Guest Blog: Library Turns Publisher to Promote Indigenous Language Reading

This is a guest blog by Morten Olsen Haugen, Trøndelag County Library, Norway. 

09 August 2019; revised 09 September 2022

Morten Olsen Haugen at Trøndelag county library

Since 2014, Trøndelag county library in Norway have been working together with the Saami community to create more children’s books in the south Saami language. With an approach adapted from library reading programmes, our aim is to publish a variety of translated books intended to meet the children’s own choice for entertainment reading.

Our catalogue of more than 140 books and audiobooks now includes works as Gruffalo, Kazuno Kohara’s Midnight library, Goldilocks, Jessica Love’s Julian is a mermaid, Disney’s Frozen 2, other princess tales, Beowulf, George R.R. Martin’s Ice Dragon, and books by Norwegian icons Alf Prøysen, Anne-Cath. Vestly and Thorbjørn Egner. Astrid Lindgren’s beloved Ronja and Emil are works in progress, as of fall of 2022.

Saami people in Scandinavia

Saami people are an indigenous people, living in northern Europe, in northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland as well as the Kola Peninsula of Russia. It is considered the only indigenous people of Europe. Traditionally connected to a semi-nomadic reindeer husbandry, Saami people have also found other living, like fisheries for the coast communities. Today, the reindeer herding is still a core element in Saami society and identity, though fewer are connected to it themselves. For the last 200 years, The Saami people have experienced the same kind of setbacks as other indigenous people around the world; among which a government-initiated loss of own language. This has however changed in the last 40 years, and Nordic governments are now promoting use of Saami languages.

The Saami people are well integrated in Scandinavian societies, and they are fluent in their country’s majority languages. They are also well educated, proud of their heritage, and many young families are eager to regain their lost language.

There are eight different Saami languages, of which the three largest are used in schools and by the government in Norway and Sweden, Southern Saami being the smallest of these three. The estimated number of southern Saami native speakers vary between 600 and 2500. Compared to other Saami languages, Southern Saami have a special problem as the few speakers are living far apart from each other. Thus, there are few situations where speakers meet and can interact naturally in their “heart language”.

The core activities for the county libraries of Norway are to support and counsel the municipal public libraries and school libraries. They also provide infrastructure like inter library loans, mobile libraries, and some services for minority speakers. Running a small-scale publishing house together with Saami Language learning centres like Gïelem nastedh and Gïeleaernie is however quite unique for a county library.

Our approach – entertainment reading

The stereotypic indigenous children’s book has for many years been written by a native speaker – perhaps a teacher, with a content of traditional legends and manners, or if contemporary, with a narrative discussing how to maintain traditional virtues and identity in a changing world. The illustrator would also be native, perhaps an amateur related to the author.

We wanted to challenge this. Saami children are familiar with the contemporary popular culture. Like any other library, we wanted to offer them something cool and modern that they would read and reread by their own choice.

While we acknowledge the need to develop indigenous voices and literature, we could not sit and wait for these books to emerge. And we could certainly not settle with a Saami publishing policy that made these homemade books the main part of Saami children’s literature.

Luckily, it seems as if the trends in Saami literature politics have changed since 2014. Translated children’s books for entertainment reading are now a growing part of Saami publishing. Being modest, we would not suggest that we have initiated these changes by ourselves. Rather, we think that we came aboard at the right moment of winds of change, and at best we’ve contributed to strengthen a trend that was already overdue to happen.

Translations is also important because we need to publish a large quantity of Saami children’s books at a rapid pace. When we started, there were 2-3 new children’s books in southern Saami each year. We’ve published more than 10 books each year.

There is a wider language policy here too. We want to bring the Saami language outside the traditional areas of their users’ culture. Saami children should be able to use their heart language even when they read – and talk – about pets, football, pirates, princesses, ghosts, and monsters.

This project being about literary in an endangered language, we tend to use literature for many kinds of learning. Our advisory board keeps reminding us that the best effect for language revitalization comes when the texts can serve as examples that the children can use in their own spoken language: realistic vocabulary, syntax and dialogues that could be imitated every day. We are proud to have published The Ice Dragon, but there are few dialogues there that resemble the everyday kitchen table and playground interaction of the readers.

Shortage of translators

There are several stages in any publishing project. In our experience, neither of them is very complicated.

We’ve cooperated well with major publishing houses in Norway, Sweden, UK, and USA on publishing rights, even though we are a small customer to them. Kudos to them all for their polite hospitality. When we work with books already published in another language, most of the editorial and pre-print work is already done.

Our main problem is how to produce enough high quality translations. There aren’t enough translators. Hence, our concern is to make the best possible use of the translators available. Our translators and proof-readers are busy working with a multitude of aspects in southern Saami language and culture: Bible translation, developing schoolbooks and multimedia tools, teaching, researching, and implementing their language into several new fields of society, as well as teaching traditional crafts.

There are only a few educated translators, many missions to be completed, and several institutions in need of translators. As a result, an integrated element in our work is developing a new generation of translators among the young, educated Saami in their 20’s and 30’s.

Wider focus

Our work is generally well received in the Saami community. Both Saami politicians and parents give generous feedback. My favourite feedback is the young mother who was worried because she had lost count. “Now that there are new books all the time, I’m afraid I’d miss out some of them”. That’s indeed a luxury problem for a small language.

For the last two years, we have been developing a more diversified publishing policy. Though bright coloured picture books are funny to publish and a delight for the readers, we also need to serve the needs of older children and teens.

Books for readers aged 11-18 is our new priority, together with crossover literature that could be read with interest by both children, juveniles, and adults. Max Estes’ graphic novel Dulvie (Norwegian “Flommen”, i.e. “The flood”) is a good example of a book with a dual-audience-text well fitted for our purpose.

Second, as we evolve as one of the major publishers of Saami children’s literature, we also need to consider other aspects than entertainment reading and a high quantity of books. Books reflecting Saami culture will be more important to us in the future, given our position. Several of our new books are borrowed from other Saami languages, giving voice to contemporary Saami lives.

We’ve also started publishing books about indigenous experiences abroad. So far, we’ve looked to Canada, where ecology, politics, and livelihood among first nation people resembles those in Scandinavia.

Our third policy improvement is to move from printed text to spoken words. Saami children are living far apart from each other, not having many fellow Saami speakers around. For learning, leisure, and socialization there is a need for spoken language to be listened to.

We’ve published 18 audiobooks, but for the last year, we’ve switched to video books, such as this one. Video filming a reading person, combining it with images from the book, is a well-established genre in children’s television, and it seem to work well still. Especially for the combination of learning and entertainment.


Since I wrote the first edition of this essay in 2019, we have received several accolades. For 2019 we were awarded Library of the year in Norway. You might even want to enjoy the presentation video we made for that occasion.

We have been nominated to the ALMA – Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award three times, for 2020, 2021 and 2022. We are grateful for this nomination, and for the occasion to address Saami literacy and literature for new audiences.

Our work has also inspired a similar translation programme in the Lule Saami language society, initiated likewise by the library, municipality and the language learning centre serving this community. This is good news for Lule Saami children and families, and as they say – imitation is a certain compliment.

If you can read Scandinavian, or rely on the services of web translation programmes, you could also read about our work and philosophy in this 2021 essay.

Find out more about IFLA’s involvement in the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

On 13 December 2022, UNESCO will will mark the launch of the International Decade of Indigenous languages (2022-2032)  with a High-level Celebration. Find out more and register to take part virtually here.