The Bittis Project brought libraries to the center of the school

Cooperation between schools and public libraries is a prerequisite for progress in the school library arena

If you ask Finns what associations the words “school library” bring to mind, most will think of dusty books in a closed and musty room. Their associations will probably not be of a functional, pleasant area with fresh books and new technology. Nor will they be of a work room for students and teachers, eagerly searching for knowledge and information, or of a library open throughout the school day with a librarian who helps in information searches and inspires reading. There are municipalities which have established services for pedagogic informaticians; there are school libraries which function as described above, but there are just too few of them. On the website of the School Library Association in Finland, http://www.suomenkoulukirjastoyhdistys.fi/english.htm, there are pictures of pleasant, well-functioning school libraries – the other extreme can be two, small forgotten bookcases.

The general concept of the school library is based on experiences from our school days and is unfortunately a fairly accurate picture of the library situation in the Finno-Swedish primary schools, according to a study carried out by Monica Borg-Sunabacka and Susanna Söderholm. The study, Two Small Bookcases or the School’s Center of Knowledge (2002), accessible in Swedish at www.biblioteken.fi, reports about school libraries which lack resources for staff and material purchasing, about books which are outdated and worn out and cannot be retrieved in any system. There are no computers or other equipment either. The school library in these schools is a far cry from the work rooms and pedagogic tools which teachers could use in modern process-oriented teaching. One of the teachers who answered the questionnaire stated that the school’s library is the same as “two small bookcases”.

Half of the schools are spread throughout Uusimaa and Tampere and the other half are in Turunmaa and Ostrobothnia.

Aim of the project
Two project planners were hired for the project. Susanne Ahlroth and Monica Borg-Sunabacka work normally as librarians, responsible for the operation of a children’s library and familiar with cooperation issues between schools and public libraries.

Within the framework of Bittis, the schools were also able to apply for funds to purchase a library information system for cataloguing and booklending, such that Bittis would pay for two-thirds and the municipality would pay for one-third of the costs. Procedures varied. The option of using the same system used by the local public library was first explored under the direction of the project planners. In places where this was possible, cooperation flowed smoothly and the schools began cataloguing material and booklending routines with the help of the librarians from the public library. In places where this was not possible, primarily big cities with large library databases, other solutions were sought. In this case, some schools purchased an independent library information system instead. The selection and purchase of library information systems was a stumbling block within the project.

Although Bittis enabled the schools to begin financing a library information system, some headmasters and education directors thought the programs and hardware, as well as the annual fees, were too expensive for the tight school budgets. They did not feel they could guarantee continued financing for the maintenance of the system. A project period of one year was also too short for some of the larger municipalities to make progress and take a decision in the matter.

Cooperation between schools and libraries
School libraries are in great need of a status boost and the teachers need to improve their understanding of modern library functions and information competence. Public libraries have a body of employees who are specialized in information management and who possess extensive literary knowledge. Cooperation between schools and public libraries is a prerequisite for progress in the school library arena. This is in line with Library Strategy 2010: Ministry of Education publication 2003:8, which encourages municipalities to invest in cooperation between the school and library sectors. www.minedu.fi/minedu/culture/library/english/information.html

An important aim for the project was to initiate cooperation between schools 4 SPLQ:1 2006 and municipal libraries. Some schools and libraries have extensive experience in cooperation; others found new models for their cooperation during the project year. Since the Finno-Swedish schools are dispersed over a large geographical area, the long distance from the school to the nearest municipal library already poses a problem for cooperation.With good will on both sides, acceptable solutions are usually found for these schools, for example, by using the book bus or by circulating small collections of books.

One particular problem for the project schools in the larger cities was that there were too few Swedish-speaking librarians at the public libraries and that the book collections for Swedishspeaking children were neither large enough nor interesting enough. Despite the fact that the basis for the functioning of public libraries is equality for all citizens, students belonging to the minority group of a region are often in a very disadvantaged position with respect to library services.

Swedish-speaking students in the larger project regions will not be able to enjoy the same selection or service as their Finnish-speaking classmates or the Swedish-speaking students in a smaller area where Swedish is the majority language. This is a democratic and political issue which should interest those responsible and those making decisions in scholastic and library matters.

In order to be able to meet the schools’ needs, public libraries must have supplementary resources for material and staff and implement a reorganization and rearrangement of services and collections. In some areas, it is also necessary to define the library’s service to the schools; which tasks are the responsibility of the public library and which are the responsibility of the school library?

