Finland’s public library strategy implemented in projects

The self-government of municipalities in Finland is strong. Municipalities are responsible for organizing basic services, which also include library and information services. The Ministry of Education is responsible for outlining national library policies and for the development of legislation.

The thinking behind Finland’s library strategy is based on the nationwide public library strategy compiled at the Ministry of Education. Library strategy 2010’s subheading “The policies of the accessibility of information and culture” states essentially: the question concerns the realization of a cultural information society. Prerequisites for this are a cultural information society infrastructure, the fundamental rights of citizens and civics.

The Ministry of Education carries out the goals of library strategy by making annual and performance contracts with provincial administrative boards, the repository library, the central library for public libraries, the National Library of Finland and provincial libraries. Together with provincial administrative boards, the Ministry of Education directs the implementation of strategic goals by administrating and funding projects on a national, regional and local level.

In our article, the most essential goals of Library Strategy 2010 are described and examples of how to obtain the goals through project administration are provided.

Equal access to culture and information sources for citizens

Since the 1990s, public libraries have systematically supported the building of an automatic data processing infra- structure using project aid. In recent years, the ADP equipment of small libraries in particular has been improved with state funding, which has been used to purchase modern machines and information systems which meet standards, to train staff in computer technology and to improve Internet connections.

Finland is a sparsely populated country, but well equipped library buses improve equal access for citizens to library and information services. Municipalities receive state subsidies to purchase library buses. State subsidies vary between 25 and 50%, depending on the municipality’s financial situation. Through information and resource guidance, the state encourages municipalities in joint purchases of library buses and in cooperation, to enable library bus services to reach the entire country in the future as well.

The Ministry of Education supports the replacement of library Internet computers for patrons and the improvement of Internet connections for a period of three years. Providing electronic transactions and Internet information pools to residents of sparsely populated regions has also been a goal, since the library buses are specially equipped with patron Internet terminals and fast Internet connections.

The joint service bus of Kemijärvi in North Finland is a good example of a measure which is based on satisfying the needs of residents of sparsely populated areas. The joint service bus provides traditional library and information services as well as other electronic Internet transactions. Business partners include the employment office, the National Pensions Institute, local banks and tele-operators.

Making information services and information management skills a daily routine for citizens

To attain the effective use of developed Internet services, the services must be marketed and, above all, citizens must be instructed to use them. Formal instruction provided in an educational institution reaches young Finns sufficiently. However, informal, voluntary study and information acquisition are important in preventing marginalization. Libraries offer excellent settings for independent initiative: equipment, programs and guidance.

The Finnish government has a special information society program, which strives to increase citizens’ Internet transactions, among other things. In connection with this, the Finland Online campaign was implemented in 2005 throughout the whole country.

The campaign promoted electronic online transactions and information about Internet services. In addition to public libraries and joint service locations (Front office), suppliers of other public services and commercial services took part in the campaign. All together, 1,500 professionals in information retrieval and instructors for patrons took part in courses. National advertisements in the mass media showed that electronic services are available to citizens in the libraries. Supplemental education in Internet services for library staff is in any case supported by project funding. Regional participants, such as provincial libraries and libraries taking part in cooperation work, have been given priority.

Project funding is also directed to joint projects between libraries and schools which aim to improve the information acquisition and management skills of students and teachers. An example of a comprehensive course package in information management skills for use by libraries and schools is the “Tiedon lähde” website tiedonlahde/ drafted at Porvoo City Library. On the website, problem-based information acquisition is approached as part of the learning process.

Public libraries have been involved in the peer-to-peer education project funded by the Ministry of Education and implemented by provincial administrative boards. Employees in libraries and in the third sector have specially developed their pedagogic competence for instruction in information technology and information acquisition.

Language – the key to understanding one’s own culture and understanding others

Finland is a country with a small population speaking its language, therefore cultivation and promotion of the Finnish language is a vital necessity for the existence of the Finnish culture. In Finland, the public library is the only place where literature is systematically acquired, collected and kept for the use of its citizens. The selection of literature also strengthens the information society skills of Finnish citizens, because traditional literacy is a basis for new media literacy. The Ministry of Education increases accessibility to literature by annually providing libraries with less-widely circulated quality literature and funds to purchase cultural journals.

Libraries can apply for funding from provincial administrative boards for projects which will inspire an interest in reading among children and youth. An example of a successful trial is the cooperation between Lahti City Library and the local football club to encourage reading among boys. The aim was to set and maintain reading among boys by making a tangible model of a reading and writing man. Furthermore, the aim was to create a bridge between the mental and physical culture, which are often seen as being in competition with one another.

Nearly every Finnish public library has its own web-pages for children where they are guided in information acquisition and library use, where children’s literature is presented and reading as a hobby is promoted. These activities are also supported by project funding.

A library for foreigners in Finland was established with a special state grant in connection with Helsinki City Library to support library services for the foreign language population. This library acquires material for shared national use in languages which are uncommon and which have few speakers in Finland.

Funds for projects promoting interest in reading are also directed to encouraging immigrant children and youth to read literature in their native language. An interesting example of this is Vantaa City Library’s “Kielet äänessä” (“languages aloud”) project, in which children and youth with different native languages gather together for multi-cultural illustrative and story sessions. In combined gatherings, youth have translated Finnish storybooks into Kurdish and younger children have illustrated them.

Cultural information society library

A functional library network requires the development of both a physical library network and network services. The Ministry of Education finances national information network services, the supply of which is centralized. A library portal is being further constructed with centralized funding. The portal contains everything worth knowing about Finnish libraries:

The information retrieval port has been developed especially for information service for public libraries and patrons. It contains library databases, regional portals and collections of links, public administration services and the possibility for electronic transactions, nationally produced library information search services (“Ask a librarian”, in the form of chat and email, the link library), etc.

