The use of digital material in Finnish public libraries is still rather meagre. For the most part, databases based on various themes and copyright-free materials have been available to patrons. The rapid development of technology, and especially the increased use of mobile devices, is completely changing how people read and process information, and the modified information environment places public libraries in a new situation. Patrons would like libraries to offer them the kind of digital material that answers to their needs.
A collaboration project to get started
In the spring of 2010, the city libraries in Helsinki and Turku began to investigate digital texts and e-book readers, in order to introduce readers in libraries and to gather feedback from patrons about their experiences using the readers and the digital material. The idea was also to familiarize library professionals with the reader and ebooks. Negotiations concerning the loaning of e-books in libraries began with Finnish publishers.
When the loaning of the readers began, there were only a few models available to choose from, but once the supply of readers grew, more models were added to the range. In addition to the traditional readers, tablet computers were also purchased. Copyright-free material was downloaded onto the devices after which patrons received a reader and material ready for use. The trial was a huge success. The patrons were interested in the readers and libraries not only received new patrons but a great deal of visibility in the national media as well.
The Turku City Library actively gathered feedback from patrons concerning reader loans. Nearly 300 patrons responded to the questionnaire. The patrons appreciated the library’s active role in introducing new technology and perceived the library as a place where they can learn about the new technology and new type of material easily and safely. The responses also reflected the patrons’ open- minded attitude towards the library’s role and their enthusiasm about using new services. In spite of the positive feedback, patrons were, however, disapp- ointed with the type of digital material offered. Patrons would like the libraries to keep a diverse digital collection alongside the collection of printed material. They suggested the collection should contain fiction and non-fiction as well as e-magazines/ journals. Many of the respondents emphasized that they would like to use e-material offered expressly by libraries.
The project began with the loaning of e-material readers, but as far as libraries are concerned, the devices them- selves are more and more becoming part of a transitional stage. They are just one format for obtaining materials. Introducing new technology to patrons is an important task, but it should not stand in the way of the most essential issue: the primary task of libraries is to offer an extensive and varied collection in the future as well. The right of libraries to loan out digital material is an essential question. The project resulted in the need to consolidate the expertise in public libraries and, together, find solutions to questions concerning the entire field.
Libraries and the publishing business in Finland
At the moment, the situation of libraries and the publishing business is in a delicate stage. At the beginning of 2011, the publishing business became fully aware of the status of public libraries in the distribution of e-material and especially e-books. The publishing business in Finland is conservative and new approaches are carefully considered before they are introduced.
The status of public libraries is difficult because they are in the same market area as consumers. Publishers want to sell material straight to the consumers, but, on the other hand, it is the duty of libraries to guarantee electronic material equally to everyone – even to those who do not have the opportunity or desire to obtain electronic material strictly for their own use. A challenging issue is also the fact that public libraries cannot demand material for distribution; rather, they must acquire material by influencing various stakeholders and by listening to general opinions.
Funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation and led by Finnmedia, the on-going Next Media eReading project, which entails several years of research, will define the entire sphere of operations as regards electronic material in the publishing business. It will also define the status of public libraries in the e-book and emagazine/journal distribution chain. The project has involved a survey of the licensing practices in libraries in Finland and elsewhere in the world. The National Library of Finland has represented the library sector in the project and all of the more significant book and magazine publishers have participated in one way or another.
Electronic material for public libraries
Somehow electronic material will have an impact on all the activities in public libraries in the near future. The Council for Public Libraries launched a project, Electronic material for public libraries, and assigned a committee to work in it. The members of the project committee extensively represent the public library field and the expertise within the field. There are representatives from libraries with Finnish- and Swedish-speaking users, and the committee also receives consultation from outside experts.
The committee is applying for project funding for the upcoming years to obtain electronic material for patrons in public libraries to use.
Objectives and main tasks of the project
One of the main goals of the project is to influence publishers and writers as well as general opinion and legislation in recognizing the role of public libraries as distributors of electronic material and in including libraries with Finnish- and Swedish-speaking users in the e-book distribution chain. Additionally, there are endeavours to include public libraries in the eReading project which is a part of the Next Media research program. Furthermore, library professionals in Finland should be aware of the more significant projects related to the library field being carried out around the world and, with regard to the availability and distribution of ematerial, collaborate with European libraries and library-related organisations. This is one of the main tasks of the project. A foundation for an ematerial-related strategy will also be created during the project. Once the ematerial strategy for public libraries is compiled, libraries will be able to adapt their services more easily and introduce new types of content.
The project’s concrete objectives involve obtaining well-functioning license models together with publishers and FinElib, The Finnish National Electronic Library. At the beginning of the project, emphasis will be placed on ebooks and e-magazines/journals, and then efforts will be extended to include the purchase and introduction of emusic, e-audiobooks and e-movies.
Instead of having the current municipality-centred purchase and financing model, it would be more suitable to switch to a consortium-based model for selecting and purchasing materials, like academic libraries have already done. A centralized purchasing and financing model would produce savings, increase efficiency and reduce bureau- cracy. At the same time, collaboration and division of duties with FinElib will be regenerated. Some of FinElib’s duties related to material purchases and marketing could be done more efficiently in a consortium of public libraries; some of the duties are better being handled through FinElib.
Towards the end of the project, e-materials that answer to patrons needs will be purchased for public libraries. The distribution of electronic material will be made as flexible as possible for patrons and libraries. It is the duty of the libraries to invest in visibility, publicity and marketing and to provide consultation to patrons on how to use digital information and culture.
Finnish public libraries have combined their resources to guarantee their patrons up-to-date, comprehensive and well-functioning e-material and the distribution channels for it. The future will reveal whether or not we have succeeded in our endeavour. The library’s role as provider of material and consultant on how to use it is essential in a world that is becoming more and more digitised. Our society is built on the idea that equal access to information and culture must be guaranteed to all citizens, our capital is built on a found- ation of expertise and innovation, we need a well- functioning, up to date and inventive library institution.
Libraries must reform their activities and seek means to cost-effectively guarantee services of the highest possible quality to their patrons. This project is one step in achieving this goal. Our vision and objective is to bring Finnish public libraries to the level of the top countries as providers of digital material.
Helsinki City Library