No man is an island (When there is a book boat service available)

In the Åboland archipelago in Western Finland a book boat has been serving the inhabitants on the small islands around the town of Pargas for over 30 years. The boat has not been built for library service – it is actually an operating sea rescue boat which can be called out anytime, also during library service hours – and the service only runs during the summer months, but it is still both popular and invaluable. It has also up until the recent years been the only book boat in Finland, in spite of the fact that 46 000 kilometres of the country’s circumference is made up of coastal line with over 73 000 islands.

The book boat service run in Pargas has eleven stops every four weeks from May to September. Some of the users request certain books from the library beforehand but many rely on the librarians’ recommendations. If the customer is not at home, sometimes the issued material is left at their front door or on the pier for the user to pick up later.

The boat carries 20 to 25 boxes of materials which have been carefully selected by the staff with the needs of the customers in mind. The library staff needs to be familiar with not only the library collections but also the target group consisting of three generations of islanders. The preparations take about a week and each and every one of the 600 books has been thoroughly weighed and considered necessary for the users as space is scarce.

The book boat collection includes a great deal of non-fiction: gardening, handicraft, fishing and hunting are popular topics. Books on history and environmental protection are also being widely read. Fiction, large print and talking books are part of the collections, as a matter of course, and children’s books have their own audience in the youngest generation.

After the 30-year-celebrations of the book boat service in 2006, Tiina Viik, the library director of Pargas Public Library and the rest of the staff started to work towards expanding the sphere of the maritime library service to the neighbou- ring municipalities. As the libraries in the region had long been cooperating across municipal borders, it was a natural progression, even more so when five of the municipalities were consolidated in 2008 to form the new town of Väståboland.

Today the service operates in three other of the former municipalities. The ferry servicing the islands around Iniö was the first to carry five boxes of books, which are changed every month during the winter months by the librarian from the local library. With a grant from the Ministry of Education and Culture in 2007, Iniö was able to expand the hours of the librarian and buy new material for loan. Unlike on the boat in Pargas, there is no regular personal service available but a booklet where the borrowers can record their inter-library loan requests and ask for any additional material from the local library.

As the response to the two-year project in Iniö was positive and even enthusiastic, the library decided to broaden out the service to the other regular ferries in the nearby villages. The arrangement means the library does not have to hire or let alone acquire a boat or pay for fuel but can still offer a library service for the hundreds of people living regularly in the archipelago. The staff on the ferries have welcomed the service onboard and have even made acquistion suggestions of their own. The service is popular and the library is planning to make it a regular part of the supply of services.

The users, old and new, are a satisfied lot. When reading, or at least borrowing books, was thirty years age seen as something for the women and children to do while the men mostly compared notes with the boatswain on the pier, today many men are regular customers. Librarian Gerd Backman-Pettersson who has been involved wth the book boat almost from the first day notes that the highlights of the job are the moments when you’ve been able to choose the user a book which they didn’t even know they wanted. That is something you cannot measure in euros.

Päivi Jokitalo
National Library Network Services

paivi.jokitalo AT

Freelance Library Specialist