Rights of use and copyrights for the information records of the Finnish National Bibliography and for the joint databases of provincial libraries (materials, articles and music reference databases) have been paid to public libraries. The databases will be opened in the future for the free use of all citizens. The vast music database of the Finnish Broadcasting Company will also be made available for free network use.

These measures balance out the regional differences and differences between libraries. Individual libraries can focus on basic and local services, since some of the services are nationally provided.

Libraries form one service entity for the users in regional library establishments

A municipal and service restructuring is beginning in Finland in which the service production of municipalities and the number of municipalities are the object of special evaluation. The Ministry of Education’s strategic goal is to preserve the current physical library network, independent of the number of municipalities. Likewise, library services will be preserved as a local and basic service, like preschool and basic education.

Traditionally, Finnish libraries have engaged in much cooperative work, for example, in material and computer purchasing. Now the government is encouraging municipalities even further with funding for joint library establishments. Library establishments and libraries belonging to a consolidation of municipalities and which are based on joint municipal agreements can initially obtain special funding for joint purchase of computer systems and for the costs of conjoining them.

Libraries have shared regional material databases, but these are not enough; logistical solutions are also necessary. The physical materials of libraries can be moved from one library to another easier than before. The method of traditional inter-library loans is too expensive and slow to make effective use of collections. Solution models for the transport problem, which is relevant throughout the country, have been sought via logistics trials. Lapland’s logistics trial became a permanent practice. Patrons can reserve a book at any library within the transport territory and the material will be delivered to their nearest library. In provinces with long traveling distances, most of the municipalities are involved in the transport service.

In the capital region, material is transported within an area of four cities.

The area has nearly one million inhabitants. Interlibrary transport services, which are based on good experiences from government-funded trials, are gradually becoming common throughout the whole country.

The library as a local center of culture and information

The visibility of network services and local materials of regional libraries is promoted and increased through funding of the libraries’ content production. Databases of regional authors, films and local history and web-pages about local issues and regional portals, among other things, have been made with project funding.

The “Rural library development program” is being prepared at the Ministry of Education. The goal of the program is to develop public libraries as rural integrated service centers. In addition to the development goals, the program also includes a program for a plan of action. The program’s goals will be achieved through project administration.

First-rate library operations require skilled professional staff

Provincial administrative boards receive development funding from the Ministry of Education to arrange additional education for public library staff. The additional education arranged by provincial administrative boards is free-of-charge for participants. This guarantees that as many people as possible will have the opportunity to update their knowledge in the current issues of the library branch. At best, as much as 70% of the people in the profession participate yearly in various supplemental training courses. Additionally, further training is also arranged by other institutions and organizations. Library self-evaluation projects are also supported by project funding. Evaluation projects have, at best, covered dozens of library institutions. The results of the evaluation have been discussed to spread the best practices in the education courses of the provincial administrative boards.

Provincial administrative boards also grant travel funds to public library employees with the help of an allocation from the Ministry of Education, so that employees can participate in international library branch seminars. Library professionals of small municipality libraries, in particular, would not otherwise have opportunities to participate in the international events. At international meetings, participants tell about their own library institutions and network with foreign colleagues. The experiences are used in the additional education organized by the provincial administrative boards and in the libraries’ internal training.

Publicizing the library service selections and information services

The Ministry of Education has financed the production of brochures and materials for the mass media. Libraries and their services have been impressively on display and have been publicized about in the country’s leading newspapers and received air time on radio, TV news and current affairs programs. Free brochure material relating to different campaigns has been produced for the municipalities to use in the libraries.

A good level of education – a nation’s essential element for success

The library is valuable to citizens in and of itself, as is science, culture and art. The library implements the fundamental rights of a cultural information society by promoting the accessibility of information and culture and by supporting the civics of an information society. Finland is a large, but sparsely populated country. A comprehensive school network and a good library institution have guaranteed a lifelong opportunity for all to develop themselves, which has been an essential element for success in an international comparison. Finnish children succeeded especially well in a PISA basic education study. The comprehensiveness, diversity and quality of the Finnish library network complement formal school education. The Finnish schools providing basic education are fairly small, so we have not been able to invest in a comprehensive network of school libraries. Instead, a feasible network of public libraries, which support the development of children and youth with a diverse collection, has taken priority in Finland. The cooperation between municipal libraries and schools is extensive and is being developed with different pilot and development projects. Book recommendation has attained a standard work format through trials.

From projects to functional practices

A positive aspect of the library projects is that project employees have generally been the libraries’ own staff, for which replacements have been hired for the duration of the project. This way, the professional knowledge acquired from the projects stays with the library. Good practices are obtained with a reasonably small investment and the practices can be spread to other libraries.

At best, the pilot projects test the durability and direction of the national strategy. Trials for library practices yield valuable information for the use of other libraries and for the authorities governing the operations. Feedback systems, however, still require further development.

Library services for an information society cannot nonetheless be built with projects and programs alone. In order for the information obtained from the projects to be transformed into good practice, library activities and processes must be thoroughly reviewed. Not all of the old ways can be retained, but there is no reason to abandon them all either. Automatic machines free staff for more community- oriented library development. Development of cataloguing leaves more time for bringing out traditional collections, development of network services and their marketing. Technology provides opportunities to distribute resources in a new way, but it requires the meticulous re-inspection and re-evaluation of working methods and processes.

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Photo: Nils Lund Pedersen

Head of Office Finnish Library Association
Counsellor for Cultural Affairs Ministry of Education and Culture