A new quality recommendation for Finnish public libraries

How do we understand the concept of quality in library services? Excellence, relevance, economic efficiency and the ability to change? Or, above all, responding to the needs of library users and the community? This article describes the new quality recommendation for Finnish public libraries. The main focus is on the presentation of new quality descriptions. To get the big picture, we will also shed some light on the frame of reference for evaluation and the quality management needs of libraries.

At the end of 2010, a high profile Country Brand Working Group appointed by the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs published its final report. The report included a list of development challenges for different sectors. The library of the future is described in the report as a so-called “Tacit Factory” hosted by peopleoriented problem-solving and information search experts also known as Finnish library professionals. A pleasant “Tacit Factory” library represents the culture of sharing and could form the spearhead of soft Finnish diplomacy. Future libraries would build relationships and networks between people, with the end products being learning and shared experiences. And all of these factors would have a powerful compound effect.

The working group report showed that the value of libraries is recognised, but in a constantly changing world, value is not maintained automatically. Public Libraries are facing the fact that the “Tacit Factory” library ideal cannot be reached in a single leap. It can only be reached along a path of development. A good library should be everyone’s goal.We can only aim for a good library by creating an image of the desired object, by evaluating and developing the current one, by fighting unwanted developments and by formulating strategies and choosing methods. Along this path of development, we need verifiable evidence. We need evaluation and the ability to map the future, and we need to learn the jargon used by decision-makers.

The basis for making the quality recommendation was simple. The working group had a common vision. First, the working group realised that libraries cannot ignore the need for selfevaluation, even though they have performed excellently in a number of surveys gauging service quality. They must be able to demonstrate their excellence and the good quality of their services based on the same professional standards used elsewhere. Operations and services must be evaluated for development; we cannot get stuck in a rut.

Secondly, we must recognise the necessity of emphasising the library user’s perspective. Development efforts must be based on the library user’s needs and expectations, and on the smooth functioning of the library’s operations. Therefore, focus on the library user must be included as a key factor in both quality evaluation and development. Identifying the different needs of library users and meeting those needs in a changing work atmosphere requires continuous feedback and assessment of key operational indicators, as well as the opinions and views of all potential library users.

Thirdly, the working group shared the vision of integrating quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Exclusive reliance on quantitative benchmarks and standards for evaluation can only yield a partial picture.With quantitative evaluation methods, we can obtain information, for example, on the number of acquisitions, but not about what library users feel about the library’s opening hours and collection policy, nor about the kinds of impressions library users have of the library. Both methods need to be used in good combination.

A fourth trend considered by the working group was the emergence of the local stakeholders’ viewpoint and the library’s influence. The targeted outcomes of the cultural policy of the Ministry of Education and Culture include the strengthening of the cultural foundation of the community, the promotion of citizen’s well-being and participation in culture, and the strengthening of the economic role of culture. Local stakeholders and decisionmakers are being offered an opportunity to reach these goals with relatively little effort through libraries. If the municipality guarantees, by providing sufficient resources to the library, the production of high quality services, these services will be used and they will have an influence on the well-being and satisfaction of the whole community.

They can, at best, prevent marginalisation and help increase Finnish knowhow and competitiveness.

The recommendation consist of five core quality descriptions that include all the decisive factors influencing service structure, operations and the final result. These are 1) Local decisionmakers’ viewpoint, 2) Services and their use, 3) Personnel and professional competence, 4) Collections and 5) Premises.

The quality description concerning the local stakeholders includes some of the most fundamental elements in the overall quality of a library. This information is intended as a brief for decisionmakers, and it includes the library’s service promise. It is, in a way, a summary introduction to high quality library services, the positive influences of library operations, as well as the importance of an up-to-date library system and collection, skilled staff, versatile premises and sufficient opening hours. Everything is fine if the municipality realizes, is aware of and takes advantage of the library’s possibilities to enhance the well-being and enjoyment of the municipal residents, and if decision- makers take time to check the accessibility of services regionally, across municipal borders.

