Discovering Hammarskjöld through what he left behind

In this Q&A with Ingrid Svensson, we learn about the fascinating Dag Hammarskjöld’s archival collection stored at the National Library of Sweden.


 

What is the role of the National Library of Sweden and how come it ended up with Dag Hammarskjöld’s archival collection?

The National Library is responsible for collecting and preserving all Swedish publications, and for making the material available to the public. This means that we offer people the opportunity to read and study almost everything printed or published in Sweden. We actually have more than 18 million items in our collections, taking up 140km of shelving, and almost 10 million hours of audio and moving image recordings.

Among these many shelves, safely deposited in one of our underground archives, we have a special collection from Dag Hammarskjöld. It is deposited here because Hammarskjöld stated in his will that his personal documents should be left to the library. He was a good friend of Uno Willers’ who was Sweden’s National Librarian from 1952-1977, and their friendship meant Hammarskjöld was well acquainted with the National Library’s special archival collections.

What is included in the collection?

The archive has two parts, with one part containing everything before 1953 and the second everything after 1953 when Hammarskjöld became Secretary-General of the United Nations. The largest part of the collection is from his professional years at the UN and as per Hammarskjöld’s instructions they are catalogued by conflict. The collection is very varied though and contains drawings he made in his childhood, report cards, photographs, diaries, ID cards, as well as his Nobel Peace Prize medal.

Which part of the collection fascinates you the most?

There is a series of letters in the collection that details Hammarskjöld’s correspondence with Djuna Barnes. She is a writer and playwright I much admire and Hammarskjöld corresponded with her from 1958 and onwards when, together with Karl Ragnar Gierow, he was translating her play The Antiphon into Swedish.

It is striking to reflect on the fact that these detailed notes and manuscripts were written in Hammarskjöld’s spare time; his respite from dealing with complex international crisis. Difficult translation work is not something I think most of us would consider rest! As such I think it shows Hammarskjöld’s deep appreciation for the arts and language and it also provides special insight into the intricacy of the translation process.

What have you learnt about Hammarskjöld through the archive?

That his influence crosses cultural, ethnical, political and social boundaries. And that he was an excellent photographer!

The collection was recently inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. What impact will this have?

We are incredibly proud that the collection is now part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, which seeks to preserve and protect the world’s documentary heritage. We hope it will enable us to develop further partnerships that can ensure that the collection is seen and appreciated by a wider audience.

Currently, we are working with the Folke Bernadotte Academy to digitalise the dossiers concerning UN activities. We are also hosting a seminar on January 24 with Henrik Berggren, the author of a recent biography of Hammarskjöld and are planning further seminars and conferences. It is our wish that being part of this registry will inspire more to become familiar with the collection and the fascinating man behind it.