Editorial: The library and life

The economic recession in the mid- 1990s hit Finland very hard. Unemployment suddenly climbed to 18 %, businesses went bankrupt and property values took a dive. Overall, low morale and pessimism about the future coloured the daily lives of many. Certain phenomena, such as skirt length, are considered to be indicators of the global economic situation. I don’t remember the lengths of the skirts in Finland in the 1990s; not many women wear skirts anymore, but statistics report other interesting phenomena. Book purchases in bookstores increased by 15 %. Book loans and library visits increased at the library, and the effect lingered long after times got better. In 1990, 10 visits and 17 loans were registered per resident. In 1996, there were 13 visits per resident and loans had increased to nearly 21.

Despite that, the 1990s was a time of tight budgets in communities. The library struggled with a reduction of resources and, at the same time, with the need to invest in new technology. Book acquisitions dropped by a third, but the new library systems, Internet connections and e-mail provided entirely new possibilities for collaboration. Soon, just about all of the libraries belonged to some library network, with shared library systems and catalogues accessible on the Internet. The service was even improved to some extent, in spite of the budget cuts. Libraries could provide patrons with Internet connections and new information sources at a time when hardly anyone had the possibility to buy a new computer. The new collaboration made it possible to offer a wide selection of library material despite cut-backs.

The large group of unemployed people had time to read books, newspapers and magazines, and, at a time when working life was rapidly changing, could also become familiar with new technology at the library. The numbers for library visits and book loans remained at the same high level for a long time until the curve began to take a downward turn a few years ago. Finland has a population of just over 5 million, 4 million of which say they are Internet users. There are 8,000 chat lists and nearly half a million Facebook users. Reading and library visits are in competition with the social web and blogs for diverse special interests, channel packages for digital TV and much more.

So what will happen with library statistics in the current economic recession, which is spreading like wildfire in the global economy? Will the curve swing upwards again? There are already some indications that this is happening. Bookstores are reporting that private book purchases have increased by 10 %, primarily in fiction. The Helsinki Library reported an increase in loans, in particular of fiction, towards the end of last year. The library is a significant venue in the local environment for residents. As we are now seeing unemployment on the rise again, property values are falling and low morale is taking hold; we have cause to remember the lessons learned from the 1990s and to remind the decision- makers and politicians that the importance of libraries increases in bad times. The library provides people with the opportunity to stay up to date on developments, read newspapers and magazines, borrow academic literature and acquire new interests and knowledge from a diverse selection of nonfiction. Fiction provides experiences, which also help people through hard times. A good way to counter the effects of the recession on the local level is to develop and expand library services.

Barbro Wigell-Ryynänen
Counsellor for Library Affairs
Ministry of Education and Culture,

barbro.wigell-ryynanen AT minedu.fi

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Retired, former editor