Ensuring access to knowledge and culture

Finland’s new Library Strategy paves the way libraries is seldom or never borrowed TEST
Finland has a new Library Strategy. Now that the direction and route are clear, it is time to embark on a purposeful journey towards a policy of ensuring access to knowledge and culture. Our guide is Kirsti Kekki, Counsellor for Library Affairs at the Finnish Ministry of Education.

–Library Strategy 2010 is our view of the future for accessing knowledge and culture, explains Kirsti Kekki, who has been involved in preparing the Strategy. In addition to a vision, we present plans for action through which that access can be ensured and developing libraries be supported.

Underpinning the Strategy is the idea that in Finland, alongside basic education, public libraries are the public authorities’ most important tool for promoting and creating the prerequisites for citizenship in the information society. Libraries are also the most vital civilising and cultural service: they satisfy the needs of individuals, and have a wide influence on learning, teaching and active citizenship.

–The library secures for everyone the basic rights of the information society by promoting access to knowledge and culture and by supporting the civic skills needed in today’s world. In the library, users can find both organised information and serendipity. Fact and fiction inhabit the same space, as do different kinds of material, and the web is available for getting to sources of culture and knowledge, with the guidance of an expert if need be. Libraries are perceived as places where knowledge and culture flow freely, as opposed to the selected offerings of mass media and the educational system, Kekki says.

According to her, libraries have a key role to play in narrowing the so-called digital chasm – preventing some citizens from being left behind with regard to knowledge and society. However, libraries will not be able to meet this challenge without robust measures and support.

–We need a clear political decision to develop libraries into hybrids that combine traditional services with conveying digital material.We also need money to carry out these vital policies. The overall objective of this Strategy is to implement a web service that satisfies the needs of the whole population, offering both information service and an opportunity to communicate electronically with the public administration. Hardware is also needed. The Ministry of Education, which is responsible for library matters, has, for instance, tried to get an allowance included in the state budget which would enable municipalities to acquire customer terminals for their libraries.

In many countries Government manifestos have come to include statements about adapting libraries to the information society. In Finland the aspiration is that this Library Strategy will also give substance to the work and objectives of the new Government that will take office after the Parliamentary elections in the spring of 2003.

Library services ensure equal access to sources of culture and knowledge
Libraries serve people throughout life and in various situations, so the local library is still very significant to the individual. Guaranteeing equal access to sources of culture and knowledge for all was therefore adopted as a basis for the Strategy. In practice this means, for instance, that the needs of various age groups and other special groups are taken into account when providing library services.

–Without the right to information there is no democracy. The library can be a place where everyone may participate in the information society, especially those who lack either the means or the opportunity to do so from home. Some need the guidance that is available in the library to access and use information from the web.

The Strategy characterises the library as a local and regional centre of culture and knowledge, in both the traditional and the digital environment, conveying both educational and cultural contents. For instance, the library still has important roles as an organisation with expertise in fiction and as promoter of traditional literacy and inspiration for reading.

It is on the basis of traditional literacy that media literacy, so vital for the information society, grows. Media literacy includes the ability to seek out required information from different types of sources, to evaluate and compare information sources, and then have the skill to adapt information for one’s own needs. Libraries’ information reserves are valuable capital in today’s knowledge-based society but, to be exploited fully, information services need to be organised and operating systematically.

Like science, culture and art, libraries are perceived as having intrinsic value. The Strategy emphasises that a high level of education can be a crucial success factor for the nation, promoting welfare and international competitiveness.

Success requires perseverance and collaboration
There seems to be a need for policies like those of the Library Strategy, as reality and objectives do not always coincide.

–It is regrettable that, during the information society boom in Finland, the standard of public libraries and citizens’ access to knowledge began to decline, despite the fact that libraries were given the task of implementing the knowledge-based society. Services simply cannot be built solely through various projects. As Kekki points out, obligations and objectives have been ignored in political decisions and financing. The Library Strategy includes action plans that require new ways of thinking and operating, common goals that transcend sector boundaries, politically administrative decisions, and persistent efforts and financing.

–The Strategy emphasises public libraries and actions by the state but, as Kekki notes, good results can be achieved only by working together. It is not enough to be aware of objectives and problems. Above all, we need committed and competent achievers with a holistic outlook and the courage to act in order to reach the goals.

The current Finnish Library Policy Programme defined as its vision that libraries in Finnish society should be active and effective. This new Strategy continues on the lines laid down by that Policy Programme.

Targeted service delivered with expertise
The Library Strategy presents visions and objectives for ensuring access to knowledge and culture, identifies challenges and needs for development, suggests actions for securing information service for citizens and learners, and sets out the roles for municipalities and the state.

One objective in the Library Strategy is to make future library and information services operate as one tight network, appearing to the user as an integrated whole. Production of local, regional and national services is co-ordinated, and the service effectively reaches those in need of it.

The libraries’ information services are being developed into a precision service characterised by: customer-orientation, rapid feedback, quality control, continuity and responsiveness. Library know-how and spearhead expertise are coming to the fore in the library field.

Basic services will remain free of charge for the customers, and municipalities and the state will continue to finance libraries together.

New experts and expertise needed
According to Kekki, the challenges and development needs of the library system are not being met. On the one hand this is because of the expanding role of libraries, and on the other, because of problems with accessing library services. The aim is to have libraries operating with the same quality criteria and service principles everywhere.

