Libraries matter

At the beginning of the year, I arranged a meeting for library directors in Tampere, Finland. The title of the seminar was Integration and multiculturalism – do libraries matter? It was, of course, a rhetorical question, if not also perhaps slightly provocative, because libraries clearly play a role.

Successful integration prevents marginalization, which can lead to both personal and social problems. New and old residents who have the opportunity to meet also get to know and understand each other better. With new friends and contacts, it is easier to learn the language, find a job, participate and understand rules and values. Libraries offer free access to material, the internet, computers and space to meet. By arranging language cafés, story hours in different languages, homework help, library bus visits to refugee reception centres etc., libraries also shoulder their responsibility to contribute to successful integration.

Books, IT, language and meeting people

The large number of asylum seekers have caused libraries in many municipalities to re-evaluate their collections, services, and their sufficiency. According to a study done in fall of 2015 by the Stockholm county regional library, newly-arrived refugees come to the library primarily to borrow books, take advantage of IT services, for language development, to read, meet with other visitors and staff, to seek help with different tasks and to obtain access to information in their own language about the society.

In the same study, staff felt that there was a lack of personnel with specialized skills, for example, language skills. There was a desire to develop language support, forms of discussion and cooperation with external actors. Staff also wanted guidelines and standardized information for asylum-seekers. It is also here that I see library management’s most important task in integration work: to enable people skills particularly suited to asylum-seekers and immigrants through providing guidelines and improving staff competence and tools.

It is a question of remembering that asylum- seekers and immigrants aren’t just the receiving party. They have a lot to offer in the way of language, culture and knowledge. At the same time, the new arrivals are prospective new library users. According to an article in the Swedish newspaper Norrköpings Tidningar, visitors to Norrköping’s city library increased last year by 45 percent. The new arrivals account for a significant amount of the increase, they have found their way to the library. They say they can connect their mobile phones and computers here and establish a lifeline to Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and other places. They visit language cafés and borrow grammar books and driver’s ed books. The driver’s education book in Arabic is said to be among the top three most borrowed books.

Libraries a part of the paradise

Even the Iraqi journalist and immigrant Reband Khoshnaw, who spoke at the library directors’ meeting in Tampere, testified as to how happy he became when, as a new arrival to Finland, he found Seven Brothers by Alexis Kivi and the folk epic Kalevala in Arabic at the library, and that he felt that, by reading them, he could better understand the spirit of the Finnish people. Khoshnaw thus concluded his insightful speech with a tribute to the libraries:

“According to me you have the most beautiful and perfect libraries here in Finland! Every time I speak with Finnish people, I repeat that your country, Finland, is like a paradise. And today I say that also your libraries keep that standard. Libraries in this country are a part of this paradise! Now I feel happy for my children to grow up with the Finnish libraries, and feel sad because I wasn’t lucky enough to have that chance myself.”

Last year a record number of refugees sought asylum in Finland. Of those, 35-40 percent are expected to be granted a residence permit and move to some municipality in the country. Anyone who may doubt the value of investing in services for them, may consider the fact that behind every statistic there is a person with a history and a future. What each and every one of us do, both privately and professionally, plays a role in this.


This article is a slightly reworked version of a column in Bibban, the journal of Finland’s Swedish Library Association, 2016:1. 

Senior Adviser Regional State Administrative Agencies in Finland