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 Politics and 

Library professionals’ active participation is essential if the success story of the Finnish library is to be continued.

Timo Turja
Chief Information Specialist,
The Library of Parliament

Timo Turja
he Government of Jyrki Katainen began its work on the 22th of June in 2011. The Government Programme mentions libraries in the following paragraph:

“The library system plays a central role in the maintenance and development of Finnish literacy and the advancement of reading as a hobby. The Government supports the development of library activity, and fosters cooperation between schools and libraries. Libraries will be developed to meet the challenges of the information society. The opening up of the libraries’, museums’ and public arts institutions’ digitised material for free public access will be promoted.”

It is not very common that libraries are taken into consideration in government programmes. In Finland this tradition has continued almost incessantly since 1982.

Perhaps love is too strong a word to describe Finnish politicians’ relation to libraries but at least they have always expressed strong appreciation. Always. The first legislation on public libraries was enacted as early as 1928. The aim was to provide “a good library to every municipality and a branch to every larger village”.

Finnish political parties mention libraries in their programmes almost without exception. The programmes reveal an interesting feature: all parties from Left to Right share the faith in education, civilization — and libraries. There have been so many library advocates in the parties that sometimes they are referred to as the “library party” in the parliament.

Libraries have been a recurring topic in political keynote speeches. In the most prestigious speech occasion of the state — opening ceremonies of the Parliament — president J. K. Paasikivi addressed the development of libraries already in 1952.

Fortunately the politicians have not only spoken about libraries, they have also worked for them. When the first public library act was drafted, six percent of the population was lending books. In 2010 39 percent of Finns lent material from public libraries. This progress has been possible only because library development has been guided by binding legislation and because politicians have allocated enough funds for developing services.

From success to tragedy?
There are, of course, many twists in the story of the success of libraries. At the moment there are 842 public libraries in Finland — only half of the number of libraries in 1980. The number of bookmobiles has decreased rapidly.

It is nevertheless too early to predict that our success is turning into tragedy. Finnish library professionals have in various circumstances acted politically sensibly and have been able to adapt to the changing society and its political needs. The political agenda of public libraries has been connected with the idea of defining citizenship. Consequently the tasks of public libraries include educating, consolidating, teaching, and integrating the citizens.

At the end of 1800’s the establishment of public libraries was justified by the idea of civilization of the people. After the civil war in 1918 the core principle steering library operations was to integrate the divided nation. In the post-war welfare state the significance of libraries was to educate Finns to become members of the modern society. In the multicultural society of today, the focus is on developing services, for example for immigrants.

The decreasing number of municipalities, the migration from periphery to centres and the ageing of the population will inevitably lead to closing down many libraries. Despite the economical pressures it is hard to believe that policymakers would deliberately deteriorate the library network.

In fact, libraries and literature have educated Finnish parliamentarians just like on all the other citizens. Compared with other countries Finnish parliamentarians unusually often refer to books they have read. Many have claimed that books have helped them become the person they are at the moment. “My career choice was crucially influenced by the first book I owned”, long-standing parliamentarian Martti Tiuri characterises Pikku jättiläinen, popular compilation of general knowledge by Yrjö Karilas.

Parliamentarians and literature
In Finland the large parties have originally been movements for educating the people and publishing, translating and reading was part of political activism. For example, until the mid 1900’s Finnish labour movement had its own bookshops, libraries and publishing houses.

This tradition still manifests itself in the political debate. The speech acts of parliamentarians are guided by literary tradition that expands from western literary canon to Finnish literary classics. When the Speaker of Parliament Eero Heinäluoma opened the Parliament of Finland in the winter 2012 he quoted Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi, a Finnish classic that was published in 1870.

”Even though Finland has been exemplary in its performance, the waves of debt and financial crisis will inevitably affect Finland, as well. When international demand weakens and the balance of the financial system is threatened, there is no place to hide and wait for a better day, not for us or any other state.

Lauri from Seven Brothers could still say: ’Let’s do as I say and move with horse, dogs, and guns to the foot of steep Impivaara. We’ll build a nice little cabin in a bright meadow sloping east, and there we’ll live by trapping wild animals, far from the ways of the world and its ill-tempered people.’

Impivaara exists only in national literature, not in the reality of nation-states. Impivaara will have to be built in collaboration.”

Drills and skills from libraries?
Library professionals have often noticed that policymakers’ attitude to libraries is often conservative. Even old-fashioned.

Parliamentarians’ view on libraries is informed by the same literary tradition that affects their speeches. Therefore, the most crucial mission of libraries is usually considered to be acquiring and lending books. In addition to the educational agenda, economical deliberation is also needed in developing libraries. Currently policymakers in various municipalities have decided that libraries can serve as integrated service centres where citizens are able to see town plans, buy bustickets, visit Lost and Found, or apply for driving license.

Economical thinking is not necessarily an enemy for libraries. When the economical situation is tight, the policymakers have to consider library functions in a more open-minded manner. The village libraries in the recession era in 1920’s, where in addition to books one could receive medicine, were the precursor of the current common service centres, At the time parliament discussed whether rural pharmacy and library services should be combined.

The echo of this line of thought can be witnessed among parliamentarians of today, as well. Parliamentarian Anna Kontula asks: “If books can be lent and returned, why not do the same with tools, instruments, sports equipment and with any other thing one seldom but inevitably needs.”

Impact with collaboration
It is clear that library professionals and policymakers sometimes have different views on the tasks of libraries.

This is evident especially in public libraries. Professionals usually support the interest of the citizens whereas the policymakers have to consider the interest of the municipality as a whole. This means focus may be in general strategies and economical realities. Policy-making can result in decisions that are complicated for libraries.

Libraries would be consulted considerably more often in policy making if professionals took a more politically active role. Only seven librarians have been elected as parliamentarians since 1907. Political passivity has also meant that library representatives have rarely been consulted by parliamentary groups.

The positive development of libraries requires librarians and politicians to join together. A good example is the Finnish Library Association’s practice to elect a parliamentarian or other politician as their chairperson.

Politics should not be a threat for libraries. It should be a great opportunity instead.

Excerpt from Seven Brothers. A Novel by Aleksis Kivi. Translated by Richard A. Impola. Aspasia books, Inc., Canada, 2005.

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