Today, on the 15th of July, Finnish book bloggers gather to show their support for public libraries and to highlight the often disregarded importance of said libraries. This is done in defense to the government plans to change the current Library Act so that what is now a basic municipal service would become optional. In Finland public libraries are governed by national law and, according to a report in 2001, they are the most frequently used cultural service – about 80% of Finns use their libraries. We, as book bloggers, feel concerned that demoting libraries to an optional service might deteriorate especially the smaller community libraries. Whereas municipalities are currently required to offer library services, they can independently choose how much funding they allocate to these services. In many cases, the funding may be as low as 1% or less of the municipality’s yearly budget.
My relationship with the public library system has been long and thriving, and it has definitely shaped me as a person. Hence I’m going to share with you a snippet of my history with libraries and hopefully encourage you to consider yours. Due to moving around, I’ve had 3 local libraries, that have all served as my second homes, and which in this post I shall call My Childhood Library, My Teenage Library, and My Adult Library. Aside from these three, I have also owned about 5 additional library cards to libraries in neighbouring towns or municipalities. All of these libraries have been public and funded by tax revenues, which I can assume has been vital for their operation and success.
My Childhood Library was the main library of a small agricultural municipality in Eastern Finland (population approx. 7,000). I got my first library card at the age of 6 or 7 and continued to use the library services until the age of 13. The library was situated in the centre of the municipality and I used to spend my free hours between school and piano or dance lessons inside the library walls. In other words, it was a safe place for a young girl to spend her lone afternoon hours – a fact that my parents must have appreciated. Despite being a small and not very thriving community (an aging population with a yearly declining population count), the library had large sections of children’s and young adult books, a long row of CDs, and a good collection of magazines and newspapers. The library was a place where people came to read the daily newspapers or magazines, to study, or to listen to music. It hosted a regular Story Time afternoons during which librarians would read (and act) aloud fairy tales for the younger children, and displayed art work of local painters and art clubs. My recollections of the library are definitely coloured by what I as a child saw and understood, but the memory of My Childhood Library is a place of safety and warmth – as well as loooong bookshelves (all those Nancy Drews, I could never read them all!).
Moving across the country to a new city can be challenging to any 13-year-old, and being a shy and insecure teenager definitely didn’t make it easier – which is why I am ever grateful for My Teenage Library. Having a library at hand and an access to books definitely made the transition process easier and the books kept me company when I was feeling too shy to approach new people. My Teenage Library was the main library of a mid-sized town in Northern Finland (pop. 22,000) close to the Swedish border. Between the ages of 13 and 19 I read probably 90% of the library’s Young Adult collection, but what really made the difference for me was the fact that My Teenage Library gave me the tools to explore who I was and what I wanted to be. Instead of remembering the “never-ending shelves of books”, I remember all the different sections of books that I explored during those years. I dabbled in fantasy and science fiction and fell in love with the Redwall series as well as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I also discovered kick-ass female heroes, such as Yoko Tsuno, in comics. I slowly transitioned from Young Adult section to the Adult section. I read and tried out hobbies such as origami, yoga, knitting, drawing, and sowing. I dipped my toes into architecture, veterinary medicine, history, politics, psychology, sociology, etc. And what must have been the most influential experiment of them all, I started reading books in English (eventually also Swedish).
I began with the small collection of children’s books in English (which also included YA classics such as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), moved upstairs to the crime and detective fiction guided by Mrs Agatha Christie, and eventually, through movie tie-in chick lit such as Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic, to classics (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wives and Daughters) and other adult fiction. Looking back, I kind of wish there had been a Goodreads or other mode of tracking what I read and listened to during those formative years, but I guess it’s also better that I don’t remember exactly everything that I read. (Nonetheless, I do need to revisit On the Road by Jack Kerouac, because I don’t think my 17-year-old self quite got it the first time around.)
If My Teenage Library was all about discovering myself and where my passions lie, I guess My Adult Library is about exploring deeper into what it all means. What I now call my local library or “home library” is the main library of a larger Western Finland university city (pop. 223,000). It’s one of the 17 libraries that are together form the city library system, and though I do often visit also the other branches, the main library is my favourite one. I’ve been a member of the library since 2010, and although I haven’t always been an avid user, I’ve lately grown to appreciate the community aspect of my local library. Aside from fiction, My Adult Library houses a good variety of non-fiction and trade literature as well as a considerable collection of books in different languages ranging from English to German to Estonian to Arabic. The library hosts literary events, open lectures as well as courses in information technology. It is a popular place for students as well as families, and there are even some groups of senior citizens that gather there every day to read the newspapers and to socialize. The café connected to the library hosts regular language evenings in which non-native Finnish speakers can practise their Finnish or vice versa.
A library serves as a quiet, but at the same time lively centre for people, and the multitude of services it offers as well as the up-to-date collection of books might not be available without the necessary funding and support. Despite the fact that libraries in larger cities will most likely be able to find additional monetary support for their operations, it is the smaller communities and their libraries that will suffer from the law change. In hard times culture is often the one that experiences the largest cuts, because it is not one of the essential human needs (see for example David Pountney on ‘cultural health’). However, cutting from libraries is also cutting from a system that supports equality. The public library services are free to all its members, regardless of their economic situation or social status. Libraries offer free and safe environments where you can relax, work, or further your education. Libraries also bring together diverse group of people fostering the community consciousness.
Libraries house books, but also ideas and dreams of reaching beyond the immediate surroundings. My childhood municipality didn’t have a dance studio where I could take ballet lessons, but that didn’t stop me at the age of 9 from devouring every ballet book the library had, checking out videos of famous performances, or listening to the music recordings. For me libraries have often felt like my second home, because they have been homes to the books that have influenced me, excited me, and changed the way I see myself as well as the world around me. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
Do you have any special memories connected to libraries? Good or bad, I’d love if you could share them with me in the comments! x