Library services with all the sasonings

… is the name of a new report commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Education. The assignment was to provide concrete suggestions as to what comprise the basic services of a library in the information society. Rami Heinisuo, IT entrepreneur and non-fiction writer, Sanna Koskela, applications designer for Helsinki University Library and Reetta Saine, librarian, former acting lecturer at the University of Tampere, examine the task of libraries as executers of the intellectual equality of the information society.

Provision of traditional material, information services and sufficient opening hours are, and will continue to be, a part of core library operations. A patron- oriented approach, quality control and a competent staff are also central to the overall operations of a hybrid library. It is needless to set traditional services at odds with new ones; electronic services have actually been proven to increase the demand for material collections and face-to-face services.

Services using public funds and aiming to secure good foundations for life as equally as possible for all people are considered to be basic services, including library and education services as well as for instance rescue and traffic services. This year, the basic services report of the provincial administration focused on the book acquisitions of libraries. Next year the focus will be on electronic material. Of all loans from Finnish libraries, 73% are book loans. The book purchase allowance for municipalities varies from two Euro to 14 Euro per resident.

The investment made by municipalities in their library services varies greatly. It is evident from the public libraries’ network service ‘libraries.fi’ statistics database, that the library of the municipality which invests most in its library uses twice the amount of money per resident for its operations to that of the library of the municipality which invests the least in its library. Centralised, nationally financed virtual services level down the inequality resulting from specific places of residence, but in the networked cooperation between individual libraries different bases are clearly visible.

When the current government platform says that basic library services will remain free-of-charge, what is meant in this case by basic services’? The library act’s message that “use in the library of the library’s own collections and borrowing of these collections shall be free-of-charge” seems clear, but what about the virtual collections and services and distance use of the material?

In the virtual libraries patrons can skim through reference information and locate any material, renew their loans and reserve material or receive notifications of new material. Full-text and other material is accessible from the user’s home PC. Mobile phones, currently used primarily to receive library messages, develop into ‘mobile message centres’, digital TV provides new possibilities.

The most radical proposal of With All the Seasonings with regards to basic and supplemental services is to let the patrons choose which basic services they want to use free-of-charge and for which supplemental services they want to pay, in accordance with their own life situation and changing needs. Libraries are encouraged to carry out market research; many patrons would surely be willing to pay for individual, profiled services. On the other hand, too much emphasis on chargeable services can easily erode the ideological foundation – the most important task and the greatest strength of libraries is still to be ‘free-of-charge’ for everyone. The thought of chargeable services is rejected by many interviewees in the libraries, not only because of a lack of resources, but also for ideological reasons.

Information service is mostly for the individual and focused, but it is still considered a basic service; it could only become a chargeable supplemental service if it exceeded the ordinary service level. Chargeable community-oriented supplemental services could be related to e-democracy. “The good reputation of libraries as service providers for municipalities and as advocates of equality would also benefit the different organisations of a municipality.”

The Finnish library strategy emphasises external evaluation and the importance of reports about current issues as a basis for national tasks requiring swift decision- making. With All the Seasonings produced suggestions concerning basic free-of-charge services, cost prices for provided services, and profit from the provided services for the authorities and the libraries to consider.

Even-handed adherence to the free-ofcharge principle requires identification of basic services and equalising of rules.

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös OY

Retired, former editor