Libraries: serving an appreciative nation

Public libraries in Finland are a service guaranteed by law. In addition to municipal libraries, there is a network of regional central libraries and…

Public libraries in Finland are a service guaranteed by law. In addition to municipal libraries, there is a network of regional central libraries and university and other academic libraries, together with a handful of special libraries, such as a library for the visually impaired that is maintained by the state. The libraries are inter-networked. This means that the services offered by all libraries are available for everyone living in Finland through inter-library loans. The aim is to place library services within the reach of all, regardless of age, domicile or state of health.

The Library Act lays down provisions on the functions of libraries:

“The objective of public libraries and information services provided by them is to promote among citizens equal opportunities for personal development, for literary and cultural pursuits, for access to knowledge for the acquisition of personal and civic skills, for broadening their world view, and for lifelong learning.”

“Library activities should also aim at promoting the development of virtual and interactive network services and their educational and cultural contents.”

Library services are free for registered users. Extra services such as photocopying, reserving material or dealing with borrowed material returned late may incur a fine that at most corresponds to actual costs. Everyone living permanently in Finland can obtain a library card, both adults and children alike, and many public libraries issue cards to people who are not permanent residents.

The amount of non-printed material available from libraries has increased in recent years. Libraries today acquire proportionally more recordings, videos, DVDs and other electronic material than they do printed books. One result of this trend is that for many, the library has become a source of digitally stored informational and cultural material.

Finnish society has experienced a period of transition and structural change known to many other countries in Europe, namely the movement of large numbers of people from the land to urban areas. Public services in general have shrunk in rural areas. But libraries are an exception due to their statutory position. Their status has remained the same or even strengthened in some cases. In many localities libraries have become important civic meeting places, cultural centres, which people visit for a variety of reasons, apart from borrowing books and recordings.

The network of libraries in Finland have long played a key role in public education and in protecting and preserving the national culture and languages. This is a fact that decision-makers and citizens both realized back in the early days of independence. It explains why funding has been made available for improving libraries and why they are respected as collective property. The materials in libraries and the functions of libraries have changed down the years, but the attitude of the Finnish public towards this cultural institution has remained the same.

Children are taught how to make use of libraries before they’re old enough to go to school and this skill is an asset in the pursuit of lifelong learning. It’s fair to that the Finns love their libraries.

Finnish libraries in figures, 2007:

  • In Finland there are 837 public libraries, 58 institutional libraries (for example in hospitals, and old people’s homes), 166 mobile libraries and one seagoing library that serves residents in the offshore islands of SW Finland.
  • Every Finn visits a library on average 10.91 times a year and borrows about 19 books or other items during the year.
  • There are about 40 million books or other items in stock in Finnish libraries — just under 8 items per resident.
  • The operating costs of Finnish libraries are about EUR 50/resident. The lion’s share of expenditure on libraries is paid by the municipalities. Central government, too, contributes to their upkeep. The government’s library allocation for 2007 was around EUR 110 million.
  • Finland’s first public library opened in Vaasa, on the west coast, in 1794. Establishing and maintaining libraries became the responsibility of local authorities in the early 20th century.

By Salla Korpela, September 2005