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The Past and 
 Present of the 
 Finnish Library 

Strategies guide Finnish public libraries through societal changes.

Kirsti Kekki
Counsellor for Cultural Affairs, Emerita
Ministry of Education and Culture

Kirsti Kekki, photograph by Rio Gandara Statistics: Expenditure on staff and library material in Finnish public libraries, 2011.
Expenditure on staff and library material in Finnish public libraries, 2011.
Finnish Public Libraries Statistics
hat is the Finnish way to organise library services? What does it take to create an up-to-date and comprehensive library network? How has the Nordic objective of open access to information succeeded in sparsely populated country of small municipalities? The Library Act in 1998 states that public library should be a vital part of information and civic society. Has this mission been accomplished?

Do we need libraries or librarians anymore? What is our core mission in the age of information technology changing at ever increasing pace? How to find relevant and reliable information from avalanche of knowledge? Information used to be only in printed form, now there seems to be too much information in too many different forms. For the first time libraries are challenged in their own field as anyone can be “a librarian”. How do libraries cope with these changes? The Ministry of Education of Finland offers solution to these questions in the national library strategies.

The present day
In Finland there is a modern public library in every municipality. Patrons have free access to materials, equipment, services and professional staff, face-to-face as well as on-line. Each municipality has a library director, who is responsible for library development. The amount of loans and active use are arguably among the highest in the world. In addition, the virtual use has already exceeded the physical one. Libraries are considered as basic, local municipal service, which guarantees libraries’ existence when economy is tight. Libraries have benefited from the joint financial legislation with education affairs.

Libraries in the Constitution and Government Programme
The Library Act and library strategies consider patrons as the starting point. The aim is to actualise basic cultural rights by providing information, culture and guidance to every citizen, regardless of their residence. Public libraries implement the principle of equality as stated in the Constitution of Finland and the Programme of the current government (2011–2015) whereby all people — irrespective of their ethnic origin, background or wealth — must have equal access to services of consistent quality.

The Library Act is designed to help define what the purpose of library is in different times. It is noteworthy that Finnish libraries have had respective legislation for almost 100 years as well as legislation for library funding. The legislation has been changed according to societal changes. According to the Act, the objective of the library and information services provided by public libraries is to promote equal opportunities among citizens for personal cultivation, for continuous development of knowledge, personal and civic skills and for lifelong learning as well as internationalisation.

Municipal libraries are financed with taxes. Ministry of Education provides state subsidises and additional project funds to municipalities who are responsible for running libraries, constructing new buildings and purchasing bookmobiles. The Library Act states explicit division of the accountabilities and tasks between the state and the municipality, between the Ministry and the regional administration and between the regional libraries and the central library for public libraries. It has guaranteed a steady development of libraries in the entire country.

The Library Act states that ”promoting the development of virtual and interactive network services and their educational and cultural contents” is an important task for libraries. Library development and producing new on-line services are among libraries’ goals. Ministry funds these projects so they can be openly and freely shared in all public libraries. In addition, Ministry distributes annual funds to, for example, the central library for public libraries, the regional libraries, the government’s regional administration and the Finnish Library Association.

Strategies complement the law
Free use and lending of all library materials is articulated in the Library Act. Both are protected by the Parliament. No one has dared to suggest library fees in 20 years.

The national library strategies and policy programmes have enabled quick reaction to changes in societal and economical issues and especially in the field of information technology. The strategies have suggested alternative guidelines for the future and provided libraries with different solutions to manage upcoming challenges. Municipalities must obey the law, whereas following strategies is voluntary.

In other words, strategies create impact, too, because municipal libraries are practically always mentioned in government programmes. The current Programme states that “Libraries will be developed to meet the challenges of the information society”. Same message was conveyed 20 years ago in Library Act, strategies and government programme. Indeed, public libraries have been acknowledged as primary agents in information and civic society.

Because of this high profile, the Ministry has since the 1990’s continuously funded investments in customer computers, especially in small municipalities, bookmobiles and sparsely populated regions. Significant funds have been allocated to development and on-line service projects as well as updating training for the staff, which has covered even the most remote libraries. In the beginning regional trainers toured the municipalities and introduced staff to the new ITC systems. After that the focus of training has shifted toward using on-line services, media literacy and pedagogic skills. Development has been consistent even though the Finnish Parliament and government programmes change every fourth year. Open access to information is now possible also on-line.

Staff is the core of library services
The role of library professionals establishing and developing libraries have always been considered important in Finland. Innovative staff is a precondition for coping with change. Efficient networking and good co-operation have guaranteed that things move forward. Libraries, library associations, Ministry of Education and library professionals in government’s regional administration have shared goals, strong will and faith in each other’s professional skills. In municipalities libraries are the pioneers in information technology and voluntarily creating common library systems across municipal borders. These systems have spread around the country and eased the pressures of budgeting.

