With the literacy rate of the Finnish population among the highest in the world, it’s only fitting that residents here enjoy a comprehensive library system.

Reading is a global pleasure. Many keen readers enjoy buying books, new or second-hand, at bookshops and book fairs. Similar to many other countries, here in Finland you can also indulge your enthusiasm for the written word for free. Some people who move to Finland to live, study or work here are surprised by the country’s splendid public library system that is amazingly versatile, surprisingly modern and yet free of charge for users, being tax-funded. All you need is a library card, and then you are free to borrow items like books or CDs from lending libraries.

In 2008, there were a total of 1,610 libraries in Finland, all service points included. That year the total number of items borrowed soared to about 100 million, which makes some 17.45 loans per person. So, with that in mind, it’s fair to say that libraries here are used extensively. But what exactly is on offer?

Knowledgeable staff at your service

For average library goers, the staff of Finnish libraries can be identified through two main roles: those service people that help you borrow items, and those who help you find the information you need. SixDegrees paid a visit to the Jyväskylä City Library to discover first hand the comprehensive range of services provided there.

“The main aspects of my job involve working at the lending desk, where we lend out and receive library items,” says Sirpa Nieminen, Senior Library Officer in lending services. “Returns need to be shelved every day, which keeps us mobile. When you work in customer service, the idea is to be there for the customer.”

“The biggest challenge is understanding the customer’s actual need,” concurs Nieminen’s colleague Mari Vuorinen, Information Specialist at the reference desk. “The information requests vary enormously. We are happy to personally take the customer to the right section, once it is clear where what they need can be found.”

“Reading has
been highly
valued in

Besides the desk duties, each service staff member has their own diversified back-office duties as well. Libraries provide an online service under the title Kysy kirjastonhoitajalta (“Ask the Librarian”), where information specialists try and answer every possible – reasonable – information request from customers. As for the library media itself, eBooks will probably gain ground in the future, but are still only used marginally today – the majority of people still prefer conventional books.

Furthermore, the librarians also mention a very useful service available for free to library users, the Library PressDisplay. A web-based portal, here users can access as many as 1,700 newspapers and magazines from almost a hundred countries in about 50 languages.

With such a wide variety of library materials and services on offer here in Finland, this wealth of information resources stems from the nation’s long-held enthusiasm for reading.

Reading driven by personal tastes

“Reading has traditionally been highly valued in Finland,” explains Sari Sulkunen, PhD and Lecturer for the Department of Languages at the University of Jyväskylä. “In contemporary society, the requirements for reading skills have become higher, and reading is needed professionally, not least when learning a job.”

This propensity for consuming the written word has also seen Finns repeatedly appearing at the top end of worldwide literacy rates. “In international comparison, both our youth and grown-ups have done well,” Sulkunen states. “One factor is the active support given to schoolchildren with reading difficulties. This raises the average level at the bottom of the scale, which is important, since many times it is at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder where reading becomes a problem for children. In this respect, having free libraries is key to provide ample resources for the less well off. A particular challenge is how to better help young boys to learn reading. On average they are behind girls.”

Aside from the prevalent gender imbalance, it appears as if that it does not matter what materials you read, the most important thing is that you are reading. “There’s nothing wrong with reading comics to improve your skill,” Sulkunen offers. “And the same goes with internet content. Many texts on the Web have multimodal features that require conceptualisation at different levels and depths. My message to library-goers is: ‘Read – and be proud of what you read!’”

A library among all the other wonders

With the emergence of the internet as the everyman’s information highway, there has been recent speculation about the future of libraries, with their perceived need diminished in light of the convenience of accessing online material. In contrast to this, however, the nation’s capital will promptly be front and centre in constructing libraries for the future, highlighted by a bright star gleaming ahead in the Finnish library cosmos: the new Central Library of Helsinki. Currently projected to open its doors in 2017, this new library will be located in Töölönlahti.

“It will be open every day of the week, and will have an estimated 1.5 million visitors per annum,” touts Maija Berndtson, City of Helsinki’s Library Director. While the cost estimate of 70 million euros may sound like a lot of money, other ‘wonders’ in the area, like the Music Centre and the National Opera, have previously received more funding per anticipated visitor. “How effective the building will be boils down to how people actually use the services,” Berndtson continues. “Many people come to the library to find support for their studies, work, personal development, hobbies or leisure-time pursuits.”

The building will provide all aspects of the city’s library services, such as the Library 10 (the music haven) and the Meetingpoint (the versatile service desk). “It will be designed with an eye on the evolution of library media and new ways of using the library, thereby paving the way for the development of the Finnish library,” says Berndtson.

Fortunately, building this wonder does not spell ousting for the members of the city’s network of local libraries that is three-dozen sites strong. “We will develop services with an increasing focus on local needs. An example of this will be the media library at Myllypuro, with an array of digital equipment available for users,” Berndtson points out. She also mentions “the S-point”, a corner to be opened at the current main library at Pasila comprising information about Finland to help the integration of immigrants into Finnish society.

Reading is the future

The social benefits of libraries often extend beyond the four walls of the library building itself, with libraries possessing an acute social conscience in bringing people together and making services accessible to all.

“Libraries have also set up services they provide outside library buildings, such as the institutional library serving hospitals and other institutions, and the provision of domestic deliveries for senior citizens,” explains Jyväskylä City Library’s Nieminen. “Another example is the guidance in the usage of library facilities that is provided to immigrant groups, arranged together with the Centres for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment.”

With such a community-minded approach employed by our libraries, SixDegrees took a closer look at local needs of users at Jyväskylä’s Huhtasuo Library. Located in the middle of a traditional working-class district with a lingering tough-neighbourhood reputation, the neighbourhood continues to enjoy a warm spirit seeping from between pre-fabricated elements of concrete. The randomly selected pack of seven interviewees – Marita (age 66), Ding (12), Mustafa (12), Teemu (13), Eetu (15), Jenni (13) and Emma (14) – agreed to have their library visit sandwiched around a joint interview on a Friday afternoon in mid-October.

Marita, the senior, came to borrow books and read the papers, as is her regular custom about every fortnight. Lower and upper secondary schools are located next door, which partly explains how students can pop in almost every day when the library is open. “I like to come here, to meet my mates and browse the Web”, says Eetu, to a seconding murmur from his effervescent pals. All of the interviewed youths were regular users of the library’s PCs for surfing the ‘net. Observing their vivid – at times livid – interaction, one would find it easy to fathom how spiritually crippling it would be for these youngsters to be asked to do their browsing in some solitary confines. At the library, surrounded by their peers, gathering socially is as important as the computer usage.

Amidst pressures to shed expenditure, the powers-that-be in some cities may be tempted to pull the plug on a local library or two, as has been done. Obviously all hands must chip in to public savings in the face of a slumping economy. But after talking to these fine youth and gentle elderly folk of Huhtasuo, one would find it very, very hard to ask them to drive, or, as in the case of the kids, ride the bike or take the bus to make the seven-kilometre trip to the main library in the city centre, should their local library be closed down.

Mobile books
If you live outside of the city, you can still find library
services near, or relatively near you, by visiting your
local library bus on its scheduled stop in your region.

The importance of the library services is summarised succinctly by one of the youths, when contemplating this possibility: “I’d take a taxi,” he quips, inducing a roar of laughter from his peers present. It seems that the need for libraries in Finland across all members of society will not dissipate anytime soon.

For more information about library services in Finland:

Mika Oksanen
Photo: © Robert Kneschke | Dreamstime.com