School libraries in Finland

Finns like to read. Women, especially, are keen readers and understand the significance of reading. Young Finns are among the best readers in the world. The Finnish educational system has proven to be effective. The Finnish library institution is one of the most superior in the world, and of all the cultural institutions, Finns love and use the library most of all. In a country where the schools and libraries are superior in quality, it is a paradox that its school libraries are rather modest.

To be precise, few schools have a good library. Indeed some schools are lucky enough to be located in the same building complex as the public library. Most schools do, however, have a library although they may be outdated. They are often situated in inappropriate
facilities and their collections are older than the students.

A teacher may tend to the library a couple of hours a week, and therefore it may not be open during the school day except during a certain break. There is no regular budget set for school libraries and therefore they have to rely on a random amount of scarce funds. For this reason, the collections are not systematically expanded. The amount of IT equipment is also meager.

However, there are some schools and school libraries in Finland which have inspiring  collections, a school librarian who is a pedagogic information specialist, a library team to support the school librarian, a student union active in the school library activities, a sufficient budget to make acquisitions, appropriate and pleasing facilities, furniture and lighting as well as the latest IT equipment to find material and information.

In some places, the entire municipality has joined forces to improve school libraries. Schools associated with the universities and used for teacher training have impressive libraries and library professionals working in them. This gives teacher trainees a rather good – perhaps unrealistic – vision of the role of the school library.

Unfortunately, the PISA studies, or any other study pertaining to learning outcomes, have not indicated any cause and effect relationship between good school libraries and learning outcomes, although many tend to think this way. Hard facts pertaining to this relationship are needed in Finland before investments will be made in school libraries.

In Denmark, the Basic Education Act ensures that there is a school library in all schools. In Finland, the Basic Education Act makes library activities possible (alongside after-school club activities), but it does not obligate schools to have a school library. Instead, the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education compiled by the Finnish National Board of Education (2003, 2004) lays down the norms for the concepts of learning and knowledge, the learning environment and the objectives of learning, the achievement in which a functioning school library would have a significant and natural role.

However, the words ‘school library’ could not be mentioned in the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education because the organizer of education is free to plan the ways in which it aims to achieve the objectives in the curriculum. Alternatively, expressions such as knowledge in the use of the library and skills in acquiring information are used. Often, students practice these skills during cooperation between the school and library.

Some municipalities have their own information literacy curriculum which schools and libraries have compiled together. On the other side of the coin, some municipalities have ‘outsourced’ information literacy teaching to the libraries, and in its most simplified form, it involves a lesson or two during a visit to the library.

The current National Core Curriculum for Basic Education obligates the organizer of education (usually the municipality) to provide a learning environment where “the working tools, materials, and library services must be available to the pupil so that they provide an opportunity for active and independent study” and allows the use of a diverse range of teaching methods.

As regards high school, the study environment is described as follows: “Students must be provided with tools to acquire and produce information and to assess the reliability of information by guiding them to apply the ways of acquiring and producing skills and knowledge that are characteristic of each particular branch of skills and knowledge. Students will be guided to use the information and communications technologies and services provided by libraries.”

The objectives for information acquisition and source critique are set forth in the cross curricular theme of communications and media literacy, which states that teachers in all subjects are obligated to teach students to develop their information literacy skills and to compare, select and utilize the information they acquire. Different subjects, in particular Finnish language and literature, have more precise objectives and contents as regards information literacy skills.

A recent study suggests that the strategic skills of Finnish high school students are ineffective and students do not critically assess the use of sources. According to the researcher, these things are not taught sufficiently and systematically enough in schools.

Schools need an information specialist to support the information acquisition of both teachers and students, and teachers need better skills to be able to guide their students. Schools would need a learning environment where students can practice their information literacy skills on a daily basis. Rare visits to the library are not enough in
such an essential area of learning.

Multi-literacy – a new competence

At the moment, a new National Core Curriculum for Basic Education (2016) is being compiled in Finland. A new element in the curriculum includes extensive areas of competence. One area involves multi-literacy, the basis of which is a broad conception of text and multi-modality. Multi-literacy not only comprises the traditional reading and writing skills, but also the so-called new literacies such as visual literacy, digital literacy, information literacy and media literacy.

The skills needed in interpreting text and information as well as in producing text are contained in the meaning of the term literacy. Multi-literacy is to be included in all of the definitions, objectives and contents of each subject as well as in the descriptions of what good performance is. The concept of learning will also be updated. Learning together, enthusiasm in learning and consideration for the feelings of others in learning will be reinforced. Functioning school libraries would help in achieving these objectives in practice.

In Finland, school libraries have at least three tasks: inspiring reading, developing information acquisition skills and increasing school satisfaction by offering students attractive facilities for reading and working. Supporting the hobby of reading is one of the areas of strength of our school libraries.

However, a new breakthrough for the school libraries in Finland has yet to take place after they were deemed unnecessary in the 1980s – a paradox that took place just before the concepts of knowledge and learning became more focused on the initiative of the learner and the construction of knowledge.

The collapse of the school libraries meant that the National Board of Education no longer ensured the development of them. The condition of them was no longer monitored. The issue was left to the local organizer of education. School libraries have been considered too expensive in Finland, and public libraries have also frowned on the development of them. However, campaigns to save them have taken
place from time to time.

The school curricula of the 1970s considered school libraries as the heart of the school. The idea that the school library plays a key role in learning still lives on in the consciousness of the Finns, but that beautiful metaphor becomes a reality regrettably seldom.

Counsellor of Education Finnish National Board of Education