Chapter 6: Finland – Public Libraries and their National Policies




The Finnish public library system is robust and well looked after by its government. While Finnish public libraries lagged behind their European counterparts in the early decades of the twentieth century, they have steadily gained and even overtaken them since. Finland has passed library legislation and it provides policies at the national level that provide guidance as well as well-defined administrative and funding structures. Public libraries in Finland are the responsibility of local municipalities, with the national policy functioning as a set of goals to be achieved by whatever methods local librarians think best. In recent years, there have been some statistical indications that library use in Finland is declining slightly.

Key words

national library legislation

national library policy

intragovernmental cooperation

Historical background

Finland boasts one of the world’s most well-developed and well-utilized public library systems. Library service in Finland is free and available to all Finns. Centered administratively in the Helsinki City Library, 20 Regional Library Centers operate out of city libraries around the country (Finnish Library Association, 2011). Finnish public libraries see about ten library visits per capita, almost double that of the United States (Finnish Public Library Statistics, ALA). The public library is one of the most popular cultural institutions in the country, with over 80 percent of Finns calling themselves library users, each of whom check out an average of 20 items per year (Kekki, 2001). Unsurprisingly, the Finnish public library system can make a strong case that it boasts the first public library in the world to be connected to the Internet. In 1994 the Helsinki City Library entered into a partnership with a non-profit group called Katto-Meny to open the Cable Book Library, where patrons could use the single Internet terminal to access the World Wide Web via Mosaic (Lounasvuori and Vattulainen). Today, 95 percent of municipal libraries in Finland offer access to the Internet (Kekki, 2001) (although the most common use of the Finnish public library remains traditional book borrowing (Serrola and Vakkari, 2011)).

When one reads such gaudy statistics, it’s tempting to ascribe a certain amount of preordination to the rise of library service in one of the richest, most modern nations in Europe, but the Finnish public library system’s origins certainly did not guarantee such success. The nation’s first public libraries of the nineteenth century were viewed mainly as pedagogical institutions, that stocked mainly ‘instructional’ material, and in certain libraries if you checked out a novel you were forced to check out a work of non-fiction as well. Libraries were seen as raising both the ‘moral and spiritual level’ of the Finnish populace (Berndtson, 1985). It is not surprising that as collections began to expand into popular works, library use began to rise.

The nation’s first Public Library Act, passed in 1928, was instrumental in bringing library service to every corner of the country by making building grants available for the construction of libraries. However, these grants had a maximum amount which was not adjusted as inflation progressed, and by the 1950s the grants had fallen into obsolescence. By this time, library use in Finland lagged far behind that of fellow Nordic countries Sweden and Denmark. As of 1961, per capita circulation stood at less than five, compared with nine in the United Kingdom (Mäkinen, 2001).

More effective legislation was passed in 1961, when The Library Act removed this upper limit for building grants and concentrated library construction efforts in Finland’s enormous rural regions. Rural regions had two thirds of their approved expenditures subsidized by the state, compared with one third for cities and towns. Construction for libraries was given the same emphasis as construction of elementary schools (Mäkinen, 2001). The 1970s saw an effort to develop a standardized and central catalog for all public libraries in Finland, and to establish a central location where all the cataloging needs of Finnish public libraries could be met. A centralized automation system was also proposed (a farsighted proposal indeed) but was thwarted when larger libraries, like those in Helsinki and Oulu, began to develop customized and incompatible systems to meet their own needs (Saarti, 2006).

In 1998, the Library Act was updated to formalize the municipality’s role in the administration of library service. The municipalities, it stated, ‘shall be responsible for arranging the library and information services referred to in this act’. It was further legislated that library service was to be free, was to be provided by qualified professionals, and was to be provided in multiple languages where appropriate (Act on Library Services, 1998). Since then, the Finnish government has been proactive in developing a series of multi-year library policies that are detailed in their recommendations, strategies, and action plans. These documents outline the current state of public libraries in Finland, their strengths and weaknesses, their role in society, and how services should improve in the coming years.

Current framework

The Helsinki City Library, which serves as the central library for the entire Finnish public library system, provides a useful example of the ways multiple parts of the Finnish government work cooperatively to provide public library service to the Finnish people. The Helsinki City Library provides remote services and develops ‘nation-wide cooperative library projects’. Although administered by the city of Helsinki, it receives a ‘discretionary’ subsidy from the Ministry of Education. The five regional libraries in Finland, however, are operated by the Ministry of the Interior and must ‘conclude annual agreements’ with the Ministry of Education regarding the target goals for library service. In many countries this cross-department collaboration would create an inefficient or below par library system, but Finland has managed to avoid this (Kekki, 2001).

While the goals and policies are set by the state, decisions about actual library services are made at the local level. State aid flows to the local authorities, who then decide how it should best be spent. In essence, this state aid is given to local municipalities on a sliding scale. If a municipality spends more per capita on library use than its neighbor, it will receive more money from the state as a subsidy (Ministry of Education and Culture, Library Policy). In the 1990s, local funding for libraries slipped from 1.3 percent of total expenditure to 0.8 percent, even though visitation and circulation both grew during the same period and libraries were struggling to come to grips with the emerging technological needs of the ‘information society’ (Library Policy Committee, 2001).

