An almost 200-year-old institution without proper housing for 140 years

The Municipal Library of Akureyri is an almost 200-year-old institution. After being without proper housing for 140 years the library finally obtained suitable accommodation in Brekkugata 17 which has since expanded beautifully.

Gömul mynd af Amtsbókasafninu

The story of the Municipal Library of Akureyri begins in 1791 when Stefán Þórarinsson, the Amtmann established the Northern Reading Society. When the society stopped functioning, the Amtmann of Möðruvellir in Hörgárdalur established the Eyjafjörður Reading Society in 1825. Two years later, in 1827, the Municipal Library of Akureyri was formally established.

Most of the library’s books were from the Northern Reading Society apart from book gifts that mostly came from Denmark. The first head of the library didn’t receive any salary and the library was in his home. His name was Andreas Mohr and he lived in Hafnarstræti 11 better known as Laxdalshús, the oldest house in town.

For a long time, there were only about 20 to 30 regular guests who came to the library. The annual membership fee was two kronas, which was about a worker's daily wages at that time. The book selection was not suitable for everyone, especially not the general public as few of the books were in Icelandic. Most of them were in Danish, but there were also some in German, Greek and Latin. In 1894, it was decided to lend books for free, and reading increased greatly. The annual membership fee had deterred the public from using the library more than expected. Ever since it doesn’t cost anything for town residents to borrow books.

In 1905 the municipality of Akureyri acquired the library under certain conditions

A turning point in the library’s history came when the municipality of Akureyri acquired it in 1905. The conditions were that a fireproof storage building would be built as well as a reading room, but many years passed until it became a reality.

The library was at this time located in Samkomuhúsið, the meeting house of the town. A reading room was opened for the first time. According to the guest books, students were frequent visitors as well as teachers. Several men held the position of the main librarian, the best known is Davíð Stefánsson, a poet from Fagraskógur, who started working for the library in 1925 and held the position for 27 years.

In 1930, the library was moved to Hafnarstræti 53, a primary school in Akureyri. Davíð also lived in the house at the time. People began to get frustrated with the changing location of the library. In 1933 the Matthías Committee of the Student Association drew attention to the fact that the 100th birthday of national poet Matthías Jochumson was approaching and that it would be suitable to build a house for the library for that occasion. Sigurður Guðmundsson, the schoolmaster, and Steindór Steindórsson, a teacher, met with the construction committee of Akureyri and presented the idea.

It was agreed to begin preparations for the construction of a library building that was to be named Matthíasarbókhlaða. In addition to the fact that the building was supposed store books, it was also assumed that in the future there would be a nature and an art museum.

A competition was held, and two young architects won, Bárður Ísleifsson and Gunnlaugur Halldórsson. It was decided that the building should stand on Brekkugata, but it was also considered to get a plot between Hafnarstræti and Bjarmastíg, close to the town square.

Construction of the new library postponed due to lack of funds

The raising of the funds for the built had already begun and the house was supposed to cost 110 000 kronas. Around 10 000 to 15 000 kronas was still missing, but it was decided not to take a loan. Instead, an investment was made in a building in Hafnarstræti 81 and there the library was for 20 years, on the 2nd floor.

After Árni Jónsson took over the library in 1960, its popularity increased. He made many changes: increased accessibility by putting books on open shelves so that people could spend enough time to choose books instead of receiving them over the counter, extended the opening hours, before it had only been open one to three days a week, but now it was open every weekday, at first from 2 pm to 7 pm. The number of visitors kept increasing and doubled quickly.

A new, permanent building

Two years before Árni took over, the town council had finally agreed to build the library for the 100th anniversary of the town of Akureyri in 1962. The architects who won the competition in 1935 were approached and they submitted a completely new and modern idea for the library that was also much larger than the old proposal. It was on June 29th, 1963, that the new proposal was finally approved.

Most people liked the new proposal. Although not Davíð Stefánsson, who was completely opposed the idea of a flat roof. He had said: “(..)I have hoped, on behalf of the townspeople, that an artistic and beautiful building would be built here, and not a house in an everyday box style.” Davíð was right about the roof as it has often caused problems, but most people agree that the house is beautiful.

The new building was opened on November 9th, 1968, by the mayor Bjarni Einarsson. The newspaper Morgunblaðið called the building most elaborate and elegant house of its kind in Iceland. The library was a great addition for the town and immediately became very popularity. The number of users increased, and the collection multiplied.

An ever-increasing collection called for an extension

A few decades later, the need for more space was evident. The Municipal Library of Akureyri is one of the two legal depositories in Iceland, which means that at least one copy of all books printed in Iceland must be stored at the library. It is a huge amount every year therefore the collection is growing fast. The amount of books was overwhelming so the library had to rent premises in the town to store books and magazines that were less used. The archive grew as well. In 1987, it was decided to enlarge the library and a competition was held for the extension.

A total of 25 proposals were received, and Guðmundur Jónsson architect won the competition. His proposal was considered a brilliant adaptation to the existing house in terms of proportions, treatment of surfaces and choice of materials. The author's goal, to interpret in a stylized way the main idea behind the existing building, is convincingly realized in the new building.

It was envisioned that the library should become the town’s cultural centre. A multi-purpose hall was planned, where there was to be a stage for small plays and concerts, as well as an art gallery.


After several years of design work following the original proposal, the town of Akureyri decided to review the project. The result was that Guðmundur designed the house again based on his winning proposal.

It was still a long time before construction began. The extension building started in 2001 and was opened in March 2004.

The library is a powerhouse of the spirit

In his speech at the inauguration of the extension of the library, mayor Kristján Þór Júlíusson said, that the Municipal Library of Akureyri plays a key role in increasing the population of the town, because education, culture and municipal services have a lot to do with where people want to live. Libraries have often been called the universities for the people, but in modern society they also serve the role of introducing information technologies and opening the way into the modern age for the inhabitants of the town. Kristján also called the library a powerhouse of the spirit and said that it increases the quality of life, strengthens democracy, diversifies leisure time options and is therefore consistent with the town's motto: Akureyri, all the quality of life.

Since the library moved into suitable premises in 1968, the activities have grown and prospered steadily. There are now facilities for computer use, exhibitions, and a cafeteria. The building also houses The District Archives in Akureyri.

The Municipal Library of Akureyri, the towns oldest institution, has a solid place in the town life and it is popular among inhabitants of all ages. The library changes with the times but will continue to make the visitors feel welcome.

Photo: Erlingur Davíðsson/The Museum of Akureyri


Text: Hjalti Þór Hreinsson

Last updated 02. January 2023