of the book Staying the Course: the Library Director’s Strategic Model for the Implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (English version 2019, free of charge to download).

At the time when the article was written, Ann Catrine Eriksson was working as library developer at the regional library, Biblioteksutveckling Sörmland, in the Region of Sörmland. The content of the article is based on her experiences of working with the UNCRC in a regional and public library context, and from her role as the chairman of the jury of The Swedish Library Association’s Children’s Rights Award “the Elephant”.

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