Kirjatti, the library cat

“How old are you?” children often ask Kirjatti. “I will be 8 years old next autumn. I am already a big and hearty cat,” Kirjatti answers. Kirjatti was born in 1997 in the form of collective children’s webpages of the Pirkanmaa libraries. The number of libraries maintaining Kirjatti has grown from the original three libraries to currently thirteen libraries. There are very different types and sizes of libraries involved; Tampere has over 200,000 residents, while Juupajoki has 2,200.

The birth of Kirjatti
The idea to design webpages intended for children was innovative at that time. No other service like it existed; webpages for children were in fact intended for teachers, parents and educators.

The most important goals set were instruction in using the library and the Internet, and promotion of reading as a hobby. It was intended that the pages would be used primarily by children aged 6-8 years. Later, the intended user age was raised to roughly 12 years, but we did not want to set any age limit because disabled persons may also make use of easy-to-use pages like these.

When making the first pages, we strove to keep them technically simple, so that they would work well in all browser environments: at home, in schools, at daycares, as well as in libraries.

Learning about libraries
The number of lessons for children concerning the use of libraries varies in the different municipalities. In Tampere, all 2nd and 4th form pupils visit the library according to a cooperation agreement made between the library and the school. In some municipalities, all preschoolers visit the library regularly. Library visits can be carried out in a more effective way when pupils have already become familiar with library functions. Kirjatti’s adventures can also serve as review for school children after their library visit.

Kirjatti’s first adventures were based on a teaching handout handed out to pupils in the second form in Tampere and on the puppet show Kasper in the Library. In the three first stories, the plot progresses via three alternatives. Kirjatti asks, for example, “Do you have to pay when you borrow a book? A) You have to pay a lot, B) You only have to pay a little C) You don’t have to pay anything.” If you answer correctly, you go on.

In the second story, Kirjatti meets with all kinds of problems on his trip to the library.Whether it be a question about traffic, football rules or about building a bird feeder, Kirjatti realises he can find the answers to all of these questions in the library.

In the third adventure, Kirjatti, who has to substitute for the librarian, learns about the many aspects of a librarian’s job. Animal library visitors ask all kinds of questions, they need help with their homework, they ask the librarian to recommend books and they argue about taking turns on the Internet. The tired-out cat notices quickly how demanding the librarian’s work is, but promises he will come back to substitute for the librarian again if he is needed.

In 2001, we received a grant from the Ministry of Education to create a new kind of adventure. Internet services based on written texts are not very well suited for children under school age or for those just learning to read. A web site designed for them would require a completely new way of using sound and pictures. All libraries in our group were involved in drafting a manuscript. In order to carry out the story, we recruited a group of students from Tampere Polytechnic and The School of Art and Media. The group’s enthusiasm and perseverance paid off, the result is a favourite among children.

The story is based on picture, sound and moving pictures. It is well-suited for those who cannot read and for those just learning to read. In the story, we go back in time to Kirjatti’s childhood. Kirjatti is just a curious little kitten, not the clever cat he is in the other stories. The librarian fox calls the children and asks them to come and fetch their runaway cat from the library.

Kirjatti escapes from his captors even further into the library. As we follow his trail through the library, we learn about the different sections in the big library. In the music section, you can listen to music, there are fairytales in the children’s section, the bookbinder repairs worn books, the ghost living in the cellar watches over the old books which have been put in storage and the library bus in the garage needs repairs.

All the library staff are foxes and all the library visitors are animals. This story is also available as a CD-ROM, mostly for the daycare centres which do not have access to the Internet.

Promotion of reading as a hobby
The most common services on the libraries’ children and youth pages are the different book lists. In Tampere, there are many pages filled with selections of lists on different subjects:

www.tampere.fi/kirjasto/lapset/luettelo.htm includes lists of children and youth books presenting also easy-toread books. Lists of books dealing with the disabled have received positive feedback from teachers and educators.

Satumetso, www.tampere.fi/kirjasto/satumetso, is where you can easily find fairytale books and picture books using keywords. The database currently holds information on approximately 8,000 books. The individual fairytales in the books have been catalogued and outlined using 1,500 different keywords. Satumetso and the book lists primarily serve teachers and other adults.

Children send book reviews to Kirjatti. Reviews sent by the younger children are very short, but they come straight from the heart. “This is where my love for books began!”, writes an 11-year old girl.Writing a few sentences is a big achievement for someone who has just learned to read. The children who are a bit older write down their thoughts freely and without hesitation.

Many write about books of which they were skeptical to begin with. At first, the book seemed boring, but eventually it picked up and now the reader has read all the works by the same author. “The lady at the library showed me a book and said that lots of people think it is good. I didn’t believe her, but when I read it… excellent! Since then, I have read a lot of books in this series,” writes an 11-year old girl.

The children’s book reviews emphasise narrative literature, but Kirjatti himself also introduces non-fiction and poetry books, children’s music, CD-ROMs, videos etc. All members of the work group take turns writing descriptions of new, interesting material from Kirjatti’s perspective.

Instruction in using the Internet
A list of links was planned as an aid to children who want to see what is actually on the Internet, but who don’t know where to start. At first, recommendable, quality pages for children were difficult to find, now there are lots of links to children’s and youth pages of Finnish libraries, to local sights pages and to children’s pages of museums. There are only links to pages in Finnish. The language proficiency of the user community is still limited and it would be disappointing if there were only a foreign language to be found behind a link. Fun foreign page links can be found elsewhere.

