Libraries are participants in an open society

The significance of libraries in society is growing and their visibility is increasing. Above all, libraries are major participants in UN and, especially, UNESCO discussions, forming viewpoints pertaining to copyright and freedom of speech issues. The increase in significance is also yielding increased publicity for libraries, which can also be a negative thing. 

In Finland, the latest incident, which provoked discussion, was the memorial exhibition organized in a Helsinki library for the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly magazine employees who died in the terrorist attack in the spring of 2015. The Finnish Comics Society compiled the exhibition from a few illustrations in Charlie Hebdo’s own magazines and from works produced for the exhibition by Finnish comic artists.

Admittedly, the exhibition included contentious material, but it was deliberately placed in a location where visitors would not bump into it by accident. The general impression was sincere, not provocative.

Scattered threats 

Regardless, the exhibition aroused conflicting feelings. The Muslim community was in an uproar. In other feedback by the public, the idea to house the exhibition in a library was condemned due to the threat of an attack.

The library personnel also discussed the issue, but it subsided when the library’s troika of directors stood on duty guarding the exhibition. Although there were some scattered threats, luckily they were not carried out. A planned demonstration by Muslims would in fact have been welcomed because it would have vented the resentment in an approved way.

The exhibition resulted in a meeting between library executives and leaders of the Islam community. Our understanding of the relationship between freedom of expression and responsibility was substantiated when the leaders of the mosques explained how they must bridge together the viewpoints of their believers and those of our secular society.

On the other hand, the representatives of the library were able to assure them that, for example, the children of Muslim families would not be able to see the exhibition by chance. Mutual communication was deemed necessary and insight is needed on both sides.

Freedom of speech was also challenged at the Jyväskylä City Library in January, 2013. A publishing company had reserved space in the library to put up an exhibition depicting its new release about Finnish right-wing extremism. Local right-wing extremists attacked the exhibition and stabbed the attendant. The attackers were subsequently sentenced for their actions.

The incident was proof that libraries can be considered almost sacred places for Finns – infringing upon their peace aroused powerful feelings, which could be seen in discussions in social media and in the numerous editorials in newspapers.

Change in the spirit of discussion 

Discussion within the Finnish library community after the incidents in Jyväskylä and Helsinki has been encouraging. The events were covered extensively in field-related meetings and online discussions especially in 2013. The discussions supported the right of the library and its patrons to display any legally published work or trend of ideas on the library premises.

In Helsinki, the Charlie Hebdo uproar coincided with the library’s strategy work and revising of the library’s values. We obtained real-life examples for discussions with personnel. The conclusions of these discussions were clear: freedom of speech  is a primary value. Safety must be ensured, but you cannot hide behind it and shirk your responsibility to society.

These two concrete incidents actually signify a turn in the spirit of discussion in Finnish libraries. Previously, it was marked by pronounced societal neutrality, to the extent of being odourless and tasteless.

Ideal of neutrality 

In 2010, when libraries were summoned to take part in the Discrimination-free Zone campaign, funded by the Ministry of the Interior and the EU, only a few responded to the challenge. Libraries did not feel it concerned them, which indicates how neutral libraries consider themselves. Some libraries ignored the challenge intentionally, perhaps due to the ideal of neutrality and diffidence.

Neutrality and pursuit of safety are not just a Finnish phenomenon. For example, I remember the discussions at the 2012 IFLA conference, which were marked by a spirit of avoidance to openly support freedom of speech. I believe this calls for acion. Sticking to a purely professional attitude marginalizes libraries in a situation where they could increase their influence by supporting freedom of speech and democracy.

The defence of freedom of speech by libraries is heavily characterized by locality, since libraries are physical locations. Indeed, this challenges libraries to consider their own individual role. Balancing openness and the safety of patrons and personnel is essential. One can influence one’s own safety.

Safety must be ensured 

In Finnish municipalities, safety is being actively addressed nowadays, i.e. there are risk management and contingency plans. I personally feel an aversion to excessive pursuit of safety, shielding and controlling, but we should be proactive in issues such as these. Preparedness is a way to guarantee the openness of the library.

In the Jyväskylä incident described above, the library personnel reacted in an exemplary manner. They had practiced dealing with crisis situations, and when they were faced with a real crisis situation they knew how to act calmly and properly.

For example, the library attendant turned the security cameras towards the doors to the hall when an intimidating-looking group entered. Later, the videos were used as evidence in the court hearings. I surmise vthat being prepared in advance prevented excessive commotion as a result of the incident. Something like that easily leads to overwhelming fear, which is presumably the intention of provocateurs.

Freedom and responsibility 

The experiences during my career and the discussions in IFLA’s Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s Muhammed caricature in 2005 have increasingly prompted me to consider the relationship between freedom of speech and responsibility. I support freedom of speech in the Charlie Hebdo magazine, though its teenage provocativeness is of no resonance to me.

At the same time, I would like the library’s general message to its patrons to be closer to Nelson Mandela’s pertinent reminder that along with freedom comes responsibility towards others. The library, for its part, should influence the social climate towards increasing freedom of expression, tolerance and genuine communication between different groups of people.

Mandela’s citation: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”


Library Director Helsinki City Library Central Library for Public Libraries
This is how the Helsinki City Library responded to the media and community concerning the Charlie Hebdo memorial exhibition in the spring when a demonstration was planned against the library and the exhibition:
  1. The library is an institution that implements freedom of speech and considers the “I am Charlie” memorial exhibition a significant statement on the limitations of freedom of speech. The content of the exhibition is sorrowful, not provocative. Its message is that the pen and words are, in the end, more powerful than bullets.
  2. Demonstrations are a legal way to express a difference of opinion.
  3. We prefer to believe that violence would not be used against a library in this country. In the event that something like that should occur, the library has been in contact with the police and other security professionals.