Anna Almqvist was a self-taught intellectual working-class woman who was also one of the first librarians to work within the public library sphere. She also ran the Katarina congregation reading room.
Anna Almqvist was born in Södermalm, Stockholm in 1863. Her parents’ identities remain unknown as does the fact of whether or not she had siblings. Anna Almqvist took up sewing whilst she was still a pupil at public school. On completing her schooling she gained employment as a milliner’s seamstress and for a short time she ran a sewing stall. Alongside her paid employment Anna Almqvist also undertook her own studies. She read, attended lectures and concerts and went to exhibitions. She frequently visited Stockholms Arbetareinstitut (workers’ institute), the capital city’s first public education institute which offered lectures and a library. It was perhaps there that she first learned of Tolfterna’s gatherings. Tolfterna was an organisation which resulted from the initiative of Ellen Key and others. Ellen Key also regularly gave lectures at Stockholms Arbetareinstitut.
Anna Almqvist became an influential figure within Tolfterna. She not only ran the library but eventually also ran the social gatherings. At one of these meetings she gave a talk on the philosophy of life entitled “Om idealen” which generated a lot of positive response. The talk was then published in the Idun journal, where it was re-titled “En stockholmsarbeterska om idealen”, revealing just how unusual it was for a woman of Anna Almqvist’s background to get published. A German translation of the talk was also published in the Ethische Kultur journal.
Anna Almqvist encouraged the working-class women around her to educate themselves. She worked hard to ensure that Tolfterna’s gatherings actually offered the intended exchange between the classes. The women in the workers’ movement felt that she should dedicate her talents to fighting the class war but she didn’t want to box herself in and described herself as “en vilde” (a bit of a maverick).
It was through the contacts she made in Tolfterna that, in 1903, Anna Almqvist was appointed director of the newly-opened reading-room in Katarina congregation. This library had been set up by Föreningen för folkbibliotek och läsestugor (association of public libraries and reading-rooms). Reading rooms were forerunners to public libraries and were particularly aimed at working-class children and adults. This was a demanding yet rewarding post. Anna Almqvist managed the reading room single-handedly and worked long hours every day. Although she had a lot of plans to develop the enterprise her physical exertions caused her health to decline rapidly. After just a few months she became severely ill and died, aged only 40.
Anna Almqvist died in Stockholm in 1903.