In June, the Institute will organise a panel discussion at the London Festival of Architecture on the topic of libraries as civic spaces. One of the panelists is Tuula Haavisto, Cultural Director of Helsinki who retires this summer. According to Haavisto, the enlightenment of Finland is largely thanks to the former elementary school and library systems.
The role of local libraries as sources of education has been remarkable in a country were distances are often long. They offered a possibility for self-studying during a time when the country’s education system was finding its form.
“In the 19th century, during the early days of public education, libraries were being built in rural municipalities. It was considered crucial to ‘enlighten and educate’ people.”
Literature has always been an appreciated part of the Finnish culture, says Haavisto.
“Words meant power even in Kalevala (the national epic compiled by Elias Lönnrot in mid 19th century). Violent, warlike attempts consistently took a turn for the worse, whereas bleeding dried up with the help of spells. The most important battle was solved when Väinämöinen sank the big-talking Joukahainen into a swamp by singing.”
Haavisto stresses the Finnish idea of self-educating and lifelong learning.
“In Finland it is thought that learning shouldn’t stop when school does. Self-improvement is a continuous process. Nowadays libraries support self-education and active citizenship for example by offering help with online dealings and assisting customers with form-filling.”
The role of libraries is highlighted in the digital era when unlimited information is available to anyone. Haavisto believes that the library system plays a crucial role as the guardian of non-profit and impartial knowledge.
“Libraries are in a key position as teachers of media criticism and source analysis. Everything on the shelves of a library has gone through careful assessment. The library system is like a giant algorithm that can identify both true and false information and operates on the customer’s side without commercial interest.”
However, libraries depend on public funding. In Britain, for example, many local libraries are under threat of closure. How does the future of Finnish library system appear? Could something be done differently?
“Financial differences between municipalities cause differentiation between libraries, too. In the capital region libraries are doing mainly well, but in more remote regions the situation is worse. It is crucial to acknowledge the needs of different customers with sensible opening hours. Thus, the public can access the services and the funds invested in the library bring the intended returns”, says Haavisto.
This is the case with Oodi, Helsinki’s new Central Library. During weekdays, Oodi is open from 8am to 10pm.
“The library serves its purpose architecturally too. Needs were set in stone in a way that makes the building configurable, adjustable and movable according to the public’s requirements. Finland is a pioneer in this field as we have many experts committed to the matter. Good results require perseverance and co-operation between libraries, architects, citizens and other parties”, explains Haavisto.
Libraries also serve as places for meeting and gathering. According to the law, libraries must ‘promote active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression’.
Libraries as Civic Spaces, London Festival of Architecture, Clapham Library, Mary Seacole Centre, 91 Clapham High Street, London, SW4 7DB, https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/london-festival-of-architecture-libraries-as-civic-spaces-tickets-60048468586, 11 June 2019 at 7pm, tickets: £5.
Text: Essi Miettunen Photo: City of Helsinki