The Finnish education system is said to be one of the best in the world. Trying to discover the secret behind the rating reveals a library system that has unconditionally made reading a pleasurable culture to the Finnish. Peace Obi reports
Every country of the world is known for one or two distinctive features that distinguishes it from another and in most cases such features become the descriptive identity of such a country or people. And for a country like Finland, education has become its descriptive identity. Finland has been adjudged as having the best education system as well as a country that would secure the welfare of its citizens from cradle to grave.
In what seems like a conscious effort to harness its citizens’ talents through education ( through both formal and informal) is the deliberate and continuous effort in building and sustaining a knowledge-based society with library facilities and services that meet the diverse needs of the people.
And among the surrounding Scandinavia countries, Finland has over the years maintained its commitment and devotion to making the country an education haven where libraries are among the most popular public service. And with the establishment of its first library- Rikhardinkatu Library in the city of Helsinki in 1882 with the guiding thought that everybody should have equal possibilities to get information, to read and to develop themselves, the Finnish people have continued to read themselves into global relevance.
The education cum knowledge-driven environment has among other activities that announced and printed its name on the sand of time is the development of ICT solutions like the discovery and production of Nokia mobile handset, award-winning architectural designs by Finnish-trained architects and engineers, as well as being the home to Tove Jansson, the author of the much loved Moomin children books, among others. These and more have made Finland a country to reckon with as one of the global leaders of this present age.
Thus, the reality of the saying that readers are leaders is better experienced than imagined. And for Finland, when the opportunity came calling for this reporter to put this saying to test was during the just concluded UNESCO World Press Freedom Day in the capital city of Finland, Helsinki. As part of the programmes organised by the hosting country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for participating journalists, was a visit to the Helsinki City Library (Rikhardinkatu Library). The visit to the ancient architectural design that betrays its age, despite being built since three centuries ago, can easily be taken for a 21th century architectural design as it dazzles with so much modern outlook. Described as the first purpose-built library in the Nordic region and among the finest examples of Renaissance Revival, Rikhardinkatu Library is an architectural experience in itself and one of the oldest cultural buildings that is still in use in the city of Helsinki. With an appealing and serene environment for reading, it attracts library users of different ages and purposes and would likely make an unintending reader to settle down with one book or an audio material.
A brief History of Rikhardinkatu Library
Addressing the visiting journalists and giving a brief history of the Rikhardinkatu Library, the Chief Librarian, Helsinki City Library, Ms. Heli Roisko said, “This library was built in 1881 and opened to the public in 1882. It is the first building that was designed and built to be a public library in Finland, and actually in the whole Scandinavia. Most of the funds for building this library came from fundraising.” According to Roisko, the library which was designed by a famous architect at the time, Theodor Hoijer, had remained the main library until 1986. Stating that library operations in the country are guided by the Act of parliament, Roisko said that the first Act on public libraries in the country was enacted in 1928 and the Library Act currently effective is the third in the order, that is the one of 1998. “Public libraries in Finland are a service guaranteed by law and the Ministry of Education and Culture outlines the library policy”, she explained.
Purpose-Driven, defined and supported with a policy statement
sharing the guiding principles behind Finnish Library Network, Roisko said, “The guiding principles in public libraries, is to offer free access to cultural and information sources for everyone irrespective of their places of residence and financial standing. The use of library collections at the library and borrowing are free of charge.”
Set up to meet the library and information services needs of the people, it is also expected to promote, equal access to education and culture, reading and art appreciation, constant development of knowledge, skills and citizenship skills, as well as internationalisation and lifelong learning.
A Comprehensive Library Network
Describing libraries as among the most popular public service that continues to witness improvement from time to time, the Chief Librarian said that three major library systems make up the Finnish library network – municipal public libraries, research libraries and school libraries. Stressing that every Finnish municipality has a public library, adding that most of them have branch libraries and bookmobiles. “There are 18 municipal libraries that also operate as provincial libraries, they provide information and interlibrary services in their regions.”
Speaking on the operations of the libraries, the Chief Librarian said that both public and research library are open to all. “Municipal public libraries, research libraries and school libraries form the Finnish library network. Research libraries, comprising university, polytechnic and special libraries, serve higher education, learning and research. Students use public and research libraries side by side,” she explained.
Buttressing on a unique library network called “Helmet”, Roisko explained that Helmet is a library network that covers all the public libraries in the Helsinki capital region, comprising cities of Helsinki, Espoo, Kauniainen and Vanta, and that part of its services includes joint services of the helmet libraries as well as kid’s catalogue.