However, even with such a robust, well-tended library system, Finland has in recent years seen a slight but steady drop in several key statistics. In 2000, the average Finn visited the library 12.43 times and checked out 19.86 items. The system as a whole contained 7.95 books per capita. Each year between 2000 and 2010 saw a slight decline in all of these numbers. In 2010, the Finnish public library system contained 7.45 books per capita, the average Finn visited the library 9.89 times and checked out 18.08 items. More troublingly, the percentage of the Finnish public that use the library fell from 47.25 percent to 39.24 percent (Finnish Public Library Statistics, 2011).

The reasons for the declines are difficult to pinpoint. The Finnish public library system’s per capita expenditures have risen from 40.45 euros per year in 2000 to 56.06 in 2010. In that same period, the number of acquisitions (inhabitants/1000) rose from 372.52 to 401.34. One of the main factors may be that, even though the number of library locations has increased, the number of open hours declined by 113,295 between 2000 and 2010, or an average of 2,178.75 fewer hours every week. The number of mobile libraries also went from 201 to 154, and the number of mobile library stops declined to 12,606 from 16,960 (mobile library circulation statistics have only been kept since 2008, but have remained fairly steady as the number of mobile libraries and mobile library stops has declined during that period, suggesting that it is not waning demand that drives down Finnish public library statistics). The steady adoption of e-services may also play a part (Finnish Public Library Statistics, 2011).

Legislation and legal structure

Library Strategy 2010 (which, along with other library policies and legislation, is available on the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture’s website at discusses at length the idea of the hybrid library, or a library that combines the conventional materials and services of a public library with the digital offerings of a completely online library. Library Strategy 2010 describes this concept in detail and uses it to illustrate the ways in which Finnish public libraries need to upgrade their ‘technological and administrative infrastructure and in the competence of personnel’. In other words, the Ministry has outlined a plan for effective growth. They include specific points in an ‘Action Plan’ that will ‘be carried out during the next governmental term of office, through which will be executed the task of providing information to the population in a digital environment, as given by Parliament to the public libraries in 1998, and the proposals concerning improving access to knowledge and culture, as well as developing the national library network, mentioned in the Finnish Library Policy Programme 2001–2004’ (Ministry of Education, 2003).

Targets like these are an important feature in every version of the Finnish public library policy. Library Policy 2015 outlines broad philosophical goals, such as ‘identifying and decid[ing) upon’ the ‘societal mission of public libraries as a central part of the development of a learning civic society’ and the definition of ‘civic knowledge provision’. The policy then gets down to the nuts and bolts of how such abstract concepts are to be achieved in practice by identifying goals for the library system at all levels. At the municipal level, libraries are to have enough ‘well-educated staff available for citizens and learners in local libraries’, and they will ‘invest in developing and offering new materials and types of services’. One very specific recommendation is that libraries entering into partnerships with schools or other institutions should create ‘overt contractual practices’ (there are very few school libraries in Finland). At the national level, the policy focuses mostly on funding. ‘Government funding will be directed at experimentation and development of activities in public libraries … The continuity of funding for the special tasks carried out in libraries and centralized services will be ensured … If necessary, new, alternative forms of funding will be created alongside the basic funding to answer to patrons’ changing needs’.

Staff qualifications are also addressed at the national level. During the early 1990s, as Finland experienced an economic recession and budgets shrank, educational and other requirements for library staff were removed from library legislation. These were reinserted in 1998 and have been a feature of Finland’s public library policy since. Universities of Applied Sciences (equivalent to American Community Colleges) around Finland also began offering three-year degrees in the library field around this time. Currently, national policy states that at least two-thirds of a library’s staff should have training in the library field, and that all libraries need to have at least one ‘man-year’ of experience for every 1,000 residents. The Ministry of Education and Culture states flatly that the purpose of these regulations is to reverse the trend of libraries doing away with jobs requiring higher education and qualifications (Kekki, 2010a).

Finland’s national library policies are developed cooperatively by library professionals and members of state administration, all of whom are appointed to the ‘workgroup’ by the Ministry of Education and Culture. For example, the writing of the most recent library policy began in 2009 with the appointment of a workgroup, who then proceeded to adapt the previous policy to the changing needs of Finland. The workgroup was to present proposals for a national set of criteria on which to evaluate public library operations and for libraries to use to self-evaluate, draft a presentation on the social impact of public libraries in Finland, and to propose new statistics to be included in the statistical database of public libraries. One of the primary aims of the workgroup was to recognize the role of the municipality in providing public library service, and enable the municipalities to organize and evaluate its public libraries more efficiently (Sulin, 2011a).

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Finnish library policy is that the plans are specific about where precisely the funding for carrying out such plans will come from. Finnish law clearly puts the library under the operation of the municipality, but the national government also provides funds. For example, Library Policy 2015 clearly states that ‘municipalities are responsible for basic services, e.g. facilities, hiring knowledgeable staff, and acquiring current material and equipment. The government supports municipalities by funding operating costs, construction, purchases of bookmobiles, and development projects’. The policy also allows for ‘new, alternative forms of funding’ to be created ‘alongside the basic funding to answer patrons’ changing needs’. The Finnish state has traditionally been very involved in the funding of local libraries, largely subsidizing the construction of new branches and the purchase of outreach vehicles for its more rural areas. Some of the ‘development projects’ funded by the Ministry of Education include the acquisition of Internet connections and the website.

