Encounters at the junction

In the novel, Varasto (The Warehouse), by Finnish author Arto Salminen, the young labourer, Carita, says that she has never read a single book, and that she had no intention of doing so: “It’s absurd. It’s the same as listening to the TV without seeing the picture.” Salminen’s novel describes low-wage, working- class people living with the perpetual threat of unemployment.

Carita is bound to cramped conditions, to the concreteness of everyday life. The visual world of television is a natural part of the lifestyle, while the symbolic world of literature is a remote phenomenon; too troublesome to put effort into for its liberating and spontaneous promotion of imagination.

Multitudes of people like Carita are living among us. They go in and out of the library entrance, but too often, they just pass by. For these people in particular, the fact that the library is free of charge is an important principle of equality in cultural policy.

Traditionally, different groups of people come together at the library, from toddlers peeping out from their strollers to elderly leaning on their walkers, from the unemployed to entrepreneurs, from those with compulsory education to the university academics. The library is a meeting place where everyone is invited to participate.

The educated middle class uses library services actively. If the middle class, who cover the costs of services, take a stand and buy their own books, the institution of the library faces a threat of marginalization. For the sake of the poor, the successful should also be kept active in the library’s cultural activities.

Culture should not revolve around different classes of people. In a good society, different groups of people communicate with each other, whereas in a society of opposites, like-minded cliques seek confirmation of their beliefs within the same like-minded group.

Patrons assign meanings

Library collections provide an eclectic array of stories and alternative perspectives on people’s shared reality. Modern online services provide detailed profiling; these works are suited specifically for you. That is good service. We can nonetheless ask: If the library constitutes the mirror image of the patron, how can the patron exceed his or her own limits?

The diversity of the collection is an extension of the patrons’ minds. The collection is organised systematically, but the patrons do not need to proceed linearly; rather, they can go by their own associations. They can proceed from the detective book section to books on law, or to the audio book selection, and pick up a few books from the poetry book display along the way. They can also meet acquaintances on the way, or library staff and get recommendations and book tips, while atthe same time broaden their networks.

According to Michel de Certeau, the readers assign meaning and use cultural texts for their own purposes. Readers are passengers, nomads, who adventurously penetrate new areas and in this way create their own story. Seeing patrons as active producers and as people who assign meanings to daily life makes library work more challenging.

The world comes home

With digital development, the world is coming home and following us wherever we go. Even in small apartments, it is more typical to see a home studio display covering half a wall than to see a bookshelf. We can use our time watching countless television channels, reality TV and American football, or spend time using social media outlets. Leaving the comfort zone requires effort.

The alluring combination of sinking into the soft cushions of one’s own couch and quickly becoming consumed in mass entertainment creates hard-core competition for the library. The rate of usage of the library in Finland, however, is still high by international standards. Last year, there were 96 million loans, or 18 loans per inhabitant, and 53 million library visits, or ten visits per inhabitant.

Annual statistics, however, do not reveal detailed profiles of patron groups. Therefore, we need to keep our eyes  open. Currently, our library is hosting a ‘meet-an-author’ event with a wellknown author. Attendance is over a hundred, made up of mostly women and people past middle age. There are also young people and some men, some possibly forced to come along as company.

Gathering up men

Man is culture’s ‘the other’. At cultural events, a man will begin chafing at the bit, and he surreptitiously lifts his sleeve to glance at his watch, wondering how much longer he can stand to be there. Maybe culture is not offered in his language – approachable, with a feeling that it is his own.

Supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture, we began a project in Kerava called Culture in the Language of Men, which aims to take men into consideration more readily as library patrons. The basic idea is that the project events are open to everyone. The objective is to promote a low threshold for participation.

One of the nation’s leading actors, Ilkka Heiskanen, performed his Leninki (The Dress) monologue at the library. Leninki is a tragic comedy about a divorced man whose wife left him for a Greek man. Admission to the event was free and the line before the performance stretched out alongside the library.

In spring, the library arranged a hockey night. The popular event proved that even discussion about sports is a suitable activity in the library. At the same time, it is of course good to remember that overly distinct stereotypes about men and women and the gender roles should not be applied by default.

Events have also been held in the open area of the library’s book loans department. Ilkka Heiskanen also performed Ääneen! (Aloud!), an improvisation of an excerpt from a book, at the book loans department. The objective is to bring the library to life more and to present the collections with the aid of artistic performances. Performances may be, for example, theatre, magic, performing, music and reciting.

Our library’s rate of usage had increased by five per cent at the beginning of the year. Our opening hours have been extended as a partial selfservice, and the library is now open from morning to evening. The peaceful morning hours are well-suited for serving the growing number of seniors, as well as families with children.

Getting the attention of Carita’s family

In Arto Salminen’s novel, Varasto, Carita has a baby. The child’s mother and father live in a rough everyday reality. Their workers’ gloves are their shackles, the restricting chains of their dreams. The challenge of the library is how to reach parents like them – to bring their children to story hour and into the library circle.

Many authors have told about how the library, in their childhood, had been an important place, a way to go beyond the boundaries of everyday life. The childhood home of author Anja Snellman, who grew up in the working class neighbourhood of Kallio in Helsinki, was over- shadowed by many problems. She felt that she was different, but the library opened up to her another reality.

She went to the Kallio library twice a day and became consumed in her reading: “I was very passionate. I dove into everything wholeheartedly – in my imagination. In reality, I was very timid, a wallflower. I was fervently looking for role models from the art world.”

Not everyone becomes an artist. However, the library can provide everyone with substance and ideas for getting through life. It is important for the library to recognise its users. It is also equally important for the library to recognise those who pass it by and know how to grab their attention in the right way. Even Carita, who, on this very day, may be pushing her baby carriage on the corner by the library without giving a thought to the library.

Jari Paavonheimo
Library Director
Kerava City Library
Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Library Director Kerava City Library