Mary Ørvig was the first head of Svenska barnboksinstitutet (the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books) and was also responsible for establishing its international library. She was also a researcher on girls’ literature.
Mary Ørvig had a Russian background and her name was originally Mary Meirowitz. Her parents had fled White Russia at the time of the pogroms and settled in Söder in Stockholm, where Mary was born in 1918. She came from an educated literary home where reading was considered natural and essential.
Mary Ørvig was a teenager during the 1930s, which, according to her in a later interview, was a difficult period to understand: a decade of anti-Semitism, unemployment, fascism and the rise of Nazism. The Spanish civil war was a time of political awakening for her, and led to her hatred of war.
In 1946 Mary Ørvig travelled to the USA in order to gain the best available training as a librarian. She gained her Bachelor of Arts in 1948. On her return to Sweden she spent some time working as a librarian at Naturhistoriska riksmuseet (the Swedish Museum of Natural History), where Tor Ørvig, a Norwegian-Swedish palaeontologist, was the curator. They married in 1948 and the following year Mary Ørvig became employed at the Stockholm city library.
In 1953 Mary Ørvig and her husband spent a year living in the USA. At the New York Public Library she met Margaret Scoggin, a doyen and role model within librarianship. As a result of their meeting Mary Ørvig developed an interest in children’s literature. She spent some time working at a children’s library in the heart of the Harlem slum. The library budget included milk and buns for library visitors, and the librarians had time to sit and read to the children who often spent the whole day at the library.
After returning to Sweden Mary Ørvig carried on working at Stockholm city library. From 1956 to 1965 she was in charge of various children’s sections in the library. She also undertook many study visits to Great Britain, Ireland, West Germany, East Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. She became increasingly despondent about the Swedish library institution. Children were losing their interest in reading while the global need for books increased. For a time she dreamt of setting up her own library in a developing country but her health was not up to it. She remained unceasingly active, however. She published a range of literary surveys and gave lectures. She informed and taught people across national borders. She told Swedish librarians and teachers of how other nations ran their libraries. She spread knowledge of Swedish children’s and youth literature by submitting articles to foreign journals such as Jugendliteratur and Horn Magazine. She also found new methods of reaching out to society, for example, by writing an exposé on the history of girls’ books and heroines in Q: Yrkeskvinnors forum. She wrote about the need for children to read in Bonniers föräldrahandbok and, for the little red plastic diary known as Flickornas Kalender, she wrote an article with good reading tips, signed off as Mary Ørvig.
In 1965 Mary Ørvig was invited to plan and run the newly established Svenska barnboksinstitutet. The aim of the institute was to function as a central point for research on children’s literature. Mary Ørvig’s international experiences and many contacts came to good use here. As soon as premises were found, she began to collect material. It was intended that all children’s and youth literature published in Sweden would be available at the institute, and most importantly so would all significant research from those nations which were far more advanced in the area. She also organised collaborative conferences for the Nordic countries.
Running the institute was no easy task during the early years. It was constrained by limited finances and the opinions of the board members were wildly disparate in terms of what the institute should focus on. Some members, such as Lennart Hellsing, wanted a topical focus with a wider selection of in-house activities on offer. Other members, such as Mary Ørvig herself, took a long-term view and wanted to work toward producing a comprehensive research base. Mary Ørvig was largely successful in pushing her own agenda. As a result, according to national librarian Lars Tynell in 1994, the library at Svenska barnbiblioteksinstitutet became the most eminent specialised library in the field.
In 1970 it became obligatory for all Swedish universities to offer courses on children’s literature, and this generated a need for academic textbooks. Mary Ørvig was one of the authors who produced a textbook which was later revised as Ord och bilder för barn och ungdom.
After she retired in 1983 Mary Ørvig focused on her love of girls’ books. She subsequently published Flickboken och dess författare, in 1988. She was one of the first Swedes to research girls’ books and her work raised the profile of this genre.
Mary Ørvig was a great enthusiast in the sphere of children’s literature who spent her entire life working hard on its behalf. She took a considered approach to children’s literature, viewing it as a bridge-builder between nations and, thus, as a means to peace.
Mary Ørvig died in 1993.