Scholars can receive a doctor’s degree in information studies and students can also choose information studies in polytechnic and vocational schools. The government administrations also required library education for their personnel. Because of these requirements we now have dedicated staff interested in developing libraries working in the Ministry of Education. After all, they are responsible for drafting the library act and public library budget, distributing the state subsidises and development funding as well as deciding on national library strategy.

Building a library network
According to the first Library Act, drafted in 1928, public libraries have to ”provide free literature and services for citizens in order to raise the level of civilization and to promote personal cultivation”. The Library Act, government funding and other specific measures have guaranteed municipal libraries in the entire country. With the new Library Act (1961) and substantial increase in funding, the government persuaded especially rural municipalities to establish libraries. Additional funding was not enough, even though government funding was larger in small municipalities. The rapid building and developing of libraries of the 1970’s did not begin until library supervisors working in regional administrations toured actively around the country providing municipalities with information and guidance.

Gradually every municipality in Finland got its library buildings, services, staff and bookmobiles. All municipalities, even the biggest ones, got their main library built with government funding.

Ministry deployed the same method of persuasion in the early 1990’s in order to get public libraries on board with information society. The goal was to have customer computers, IT systems and internet connections in all libraries. Ministry supported investments in equipment and telecommunication as well as training for staff with extra funds. At the same time Ministry initiated funds for centrally produced on-line services. For example,, on-line service developed by the Central Library for Public Libraries, was established. Ministry also purchased services to public libraries from the National Library. These operations have guaranteed free and quality on-line services for all citizens.

We have learned that, apart from big cities and some individual municipalities, without the Library Act and substantial funding from the government municipalities are seldom willing to establish and develop libraries by themselves.

The role of library strategies
The national strategies have been made in collaboration with library professionals, institutions that provide education in library professions and other partners. That is why the imbedding and distribution of the strategies have been successful. Municipalities and regions have produced their own library strategies that follow the national policies. This method has required trust, good collaboration and common will between libraries and other partners.

Library policy programme 2001–2004 contains proposals for the role of libraries in civil information society and it supplements the Library Act of 1998. The programme provided practical directions for deciding which library services are local or regional and which services are produced centrally and funded by the government for all municipalities to use. This division of tasks makes it easier to produce library services rationally. At the time it was necessary to emphasise that book-related and digital library operations are considered parallel, not exclusive. The programme also presented quality recommendations which were revised in 2011 in ”Quality recommendation for public libraries” document.

"Library Strategy 2010 — Policy for access to knowledge and culture", written in 2003, highlighted library’s role in preventing the digital information gap between citizens. It also clarified and made concrete the roles of municipalities, government as well as the roles of education and library administrators. The number of school libraries is very small, so pupils of all ages frequently use public libraries. The great results in the international PISA-studies can also be contributed to public libraries.

"Library Development Program 2006–2010 — The library as an integrated service centre in provincial areas", called attention to the important roles of neighbourhood libraries and bookmobiles as part of vibrant countryside. It analyses why the small rural libraries must also provide professional and versatile service for patrons. The new lifestyles of rural areas, distance work and learning as well as developing industries bring further demands for services. In rural areas the library can be the only place where one can seek guidance for new civic skills.

"Finnish Library Policy 2015 — National strategic areas of focus" (2009) stresses high standards for skills and services. Guiding patrons to seek, select and evaluate information will be the core mission of library professionals. Learners, groups and individuals of different ages will be successfully guided to utilize various information and cultural sources. The publication highlights the meaning of professional staff. Sense of “the big picture” and the ability to understand national and international development are essential skills for directors and personnel in charge of developing libraries.

Exporting library policy
The new law on libraries came into effect in 1999 and it was immediately translated in English because of the international demand. The report on the role of libraries in a modern information society by Mirja Ryynänen and Tuula Haavisto had been presented in the European Parliament and the new law and the report echoed each other. The interest in Finland’s national library policy continued and the great results in Pisa studies increased that interest.

"A Wide Range of Culture and Quality Information Retrieval in the Library" presented salient points and proposals in the Finnish Library Policy Programme 2001–2004 (2001).

Library Strategy 2010 — Policy for access to knowledge and culture (2003) was one of the first European library strategies. It became an in inspiration for many countries. Because of the large demand, the strategy was also translated to French, German and Spanish. Therefore Finland’s national library policy became an export. Now Finnish Public Library Policy 2015 has been translated to English and Spanish.

Success must be earned
Once again, the future holds big changes. The public libraries’ future will be influenced by the accelerating development of information technology as well as the municipal reform outlined in the Government Programme 2011–2015. The municipalities will be annexed to each other and there will be fewer small independent municipalities. Government programme emphasises that citizens must be able to access digitized materials freely. Libraries will become open environments for learning. The traditional roles of maintaining and developing literacy and supporting reading as a hobby have become ever more important in the hectic digital society. The public library’s mission to prevent marginalisation and maintaining social harmony has been significant at all times.

Find out how Kirsti Kekki describes the collaborative attitude in Finnish library community.