Leadership is important and, from the municipality’s perspective, the best administrative model is one in which the best expertise is used in libraryrelated decision- making.We can ensure the high quality of these services with funding requirements amounting to about 1-1.5 percent of the municipality’s operating budget. The importance of the perspective of the local residents and library users, as well as the extensive evaluation and follow-up methods, are also emphasised to the decision- makers.

The local character of services is emphasised in service delivery. However, local services are not always economically feasible – Finland still has many sparsely- populated rural areas. In such cases, accessibility must be improved through the introduction of mobile services, home services or transportation to the library. The library user should be offered the opportunity to choose the service type best suited to him or her. Self-service and assisted services complement each other.

Likewise, locally produced services complement the online services that libraries produce together. Whatever the type of service, it must be effectively marketed and using the services must be made easy by providing guidance and assistance. The working group also included a handful of quantitative criteria: The trip to the library should be less than 2 km, or should not take more than half an hour. Satisfaction level in customer surveys should be at least 80% and these should be carried out every 2-3 years. If the library services are good, the library becomes part of people’s everyday life and leisure. If the library has at least half of the municipality’s residents as active users, and they visit the library once a month and borrow 20 books a year, the library may emphatically declare itself a good library.

From the point of view of the quality of library service, it is absolutely essential that there is a sufficient number of employees with up-to-date competences to meet the demand for services. It is equally important that the library has a passionate and determined director who is provided with the tools for good management. The workload required to maintain online services must be considered when decisions of the number of staff members are being made Experts in specialised fields cannot be hired in every library, and this is where libraries can show their ability to collaborate with others. There is also a number of national first class web-based services produced by skilled staff, and libraries should take full ad-vantage of them. The municipalities vary greatly, but a good service level can generally be achieved if there is staff of 0.8-1 man-years per 1,000 population.

The library’s collection should be developed for the needs of the residents of the municipality in question and the renewal of the collection should be taken care of. The library collection must be developed as a part of a regional collection and the library must be involved in regional cooperation in acquisition, stocking and evaluation. Collection content is presented to the public in different ways and materials are transported to those in need using effective logistics. In addition to printed and other traditional library material, e-materials licensed for national use and other e-materials are available, and people have access to periodical portals, which complement printed periodical collections. The recommendation does not include guidelines on the quantities of different types of material in the collection.

A proper library requires proper premises. A year ago, in an evaluation of library premises, 70% of Finland’s public libraries thought they were situated in suitable locations. More than half of the libraries considered their premises to be good or excellent, but every tenth library needed urgent improvements to the premises in order for them to become nice places to pop into, work and study. A good library is centrally located, and its premises are attractive and so versatile that the library turns into a community centre. Effective use requires generous opening hours. The main factors are accessibility and safety. The quality recommendation was intended to set benchmarks for self-evaluation by libraries. However, it can be used equally well as an aid in peer evaluations and as a starting point in developing user and non-user surveys. At a national level, the recommendation is used for the follow-up of the imple- mentation of agendas for library policy and the follow-up of the implementation of access and equality requirements for basic services.With the aid of the quality recommen- dation, libraries are able to identify problem areas in their own operations. At the municipal level, it can be used, for example, for monitoring the population’s service needs and the user-orientedness of library services. Since this is a national quality recommendation, there should at some point be a national evaluation of the implementation of the recommendation.

By ‘quality’ in this recommendation, we mean excellence, relevance, a focus on the library user, ability to change and economic efficiency. The quality management guidelines included in the quality recommendation describe what kind of procedures, processes or systems the library should use to ensure quality. It focuses on the ease of the processes, the library users’ perspective, the importance of manage- ment and goal orientation. A good library must be able to learn – and competent library staff ensures the library’s ability to renew itself. Success does not come by itself. By networking and establishing partnerships, the library can grow strong and fulfil its social responsibility. This quality recommendation is currently being introduced. Training events are being organised and libraries are being encouraged to compile their own evaluation materials. During the introductory phase, it is hoped that libraries will test the usability of the recommendation, for example, in regional or municipal pilot projects.

Marjariitta Viiri
Senior Library Advisor
Centre for Economic Development,
Transport and the Environment for Ostrobothnia
marjariitta.viiri AT
Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Senior Library Advisor Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment for Ostrobothnia