Kirjatti is often asked about new games. Since Kirjatti is a cat who loves his comfort, he would rather just read books, so he tells the children to discover the children’s games that are on his link list.When asked about an often sought-after discussion forum, Kirjatti also refers inquirers elsewhere. Maintaining a discussion forum would require too much of his time. On the webpages, we try to use already existing, pertinent material of our own or from others.We need not do everything ourselves.

By doing quizzes, children learn to fill in forms and do things using the Internet. Subjects for the quizzes alternate between literature subjects and fact questions. Kirjatti is of course especially interested in books and questions about animals. He provides tips to find out more information from the library.

The feedback form allows you to ask just about anything at all. It is not necessary to have an email address and answers appear on the page once Kirjatti has had time to answer. There is an ever increasing amount of questions as to how Kirjatti is doing. “Have there been any books written about you? Have there been any TV programmes done about you?”, the eager inquirers ask.

Kirjatti has a number of namesakes, as fans have named their own kittens after him. Some write in together with their own cat. There are also often questions about how to care for a cat. Many of the messages are very personal: “I visited your web site for the first time and I liked it a lot. Do you want to be my friend? What is your favourite food? Do you eat mice and do they taste good?”

Although girls clearly write in more than boys, it doesn’t mean that boys do not visit the web site. Girls, however, are more interested in writing and in exchanging thoughts with friends than boys are. Many of the letters reveal the children’s loneliness. They are looking for friends and mailing pals in the virtual world.

The wishes of the children have influenced the content structure of the pages. Poems were originally only supposed to be written during a twomonth period, but children were so enthusiastic about sending their poems, that this created a regular section. Drawing contests have provided Kirjatti with diverse picture material in connection with stories and diaries. In 2005, children will be able to take part in writing Kirjatti’s diary.Will this also become a favorite page that will continue from one year to the next?

Singing cat and puppet theatre
Kirjatti’s songs, with lyrics and music, can be printed out from the webpages. The lyrics were written by Päivi Nurmi and the music by Leena Mäkelä. They have performed the songs in many libraries together with their children and Juupajoki’s library director, Jukka Taskinen. Seven Kirjatti songs are now completed and more are on the way. More material will be added in 2005 for children under school age and for those who are not yet able to read, as this year they will be able to hear recordings of Kirjatti’s songs on the web pages.

Kirjatti gingerbread cookies originated in Juupajoki. They were served to children who came to the library to hear the Kirjatti songs. The recipe was of course posted on the Internet pages, so others could taste them as well.

The Kirjatti puppet show had its premiere when we celebrated Kirjatti’s fifth birthday. Plans are to celebrate Kirjatti’s day in the future in the same way that International Teddy Bear Day is celebrated. Participating libraries have acquired Kirjatti hand puppets. With the puppets, they can perform the show depicted on the Internet as part of a lesson in library use, or they can make up new adventures for Kirjatti.

Kirjatti always prepares in good time for Christmas by publishing the Christmas calendar. Behind the doors are tips for Christmas books and links to Christmas webpages.

Not all of Kirjatti’s adventures are related to the library. He likes sports, games and traveling, a hint to those who have spent too much time in front of their computer or with books.

The future
Opportunities for children to use the Internet have increased at home, at school, in daycare, as well as in libraries. The technical properties of the equipment no longer limit the imagination of the page designers, as was the case in Kirjatti’s early days. The pages were done in Finnish at that time to counterbalance the foreign selection, now the library pages made for children would also be needed in other languages.

Kirjatti’s web pages are an essential part of the Internet services of the participating libraries, and they are very popular. Internet services aim at transferring part of routine functions to the web, but the purpose of the children’s pages is contrarily to increase children’s library visits.

When designing the web pages, we were also thinking about those children who do not actively use the library. In sparsely populated areas, long distances to the library can prevent children from visiting the library if their parents are not active library patrons. It seems as though Kirjatti has reached these children as well.

Kirjatti’s web pages allow libraries to obtain important feedback from children who do not use the library, but who like to read. Users participate in developing the webpages and influencing the community by sending library-related suggestions. Kirjatti also receives mail from outside of Pirkanmaa and from Finnish children living abroad.

The Kirjatti work group meets regularly to agree on distribution of tasks, to develop new ideas and to evaluate the pages and their benefits in practical situations. Tampere is responsible for the technical realisations, because the web site is on the Tampere City server.

The designing of the pages in the work group has increased cooperation on Internet pages and on children-related library work. Librarians working in the children’s library domain have found new contacts with like-minded colleagues. Book tips, puppet shows, theme weeks and exhibits are all new potential areas of cooperation. In conjunction with Kirjatti’s webpages, we are planning pages for the work group members, the ‘mother cats’.

Kirjatti’s web pages were entered in the Prime Minister’s ‘best practices’ competition and the Public Internet Services quality competition.

“Isn’t it hard for you to use the computer with your paws?”, we were asked in a recent email. It is sometimes difficult, but the Kirjatti group has always had fun.

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös
Photos: Marja Koponen

Librarian. Tampere City Library – Pirkanmaa Provincial Library, Children and Youth section.