Recording studios and saunas: what Finland can teach the UK about libraries

Yes, you can borrow books – but also musical instruments, footballs and sewing machines.

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Walking through the grand entrance hall of Kallio Library in Helsinki, it's hard to believe it began life as a homeless shelter. Shelves heaving with books in different languages are neatly stacked, and a piano sits in the middle of a large event space in the centre.

There's a comic book room, a section where you can borrow musical instruments, and a rainbow corner dedicated to LGBT literature. On the top floor, the lively (but still immaculately tidy) children's section features a quiet “fairytale attic” with desks for doing homework. It's full of kids who have come straight here with friends after school, as they do most days.

“The use of libraries is changing – more and more people use this as a workspace, they're here for hours and hours with their laptops,” says service administrator Kalle Riiheläinen.

“I think that if we removed all the books and replaced them with laptop points where you can charge your battery, it would still be as crowded and full... but of course we don't want to do that.”

It can't be a coincidence that Finland, a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, also boasts a network of effective, well-stocked libraries that people actually use – from students and freelancers to families. Around 2,000 customers visit Kallio Library every day – more than 600,000 a year – mostly local residents who travel less than 1km. They check out half a million items annually.

Across the country, which only has a population of 5.5 million, Finns borrow almost 68 million books a year. Compare this to the UK, where libraries have been among the first services targeted by councils struggling to make savings, and use by adults has dropped by around 30 per cent in the last decade. Only a third of over-16s used a public library in the year to March 2016, government research found.

It’s not necessarily councils’ fault that they are failing to protect libraries – with budgets cut by £18bn in real terms between 2010 and 2015, many are struggling to fund even the most basic services. But the wide-ranging benefits properly funded libraries can provide – particularly for the socially isolated, new parents or those on low incomes – should not be overlooked. Some experts have even warned library cuts are harming young people's mental health.

An artist's impression of the new Helsinki library's recording studios. Picture: Helsinki Central Library

What further sets Finnish libraries apart is that you can borrow a lot more than just books. Kallio has board games and a large music section, but some libraries lend out virtually everything you could ever want – from cookware for a dinner party to drills for home improvements, along with art, footballs, garden games and sewing machines. Everything is free: providing high quality library services at no cost to the public is enshrined in Finnish law.

The new Helsinki Central Library, due to be completed in 2018 at a cost of €96m, will have bookable recording studios, a sauna and a cinema. At Library 10, also in the capital, a “personal music training” service offers tailored listening suggestions to introduce you to different styles and genres. There’s also a “vinyl bar” to digitise your records and cassettes.

Like many others, Kallio Library also puts on events – from literary nights and film screenings to debates – almost every day, hosting more than 300 a year. Around half are organised by the public, who can book the space for free as long as their event is appropriate and accessible (religious groups, for example, must not exclude those of other faiths.)

The library building in Kallio, a traditionally working-class neighbourhood in Helsinki’s north-east, was a newspaper reading room attached to a soup kitchen at the start of the 20th century. Local government funding was then secured to turn it into the three-storey library it is today.

“I think the strong position that libraries have in Finland is because we have the library law,” says Riiheläinen. As well as ensuring libraries remain free to use, this states that each must have a certain number of highly qualified staff depending on the size of the population they serve. Riiheläinen has also worked in London, where he says that on one occasion he was the only staff member out of 20 with a degree in library and information services.

The strict requirements on accessibility also govern academic libraries, which in the UK tend to be closed off to those who are not current students (and therefore paying tuition fees). “I could go to any university library in Finland and get a library card and start checking out books,” says Riiheläinen. “Everyone can use them.”

Kallio Library

Finland is known for its progressive education system – and some schools and libraries even bring in special “reading dogs” to instil a love of books in children. Those who need practice can read a story aloud to a friendly animal without fear of judgement; as one reading dog owner, Maarit Haapasaari, says in an article about the scheme: “Dogs will listen contentedly to a child, not caring if the reader makes mistakes or only reads slowly.”

Helsinki-based journalist Katja Pantzar, who is writing a lifestyle book about the Finnish tradition of sisu (roughly translated as resilience), says the system supports high levels of literacy from early on: “You get this maternity package – the famous baby box – and it has a book in it to read to the baby. Those things definitely help… There's a respect for books that seems to go across all walks of life. Reading is not just for a certain group of people.”

Baby boxes inspired by Finland have recently been introduced by the Scottish government. But libraries are still suffering – councils across Scotland, England and Wales cut their funding by £25m in 2015-16. Some have replaced paid staff with volunteers, while others have cut opening hours, reduced funding for books or outsourced services to community groups. Hundreds have simply closed. Meanwhile, England has been named among the worst countries in the developed world for literacy in international league tables.

Libraries in the UK are told they should be “community hubs”, whereas Finland prefers the more cosy term “residents’ living rooms”. But until libraries are prioritised by British government – both central and local – and given the resources they need to thrive, living up to their Nordic counterparts will be an impossible task.

Lizzie Palmer is the New Statesman's deputy head of production.