I still clearly remember that moment. I was sitting next to my mother in a large hall, and a friendly lady on the service desk asked some questions with a calm voice and typed on her keyboard. Soon she asked for a proof of identity, and I proudly handed her my passport. After a while she reached out to me again with something in her hand and said smilingly: “Make sure to take good care of it.” It was a library card, an orange-and-white one with a picture in the middle. Something I had longed for a long time.
And I surely listened to the piece of advice of this nice librarian. After thirteen years, I still have that same library card in my wallet. A seven-year old me was excited to realize that he could choose anything from the comic book area, bring it home and own it for a little while. And until these days, I feel proud to have the privilege to educate myself with all the books that I can find as I pass along the endless corridors of tomes.
Finnish people tend to take pride in being called ‘a people of library enthusiasts’. According to The Guardian, Finland was named the world’s most literate nation in 2016. It comes as no surprise; considering the size of the Finnish population, Finns are among the most devoted users of their library cards – statistics show that the Nordic nation (we are about 5.5 million) borrowed approximately 67 million books last year .
But the concept of library is in change. The amount of entertainment provided for consumers has grown steadily as the decades have passed by, and libraries have found themselves in a position where they must compete against smartphones and other activities to catch children’s, and even adults’, attention.
The library concept has proven its chameleon-like nature. I witness this every Wednesday when my sister asks me whether I’d like to join her to the mobile library. Yes, you read correctly – a library that moves on wheels and that circles different neighborhoods so that as many customers as possible would have access to library services. Even if I live rather close to the services of the main library in the city, there is always this particularly warm and welcoming atmosphere when I ascend in the vehicle and greet the on-wheels library staff.
The word ‘kirjasto’ means library in Finnish
The mobile libraries were initially a solution designed to cut the long distance between people and books in the country characterized by low population density; they have brought civilisation to the most remote parts of the countryside. These special vehicles are a nice tradition to uphold, yet today’s library services long for a different kind of boost. Libraries are not the only source of knowledge or entertainment anymore. The problem is no longer to get school-aged children and adults access to what library has to offer; the challenge is to make the library interesting at a time when electronic devices have hoarded our precious time more and more since the release of the first iPhone.
Of course, the obvious solution would seem to turn libraries purely virtual. Who need walls and dusty bookshelves when all the imaginable content could be uploaded on the internet? As a student I am thankful that libraries provide content that I can access on my home couch with just a few clicks. However, what this scenario takes no notice of is that library is more than just book shelves and online archives; it is an institution that has shaped the being of people and continues to do so. Whereas library used to be a first-priority meet up place just because it was one of the few public spaces open for everyone, today’s Finnish libraries have been able to lure young generations inside the libraries with other attractions. A good example of this is the free 3D printing event that was organized in my home library. I still regret not attending it, but fortunately there will be more to come.
And a modern citizen doesn’t have to come to a library only for events and books. The Finnish libraries have also been forerunners in promoting sharing economy, a term usually referring to peer-to-peer based sharing of access to goods and services. A couple of libraries in the Finnish capital area have adopted a ‘utility library’ where one is able to use his or her library card to borrow a wide range of things from household tools to tennis rackets and even hand trucks. Why would you own a wide range of items when you could come pick them up when you need them?
Finns are so in love with their libraries that they even got one for their 100th anniversary. It is not a joke; it was announced in 2017 that a new Central Library will be built in the very centre of Helsinki. It has been told that the mission of Oodi (the name of the library, referring to ode in English) is to function as a living room for everyone in the city. The library will open in December, but I have seen the construction site. Standing opposite Finnish Parliament House, I believe that the building will be quite impressive.
Library is one of the most enlightening innovations the mankind has ever seen, even if most of us has the privilege to take it for granted. That might just be the reason for its greatness, though. Nothing sounds as desirable as guaranteeing everyone full access to a better understanding. And that is something we should bear in mind. The library card in your pocket is mightier than you think; make use of it.