Also, the staff face considerable professional challenges. –The library is a demanding work place; broad content areas have to be mastered and totally new skills are needed to guide customers in using webbased material. People with library and information skills are increasingly in demand in the private sector, so public libraries with their present salary levels are not very attractive workplaces.

Besides having competent and trained staff, all libraries should have access to advanced information systems, fast data communication, necessary standardisation and up-to-date customer work stations. Kekki points out that these are prerequisites for developing the library network and web-services to meet the citizens’ information needs. With good decisions, and with co-operation, it is possible to save costs and make work more effective.

–By supporting the common use of centrally or regionally produced services and materials via the web, it is possible to prevent library services becoming more unequal and to avoid overlapping work being performed. By exploiting joint services, individual libraries can concentrate better on basic services and local users.

The aim is that libraries should be able to exchange data between themselves and other players. If they are able to exchange customer data, this enables customers to float. Libraries also function as accessible settings for study and as conveyors of know-how.

The local library expands to become a hybrid library
Among other challenges, Kekki mentions issues relating to changes in the role of libraries. The hybrid library of the future is a combination of traditional services and the virtual library, which conveys only digital materials. In these ‘combination libraries’ the tasks of providing information service and selecting material, and the processes of acquiring materials, will change as service is given not only in the library building, but also in virtual and mobile forms.

Nevertheless, many of the library’s traditional tasks will remain unchanged. It will still be possible to browse and read journals and books, borrow material, get guidance in how to use the library or take part in various events arranged by the library.

The Strategy anticipates that schools will encounter the same kind of transition as libraries did during the 1990s, when they met the information flood, increasingly diverse materials and the Internet. For libraries, information service for learning means further challenges. Without co-operation, though, public libraries cannot meet the explosively growing demands of the education system.

Co-operation between public libraries and the education system is becoming ever closer. Libraries also play a crucial role for lifelong learning and the learning society. Municipalities need to have clear plans for how they look after teachers and students acquiring the ability to handle information. In Kekki’s opinion, successful development requires that the expertise of library professionals be fully utilised.

–Information provision for tuition and learning should not be founded or developed as something separate, but on the basis of long-term co-operation between libraries. The Strategy suggests, for instance, that pedagogic information specialists should be employed by libraries, schools or a region, to provide the combined skills of the fields of pedagogy and librarianship.

Challenges for administration
The challenge is to create new operational models for the library organisations and state administration. The principle is that municipalities are responsible for providing library services, in accordance with the law, and for establishing basic services. Municipalities and the state together take care of financing.

Municipalities are encouraged to collaborate, perhaps creating a joint district library where individual libraries are unable to produce services worthy of the information society. –The goal must be to develop services and operations, not only to save costs. A strong joint library can be much better than a small, poorly funded, municipal library in which nobody will make the necessary investment in better material and higher professionalism.

The idea is that the library network supports all libraries. Information is available where needed at any time. The intention is also to develop those libraries that serve other libraries. As a whole, the aim is that the production of local, regional and national services is co-ordinated and efficiently targeted at whoever needs it.

Special subsidies will enable high-quality and diverse materials, including information from the public administration, to be acquired for public libraries. The guarantee of access to national culture, and new structures for the national library network, will be beneficial to everyone.

The importance of development and co-ordination has come high on the agenda in the wake of networking. The Strategy therefore proposes that the library administration in Finland needs a responsible body to take charge of co-ordinating and developing the library network, web-services, and information provision for education nationwide. Additionally, an operational body would be needed to carry out projects flexibly across administrative sector borders. The Strategy thus includes a suggestion that an investigator be appointed to look into new operational models.

Library Strategy 2010 – Vision

In the Finnish society, public libraries

  • are an organisation open to anybody, within easy reach and strengthening democracy
  • offer a physical space, versatile material and local service parallel with web- and distance services
  • convey cultural inheritance and support multiculturalism
  • bring continuity to collections of documents and web-services and added value by selecting and arranging different kinds of materials
  • bring added value to information retrieval and management through their media- and source-critical services
  • support library skills, that is the ability to handle information, becoming vital citizenship abilities and an essential part of learning and teaching
  • build and support communality and social capital, as well as welfare and success for the locality. For the population, the library is a cultural and social space
  • socialise into both diverse literacy and web-literacy. A significant part of fiction and non-fiction is still published and consumed in printed form. On the other hand, information produced by the public administration is substantially in digital form.

Challenges and projects

The biggest changes and development measures require that

  • the technological infrastructure of all public libraries be modernised: standards and rapid data transfer connections must be introduced; data systems and customer terminals must be up-dated
  • digital information service for citizens be guaranteed through developing library and information services on the one hand, and electronic communication towards a joint web service within the public administration on the other
  • an unbiased evaluation of library and information services be carried out nationally to clarify and safeguard that all customers enjoy equal rights
  • the special needs of library services be recognised within the system of statutory aid
  • financing for national web services and for special tasks of libraries be secured via the state budget
  • new operational models and concepts be created for the national library administration, for library organisations, and for the information services aimed at pupils of comprehensive, upper secondary and vocational schools. Pedagogic information specialists will be needed for regions and/or larger schools
  • the competence of library staff be increased.

Translated by Britt & Philip Gaut

Press officer, Ministry of Education, Finland.

Library Strategy 2010. Policy of the Finnish Ministry of Education for ensuring access to knowledge and culture. Public Libraries. The document will be published in Finnish, Swedish and English during the spring of 2003. http://www.minedu.fi/ minedu/culture/library/ public_libraries.html