Reading incentive, further education, consultation
The project planners and the librarians from the public libraries were book talking in the schools. The students were taught how to talk about books and were encouraged to do so with one another. Further education was arranged for both teachers and librarians, some in the form of conferences, some in the form of local education days in the various regions. For the local education days, librarians from the public library served as teachers and instructors in information retrieval and practical library maintenance. Teachers from some schools visited school libraries on Ã…land and in Sweden to learn more. The planners instructed their teacher colleagues in the formulation of a work plan for the continued development of the school library. The planners also prepared material about maintaining the library, literary knowledge and instruction in information retrieval. The material can be used in both schools and libraries and is accessible in Swedish at www.edu.fi/svenska.

The project planners worked in close cooperation with the schools and consulted them in matters concerning library systems, information management, reading incentives, book selections and literary pedagogy. All of the schools were urged to trim down and clean out their collections; many of the books were very worn and outdated. The project planners gave advice, not only concerning the acquisition of new books, but also concerning the maintenance of collections, reducing them and repairing and placing of the books. The school librarians together with the rest of the teachers and students did much work cleaning up the shelves. To achieve a more logical method of division and placement of books, they were urged to introduce the use of the classification system which is used in public libraries in Finland. Through new acquisitions or rearranging the shelves, tables and chairs, the school libraries became more functional.

The school librarians in the schools that participated in Bittis have between 0-4 hours per week set aside for maintaining the school library. The school librarians are teachers who have taken on the responsibility for the school’s library, without any librarian education, in addition to their classes. They experienced the professional instruction and support they got from the project planners as an important part of the project. The need for consultation of this type goes without saying. During the project, the planners were even able to answer questions from school librarians in schools which did not partake in the project.

The end of the project – what happens next?
Project Bittis meant a real investment for the 24 cooperating schools, but the project was a one-time opportunity and all good things must come to an end. Project experiences should be used for continuing development and improvement of forms and conditions for operation. Only some of the schools could be accepted into the project Bittis.Who will take on the responsibility for improving the school libraries in all of the remaining Finno-Swedish schools?

Today there is no authority requiring the municipalities to establish and maintain modern school libraries; it is up to the individual municipalities and their enthusiasts. Active schools struggle with tight budgets, apply for grants and organize flea markets for their libraries. Enthusiasts among teachers, headmasters, education directors and librarians of children’s literature carry out initiatives to a great extent, but none of them can carry on long-term without support and resources. No one is leading the development on a national level or taking responsibility to see that students in the different schools are receiving equal access to modern library and information services.

An impediment to the coordination and development is that school libraries fall between two different sectors. The librarians are at public libraries, which in most municipalities belong to a different administrative branch than schools. Public libraries also have a different task; public libraries serve the population of the entire municipality, while school libraries are only concerned with the school’s own students and teachers. A municipal library which would gladly help a school with library technology and book purchasing has neither the resources nor the mandate to reorganize the school’s library. Also, if the will for cooperation exists, it is difficult to achieve results over administrative borders. There is a great need for a service within the government administration which would be responsible for school libraries, likewise for professional librarians and informaticians to develop, coordinate and organize library and information services in schools. In short, there is a need for legislation which would require municipalities to establish and maintain school libraries. Government services are needed and regional school library centers are needed as support and as a coordinator between the schools and public libraries.

One project year is short, especially in the scholastic world. Time goes quickly and sometimes it feels as if nothing gets done. Nonetheless, quite a bit was done in the project schools, thanks to clear-sighted school librarians, teachers, headmasters and education directors – and librarians at the municipal libraries! I see the headmasters’ attitude and input as being the most decisive for a project of this type. The headmaster is the leader for the pedagogic development in the school, and the development of the school library is pedagogic development work! “Not without my headmaster!” was a mantra that we repeated many times in the discussions we held with the teachers.

In some project locations, Bittis had positive synergetic effects on all schools in the municipality. The project brought it to the attention of those responsible within school and library sectors that modernization and resource distribution was necessary, a development which was to the benefit of all of the municipality’s schools. These municipalities made a greater investment in school libraries, so they granted more resources, not only to the project schools, but to the municipal schools overall.

Project Bittis aroused interest both nationally and municipally. The work that was done in the project schools provides other schools with a model to aspire to. The project will also affect the library sector, where there are now new models for cooperation with the schools. Project Bittis is one necessary step towards more resources and qualitatively better school libraries in Finland. There is a desire to develop and modernize school libraries as part of the pedagogic work in schools and the situation in school libraries is being discussed now on different levels. The project experiences can provide valuable contributions to strategies and decisions about the continued development in the area. One day we will be able to see real results  then we will no longer associate school libraries with musty rooms. Instead, the dream of a room for seekers of knowledge and reading enthusiasts will have been fulfilled!

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Senior Adviser Regional State Administrative Agencies in Finland