Finland's public libraries - visited and valued

As the debate around volunteer 'librarians' and library closures rages in the UK, in Finland the state recognises the value of libraries - and professional librarians.

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In Finland the citizen's right to information and knowledge has been acknowledged in national library legislation since 1928. The Constitution states that alongside basic education citizens are guaranteed equal opportunity to receive other educational services in accordance with their ability and needs, as well as the opportunity to develop themselves without being prevented by economic hardship.

Public libraries exist to help implement these cultural rights. This is explicitly stated in the Ministry of Education and Culture's new Library Policy.  Strategies and policies for libraries are frequently updated and are referred to in ‘Government Platforms'. These influence the state budget for public libraries, and can be seen in such national projects as the knowledge society programme and the programme for developing the regions.

The Library Policy strongly emphasises the importance of highly qualified staff and the minimum competence requirements of staff have been tightened in the Library Act.  Libraries are expected to mediate relevant and reliable information and to create quality online services.  The prerequisite for services of quality is qualified staff. 

The state administration for public libraries consists of three civil servants who work at the Department for Cultural Policy and the Ministry of Education and Culture.  They have responsibility for library legislation, the state budget for public libraries, national policies and programmes, state subsidies and grants and other library matters of national, and international, significance.  All three are qualified and experienced librarians.

In Finland, library and information services are obligatory.  State subsidies are 40% of total expenditure, similar to the financing of comprehensive education.  According to the Library Act, the objective of public libraries is to promote equal opportunities for personal development, for literary and cultural pursuits, for continuous development of knowledge, personal and civic skills and additionally to promote the development of virtual and interactive web services with educational and cultural content. 

Substantial state grants are allocated each year for the development of user friendly web-based services and content.  In addition to local and regional projects, www.libraries.fi is an expert group of web editor-librarians who are developing versatile, trilingual (Finnish, Swedish and English) services used by public libraries and their patrons.

Public libraries bridge the digital information gap.  The National Digital Libraries will soon provide access to cultural heritage.  Public libraries are part of this huge project, providing access and digitising regional collections of national interest. 

Finns really appreciate their libraries.  There are 19 loans, ten physical visits to the library and ten 'virtual visits' per capita each year and the demand for library services is not diminishing.  The physical library has become the common space, a multicultural meeting place where citizens spend more time than ever. Many of the patrons bring their own laptops - in order to benefit from the wifi, but also to enjoy being alone in the company of others.   

The public library is part of the community, part of daily life, always in step with societal change, new technology and new lifestyles.

Barbro Wigell-Ryynänen is the Counsellor for Cultural Affairs at the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland

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Editor: If you have a comment about how public libraries are faring in your region, do let us know.

Image courtesy of Mikko Luntiala via Flickr.