As collections and information searches extended far beyond the physical limits of a building, people started talking about libraries without walls. From the idea of a wall-less library, it was but a small step to a more worrying thought – maybe libraries would become obsolete in the era of electronic networks.
The late 1990s brought profound change. Developments in information technology radically altered the libraries’ working environment, their tools and their views of what their work was all about. The coincident economic recession led to drastic measures to cut municipal costs. The physical library network shrank; branches were closed and book mobiles taken off the road. In 1990 Finland had 1,151 libraries, in 2000 there were just 936. In the same period, mobile library numbers fell from 232 to 202. Simultaneously, library usage soared and visitor numbers rose by 31% over the decade. Lending and the frequency of library visits have always been high in Finland; the average Finn now visits a library 12 times, and borrows 20 items, every year.
So, despite inexorable cuts in funding, libraries faced growing demand for their services. They were still working out how best to use their resources to resolve this dilemma when along came the great computer breakthrough. And that brought with it so much more than automation of lending routines. Though at first marketed as an aid to rationalisation and getting by with less staff – and certainly a better means of handling the library’s collections too – it proved to be a gateway to totally new opportunities for information seeking, communication, connections and service. It also brought with it new tasks and routines, and the need for a new approach to the operation as a whole.
Expertise and collaboration
The technical infrastructure for network connections in Finnish public libraries was created with state funding during the latter part of the 1990s. The project called House of Knowledge – now publiclibraries.fi – developed, coordinated and handled the follow-up on a national level and established a trilingual website for the public libraries, as well as a bulletin board for library staff and other interested parties.
Provincial libraries were able to employ experts on networks to advise and train staff within the region. All libraries got internet connections, as well as further training in the use of these new tools and ways of communication. The bulletin board and the growth of e-mail made it easy to spread information, to keep in touch and to co-operate.
Today more than half of all Finnish libraries belong to a regional network. Usually this involves sharing a home page, with catalogues available over the Internet, joint library cards and common internal lending rules.A management group comprising the heads of the participating libraries is responsible for developing the network.On top of labour and cost savings, regular exchange of know-how and experience, bigger collections and better service for the users, this arrangement offers mutual support for the heads of individual libraries for planning and developing both local and regional library activities. Each library pays a proportion of the costs.
On a municipal level this co-operation so far has mostly concerned the mobile library service. The new Library Act stipulates that a municipality must provide these services independently, or totally or partially in co-operation with other municipalities, or in any other way. Today some municipalities are planning to share the services of a chief librarian, while others have already established a joint administration.
Developments on the web
Since 2000, libraries have been able to apply for public money to produce contents for the web and to develop user-friendly services,though many libraries have no doubt produced contents long before that word got new meaning in the new context. In addition to library information and catalogue metadata, people have worked to create link libraries, regional directories of authors, reference databases of articles in local newspapers, pages for children and youngsters, and literary pages. The projects have now grown bigger.
Provincial libraries in Ostrobothnia are building regional portals with a varied content of knowledge and culture,and are offering web-space to other regional producers of contents within these fields. The regional library networks are jointly applying for project money to develop their service for specific age groups, for developing user-friendliness, for making special collections more accessible and for joint projects with, for instance, municipal authorities, schools and other educational institutions, museums, local archives and music schools.
Many libraries participate in the work by producing links for the link library on the joint website publiclibraries.fi, and a great number of libraries contribute to the Ask-a-Librarian service introduced by publiclibraries.fi.A library’s size or location matters less now than it used to.What is important in this electronic era is having an innovative outlook and shared interests and needs.
Through their network connections libraries have also acquired new roles; activities now include a certain amount of production,and the Internet makes quality evaluation ever more important. Whatever libraries produce for the web is publicly available, and can be accessed from one’s home computer. From home it is also possible to reserve a book that is currently out on loan to someone else, and eventually get a message on one’s mobile phone saying that it can now be picked up from the library. The book,the physical object, is transported, collected, carried home. In Finland, books constitute 91% of the collections of public libraries, 80% of acquisitions and 76% of lending. For research libraries books make up 50% of acquisitions.
Merging new and old
Public libraries are developing collections and services in electronic format, but also have responsibility for providing fiction,cultural heritage, popular non-fiction, literature for children and youngsters and picture books. The merging of new and traditional roles is perhaps most visible on libraries’ fiction pages on the web. Libraries are cultural meeting places, on the web as well as in the cityscape or village.One such meeting place is MCL, the multicultural library on the web.
The public and research libraries are working together around new meeting places and creating networks on many different levels. The physical space can be shared, as it is in Kokkola, where the Polytechnic Library and the City/Provincial Library are situated in the same new building. (The library in Kokkola in described in the recently published book Nordic Public Libraries. The Nordic cultural sphere and its public libraries). Another good example of shared physical facilities is one o f the branches of Helsinki City Library joining forces with Helsinki University in creating Viikki Information Centre.
In Swedish-speaking Ekenäs the City Library has responsibility for the library and information function of a regional polytechnic. Many of the regional library networks collaborate with polytechnics and universities in their area, via joint virtual libraries and websites. Sukkula’s virtual library includes museums, archives and dozens of public and research libraries in western Finland; Eastinfo is an equivalent big network in eastern Finland. The Finnish National Electronic Library, FinElib, negotiates certain licenses also for public libraries.
What of the future?
The process continues. The local physical networks with main library and branches, mobile library and lending stations have shrunk, the regional virtual networks are growing and developing and new virtual libraries are being created. On the national level, plans concern big networks and cooperation across boundaries. The Finnish Library Policy Programme published in the spring of 2001 includes a vision for the development of library and information services that focuses on collaboration and a clearer division of labour between the big three – Central Library for Public Libraries, National Repository Library and National Library. The first discussions about possible future co-operation have already taken place, but where will they lead? Only time will tell.
Kokkola Library:Polytechnic Library and City/Provincial Library in the same new building Barbro Wigell-Ryynänen