Picture: Helsinki Central Library
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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.

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.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.