The major role of local library directors and administrators should perhaps give the lie to the notion that a national public library policy necessarily must be a top-down, prescriptive document. In fact, adherence to the policy itself is not mandatory. Municipalities must provide library service, but ‘observing the political guidelines pertaining to libraries is voluntary’ (Kekki 2010b). The Ministry of Education and Culture states that one of the primary goals of the national library policy is to give local librarians documentary support in seeking funds from their local municipalities. In other words, the national library policy exists partially so that library directors can say to local administrators, ‘See? I need this money’. By elevating the debate about public library funding to the national level, the ideas of local librarians gain a legitimacy which they may have lacked if they were perceived to simply have been the crackpot ideas of some local bookworms (Kekki, 2010b).


Finland’s public library system clearly shows the benefits of strong national legislation and policies for public library service. The public library system in Finland is robust and well-utilized. Despite recent stagnation in funding as well as use, Finland can continue to claim one of the healthiest collections of public libraries in the world. If funding levels and operating hours are restored to pre-recession levels, it would not be surprising to see Finnish public library use grow. Public libraries have become an integral part of Finnish society, and one of the main reasons for this is the attention paid at the national level to this institution. Policy is not simply handed down from on high by bureaucrats, but is rather set by practicing librarians in consultation with state administration, and close attention is paid to local and regional conditions (Sulin, 2011b). It is surely no coincidence that the Finnish population’s long, steady increase in library use began around the time the national government began paying attention to Finland’s public libraries. In fact, one of the strengths of the Finnish public library system is that it is constantly being tended. In 2010 the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a report that included goals for many public sectors, libraries among them. The report envisioned a public library system that, among other things, emphasized user needs, included not only quantitative but qualitative metrics for performance analysis, and the need for libraries to perform regular self-evaluation to ensure adherence to common goals. Like the Ministry of Education and Culture’s policies, this policy emphasizes the role of local decision making (Viiri, 2011).

The philosophy of the Finnish public library policy is one that balances guidance and support at the national level with funding and responsibility for services at the local level, and finding an adequate balance between quantitative and qualitative evaluation. Even though adherence to national policy goals is completely voluntary, participation by local libraries is practically universal. Historically, the public has responded to a public library system in which they can clearly see the government investing, and usage rates are still extremely high despite recent dips in certain categories (which can at least partially be explained away by the rise of e-services). Finland’s public library policy can be used as a foundation for all countries hoping to formulate similar documents.

Useful websites

Helsinki City Library (English Version):

Finland Ministry of Education and Culture, Library Policies:


Act on Library Services. 1998. Available at.

American Library Association. ALA Library Fact Sheet 6. Available at

Berndtson, M. The Finnish public library system. Adult Education in Finland. 1985; 22(1):7–21.

Finnish Library Association’ Available at

Finnish Public Library Statistics. Basic Statistics. Available at

Kekki, K., Public libraries in Finland: Gateways to knowledge and culture. Ministry of Education/Culture and Media Division. 2001 Available at.

Kekki, K., Finnish policy on staff qualifications and recruitment. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly. 2010;43(4). Available at.

Kekki, K., Ministry of Education and Culture sets National Library policies. Scandinavian Library Quarterly. 2010;43(2). Available at.

Library Policy Committee, A wide range of culture and quality information retrieval in the library: The salient points and proposals in the Finnish Library Policy Programme 2001-2004. Ministry of Education 2001; Available at.

Lounasvuori, E. and Vattulainen, P. ‘Internet and the Finnish Public Libraries’. Available at–177-Lounasvuori.html.

Mäkinen, I. The golden age of Finnish public libraries: institutional, structural and ideological background since the 1960s. In: Mäkinen I., ed. Finnish public libraries in the 20th century. Tampere, Finland: Tampere University Press; 2001:116–150.

Ministry of Education, Library Strategy 2010: Policy for access to knowledge and culture’. 2003. Available at.

Ministry of Education. Finnish Public Library Policy 2015: National areas of strategic focus. Available at, 2009.

Ministry of Education and Culture. ‘Library Policy’. Available at

Saarti, J. Libraries without walls: Information technology in the Finnish public library from the 1970s to the 1990s. Library History. 2006; 22(1):33–43.

Serrola, S., Vakkari, P., The role of public libraries in citizens’ activities. A survey on the benefits of public libraries in everyday life. Ministry of Education and Culture, Helsinki, 2011. Available at.

Sulin, H., Advocating libraries using national strategies and policies. transcript of a talk given to the Twin Cities Conference in Tallinn, 2011. Available at.

Sulin, H., Quality recommendation: A national goal. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly. 2011;44(1). Available at.

Virri, M., A new quality recommendation for Finnish public libraries. Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly. 2011;44(1). Available at.