In real life

Visits to the library increased in Finland last year by 1.2%, to 67 million. Website visits increased by 18.5%, to 42 million. The number of distance loans rose by one fifth. Library users easily locate the material they are interested in on the Internet and new logistics solutions for transporting library materials from one library to another in as flexible and cost-effective ways as possible are on the agenda.

The plans for reorganising the library network in the metropolitan area have recently been much discussed in the papers. One of five alternatives presented by consultants employed by the city administration is to retain one or two physical libraries only, and invest in addition in virtual services, logistics and pick-up points. There would certainly be a noticeable reduction of costs, but would such a model really satisfy the multiple needs of library users? The final solution is presumably going to be less radical, after all, there is much more to library use than virtual catalogues and logistics. Developing versatile electronic services reduces the need for certain face to face services, but library visitors come for a variety of reasons, some of them indicating quite new library behaviour.

The wide, spacious staircases in old library buildings are suggestive of temples of wisdom, where devoted worshippers respond to the holiest of all – the silent, book-filled halls.When the new city library building was completed in Helsinki in 1881, in the spirit of the times, the premises for the educated were separated from those of the commoners. Patrons had to ask for the book they wanted at the counter and once the patron was given the book there was nothing more for him/her to do at the library. An open shelving system was not introduced until 1914 – accompanied by a great fear of anarchy and theft.

In 1970, Finland had just over 3,000 libraries and book loans were at 7.1 per person. Ten years later, the number of libraries was reduced by half, but book loans had doubled. A ‘generation change’ had occurred; libraries had become open and customer-friendly, and were expected to offer a wide range of services that the minor branches were not able to provide. Children’s and adult’s sections were combined and in these ‘citizens’ living rooms’, the whole family convened. Ramps were built for prams, and young people came to listen to music. It was no longer especially quiet.

When one steps into a library today, it becomes immediately apparent that the visitors to the library have completely taken over the premises. It no longer resembles a relaxed living room; on the contrary, the atmosphere is full of purposeful activity. People use the computers for searching information, for browsing the catalogues, for googling, for communicating with the authorities or with other people. Personal laptops are in use, connected to the wireless networks. Some communicate with the librarians, others wait their turn. Some people read, others browse the shelves – lending figures still rise, now by 1,2% to 21,1 per capita.

The role of the postmodern librarian is no longer limited to presenting the right book or supplying the ‘right’ answer, the need is more for structuring and compiling. Since Lyotard’s treatise on the “incredulity towards metanarratives”many a formerly indisputable truth has been called into question, and we are now at a point where there is definitively no reason for uncritical faith in the smaller stories, either, especially when retrieved from the web. The need for interaction between patrons and staff is apparent in new choreographies, in how spaces are equipped and used.

The world opens up in the library, and the library is open to everyone – in olden days, only during business hours and a distance away, but nowadays, more and more always and from anywhere. Nonetheless, the library building is a vital institution in the community, well worth all the maintenance investments.

The local library collaborates with daycares and schools, hosts groups for story-time periods and for guidance in library use, cooperates with cultural activities departments, educational institutions and local organisations. In addition to library material, Internet connections and public administrative information, there is information available concerning the area’s educational and leisure-time opportunities, cultural and sports events and local administration.

When moving to a new town or to a new country, people consider the library a good place to start settling in, and it is. It is a place to meet other residents also – face to face, in real life.

Retired, former editor