Calling all Norwegians—and tourists!

Borrow, give, or take a book at the northernmost phone booth

book booth

Photo: Vibeke Røgler, Foreningen Les
Aslak Sira Myhre, national librarian, checks out a book booth/mini-library.

TOVE ANDERSSON
Oslo

The first Norwegian red phone booth was designed by George Henrik Fasting from Bergen and placed on the Norwegian American Line’s dock on Nov. 29, 1933. Now 100 are registered and have started a new life—but without a buzzing dial tone.

At one time, 6,000 bright red phone booths helped Norwegians get  in touch with each other. Now, only 100 of them are left and will be transformed into mini-libraries. Far up north near the North Cape, the northernmost telephone booth is now waiting for more books scheduled for delivery this spring. 

But should you pick up the phone there, you will only hear silence—the line has been dead for a while. In 2007, the phone booths were declared part of Norway’s cultural heritage and Telenor, the state-owned multinational telecommunications company, agreed to preserve 100 phone booths from south to north. 

With 5,800 phone booths already demolished, the first of 100 reading kiosks was inaugurated last year at Solli Plass in Oslo. Then Minister of Culture Trine Skei Grande, National Librarian Aslak Sira Myhre, Sparebankstiftelsen, and Vibeke Rögler from Foreningen Les (Association Read), were present.

Riks

Photo courtesy of Laila Andersen
For Laila Andersen, former head of cultural heritage department of Telenor, the telephone booths represent a wealth of memories.

A colorful history

Fasting’s first telephone booth—“Riks”—was the result of an architecture competition in 1932. Oslo was fully wired for telephones already in 1927, and these new coin-operated telephones soon took over for the ones found at newspaper stands. The phone booths have existed for over 80 years and have served as lifelines to fire stations and hospitals. Even marriage proposals have taken place in Norwegian phone booths.

In 2016, Telenor decided that the phone booths were no longer profitable, but the 100 that remained were chosen to get a new life as reading kiosks (lesekiosk) or mini-libraries.

“The telephone booths represent a wealth of memories and are an integral part of Norway’s history that is worth preserving,” said Laila Andersen, former head of cultural heritage department of Telenor, located at the Museum of Science & Technology in Oslo.

Sparebankstiftelsen (DnB – The Norwegian Bank) and Telenor Eiendom Holding AS provided s funds for the startup and maintenance of the book booths or reading kiosks.

“To use all the remaining phone booths as ‘book kiosks’ is DnB’s idea, which I take full responsibility for,” said André Støylen, CEO of Sparebankstiftelsen. The bank will fund the  maintenance of the booths whenever it is needed.

Truth is, book kiosks are not an entirely new idea. The first one was tested in Kjelsås, a suburb north of Oslo. It started out as a place for borrowing and giving away toys in 2015. It opened as a mini-library five years ago and is still hugely popular. During the time of the coronavirus, what is believed to have been the world’s smallest literature festival was arranged from this charming phone booth. Foreningen Les provided the books, and the association’s executive director, Silje Tretvoll, said there are plans to create a website and an app, so that people can easily find the nearest reading kiosk while traveling.

Hell book booth

Photo: Tove Andersson
Many tourists visit Hell (in Norway) each year, a very pleasant place.

Reading kiosk safari

When traveling by Hurtigruten from Bergen to Kirkenes, there will be phone booths with books in different languages in almost every harbor. One book may be collected in one of the five booths in Bergen and left in Vardø or Vadsø in the north of Norway. 

In Trondheim, you will find the world’s first phone booth with books in the Sámi language. Each mini-library is officially opened by Johan Matteus Triumf, leader of the culture department of the Sámi parliament. And each booth has it own “godparent” to look after it, making sure it is equipped and clean. At the book booths, you may borrow a book, leave a book, bring a book to the next booth—or simply take one with you.

There are eight registered phone booths in Troms and Finnmark County, all but one located at Hurtigruten stops, some even with the dock as their address. Southbound and northbound mini-library booths are found in Tromsø, Hammerfest, Vardø, Vadsø, and Honningsvåg. Tana, near the Finnish border, has one of two Sámi reading kiosks.

Outside Nordkyn Bok og Papir in Kjøllefjord, only about two hours from North Cape municipality when traveling with the Hurtigruten, owner Gøril Søndrol opened the world’s northernmost reading kiosk in 2018.  When you open the door, there is a bench inside and shelves filled with books in different languages. Weather permitting, tourists and locals may sit down here and read, leave a book, or collect a book for free.

“Anyone can pick up a book in any kiosk or leave a book that they want to share with others. Otherwise, it is, of course, perfectly OK to take a book one place and deliver another (or also to keep the book). And you are welcome to leave books in languages other than Norwegian,” said Støylen.

book booth

Photo: Telemuseet
The Keyserløkka telephone booth and in the wintertime Oslo snow.

Book exchange kiosks are about building a new body of reading content and will forge a unique identity for the 100 remaining kiosks. They will provide  a one-of-a-kind experience with the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the North Cape plateau each year.

Tourists from around the globe will be able to stock the kiosks with books in German, Spanish, Chinese, English, and other languages, in addition to Norwegian. Imagine bringing a book on the journey and unloading the extra weight along the way to make room for another book: this is a phonebooth reading safari! 

But don’t expect to be able to call your family and friends—if you pick up the phone receiver, you will still be met with nothing but silence …. 

To learn more about the book booths, visit foreningenles.no/oversikt-over-lesekiosker.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine =Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2002. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.

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