Presenting the statistics of the helmet library network as at 2014, Roisko said that it has over 3.4 million items, 64 libraries, six bookmobiles, over 17 million loans per year and over 22 million visits were recorded.
Diverse, Yet Inclusive in Service Delivery
The library needs of every class of persons in the country are planned for, included and met in the Finnish library services. Thus location, age or disability is never a factor to hinder an average Finnish from having access to library materials when needed. Such library services as home services which are intended for people who are not able to visit the library themselves for reasons such as age, illness or disability is in addition to special library facilities for people with special needs.
The inclusiveness of the Finnish library system ensures that the blind and visually impaired persons, deaf and elderly people with visual impairments are not left out. It is said that the library also provides its services free of charge to this class of persons as it prepares Braille and talking books for the library and for visually impaired schoolchildren and students.
“In addition to municipal libraries, there is a network of regional central libraries and university and other academic libraries, together with a handful of special libraries, such as a library for the visually impaired that is maintained by the state. The libraries are inter-networked. This means that the services offered by all libraries are available for everyone living in Finland through inter-library loans. The aim is to place library services within the reach of all, regardless of age, domicile or state of health.”
Library Use Starts From the Cradle
In what looks like teaching a child the way to go with the hope that as he/she grows, right attitude would have been inculcated, learning taking place and that he/she would not possibly depart from it; Finnish children are taught how to make use of libraries before they are old enough to go to school. This skill is said to be an asset in the pursuit of lifelong learning among Finnish citizens.
“We have a very active children’s and youth department here in Rikhardinkatu library. They have a lot of cooperation with local daycare centres and schools. Activities include storytelling hours, book tips for children and youth and also exhibitions for children and youth.
“The libraries also offer a lot of activities in Swedish language – classes visit our library regularly or librarians visit schools. This co-operation takes place mostly with lower elementary school classes, but also with upper elementary school classes and some high school classes. We give tips for reading, teach the students library use and information retrieval.
Building and Sustaining a Literary Society
Attributing part of the country’s success in its education system, and the subsequent ranking as the world’s most literate country it currently enjoys to a good and comprehensive library network, Roisko said that the 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.
Stressing that the network of libraries in Finland have long played a key role in public education and in protecting and preserving the national culture and languages, Roisko said it is a fact that decision makers and citizens have long realised.
“Finnish children succeeded especially well in a PISA basic education study. The comprehensiveness, diversity and quality of Finnish library network complement its formal school education. A feasible network of public libraries, which supports 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.”
Sharing some of the milestones attained and pointing out that 2015 statistics was not out yet, gave the basic statistics from Finnish public libraries in 2014 as thus, “765 public libraries, 142 mobile libraries and a total loan of 91 million per year.”
As the national administrative authority for library and information services, the government of Finland through its Ministry of Education and Culture finances the libraries and it as well allots discretionary subsidies to libraries for special tasks like Multilingual Library, Saami Library, Co-Nordic mobile services and different projects like development of information network.
Hinting that government’s consistency in the funding of library in the country has shaped the people’s love for library, Roisko noted that even though times and materials have changed in the libraries, the people’s love towards the central cultural institution has remained unchanged. And that the Finnish respect and treat the libraries as a collective property.
Current, Present and Future in Helsinki Public Libraries
Speaking on what is presently and generally obtainable in Finnish library in 2016, Roisko hinted that the Finnish library system is waiting for a new library due in 2017, that there is availability of self service in addition to the library network. More and better access to e-books and other electronic materials and that in its inclusive nature, the Finnish library system has also developed services for immigrants and people seeking asylum.
And for the year 2017, the Chief Librarian disclosed that generally, they are working towards sustaining the Finnish libraries as places that are full of new ideas. And within the Helmet Library Network, that it hopes to add 37 libraries and two bookmobiles to what it already has; record an increased loan figure of nine million loans per year and additional 6.5 million visits per year. According to her, “By sharing information, knowledge and stories, we are creating a new civil society together.”
Announcing enthusiastically, the Chief Librarian said that in 2018, the country would witness the opening of another library in the city of Helsinki, called ‘Helsinki Central Library’. According to her, the project which is nearing completion and sited in a non-commercial area of the Helsinki City would be opened in 2018. In her view, it is fair to say that the Finns love libraries.