My neighbour is probably like me

What library directors ought to know about this weird fact of life

Figure 1. Patronage patterns of the library network in the Helsinki region, formulated service area for Arabianranta local library and public transportation accessibility to Arabianranta local library. Illustration: Jaani Lahtinen

In a globally oriented world, the significance of locality is easily overlooked. In management, we tend to demand complex, service-related information and think on a spatial scale, which is far too expansive, to capture the true essence of our operational environment. Reversing this way of thinking may be more useful. Simplifying service demand definitions and increasing awareness of local level needs offers new insights into library management.

The library institution is probably the most beloved public service in Finland. It is immensely popular in large cities. It is a fundamental service in smaller cities. In Finland, patrons made 50 million visits to the library and 91 million loans from 756 public libraries in the year 2014. The library network is present in virtually every corner of our country, which is a significant contributing factor in the success of the public library system as a whole.

However, individual libraries are reasonably accessible to a very small fraction of the Finnish population. That local population can, and it usually does, vary a great deal in its socio-demographical characteristics, as does the popularity of an individual library. Understanding this common feature of society, where similar demographic groups segregate to different areas, becomes essential for library directors when it is combined with accessibility related behaviour.

Why accessibility matters

In geography, accessibility can be viewed as the ease by which people can reach a desired service, such as those offering employment, shopping, medical care or recreation, i.e. a library. Physical accessibility is linked to urban structure and thus to the quality of the transportation network. The transportation network, then again, is linked to each individual’s choice of suitable mode of transportation.

If public transportation is available, some individuals are likely to use it. If the library is in the neighbourhood, walking is the most reasonable option. Going by car requires that a car is available for use. Individuals’ choices are thus linked to their personal characteristics. Clearly it becomes a cumbersome task to understand all choices made by individuals even in this context.

In general, we seldom can predict or describe why certain individuals behave in a certain way, but as a group individuals act in a manner that has predictability. This is also true in patronage patterns. It is highly unlikely that we can ever fully understand the changing patterns of a single library patron. However, on the whole, we understand general patronage patterns well enough to describe a service area with reasonable accuracy for each public library.

Advantages of implemented approach

The advantage of this approach is the possibility to define the population structure on the service area level and associate expected behaviour patterns to this population. As one can see from Figure 1, service areas are typically very local in nature in the Helsinki region, but the situation is similar in the rest of Finland also.

Naturally, the service area structure in smaller cities follows municipal boundaries to some degree, but the principle of the varying population structure still applies since these cities tend to have a skewed population structure compared to Finland or NUTS regions as a whole.

The spider diagram in Figure 1 reveals how 95 % of all traffic flows as a result of public libraries in the Helsinki region. The thicker the diagram line, the more trips are made. In general, this 95 % is less than 2.5 kilometers in length and a vast majority of this traffic is directed to the nearest library. In any given month, roughly 120,000 single trips are made to libraries in the Helsinki region. Observing the patterns this traffic creates is quite interesting; it is greatly organized and favours the nearest library.

Favour library nearby

This observed pattern helps us to define local service areas for every library. In the example in Figure 1, the Arabianranta local library has been outlined with a black box. Arabianranta is one of the many boroughs in the city of Helsinki. The comparison between the spider diagram and the outlined service area reveals that, in reality, a vast majority of the loan trips made to Arabianranta are indeed made by the people living in this small area.

The dynamics of this system becomes clearer when we factor in the accessibility and alternative options presented by the public library network. People tend to favour the library that is accessible to them with relative ease. We chose public transportation distance as a measure for accessibility because it favours walking or cycling in short distances and public transport modes in longer distances.

The public transportation data was made available by the MetropAcces project, Department of Geoscience and Geography, at the University of Helsinki. Based on survey data gathered in 2012, these two modes combined cover 86 % of all trips made in the Helsinki region. The private car as a transportation mode accounts for 14 % of the trips.

In Figure 1, the accessibility to the Arabianranta local library by public transportation is presented in a colour scheme where red indicates short distances and blue indicates long distances.

Derivative works 

Local deviation from some norm is an interesting phenomenon in this context. If the local population generates most of the demand for the services the local library provides, then it may not be good practice to manage that library merely as an average library. This could be sensible in cases where the local population is heavily skewed as regards age distribution and some age groups are represented at the expense of other age groups. We are aware of this situation to some degree.

Different age groups typically tend to have varying needs of preferences. This assumption is reasonable in the library context, and in Finland there is plenty of evidence of it. Most likely the situation to some degree is similar in other countries.

Useful information

In the case of Arabianranta, the population is heavily skewed towards the age group of 18-29 years. There is a significant lack of children aged between 7-17 years and senior citizens aged 65 years and more. Based on the abundance of research pertaining to library usage patterns, which has been published in Finland in recent years, we can determine that demands for quiet space to work and study have increased in this area.

Feasible access to free WI-FI and Internet connections are in high demand. The surplus of updated literature on economy, philosophy, languages and natural sciences is appreciated. The typical frequency pattern for visits is regular; many visits per week and users have good overall skills in using the library. Therefore, high demand for personal services is not likely even at peak hours. This is an example of useful, derived and simplified information.

M.Sc., PhD student Department of Geosciences and Geography at the University of Helsinki