The concept of a self-service library is simple: with a registered access pass (usually a library card and a personal pin-code), patrons can use the library outside the normal opening hours. In Finland, the first self-service libraries were founded in the early 2010s. Since then, they have become more common: in 2015, there were self-service library services available in every fifth municipality. In 2022, already in three out of four municipalities. The Regional State Administrative Agency's report Self-service libraries in Finland 2022: flexibility and equality of access (abbreviation available in English) provides an overall picture of the current situation of self-service libraries.
In Finland, the state has supported the development of the self-service library services. In the past ten years alone, the Regional State Administrative Agency has granted more than three million euro to self-service library projects. From the beginning, the aim has been to promote the goals of the Finnish Public Libraries Act and improve the availability and accessibility of library services. The government grant is awarded on the condition that self-service does not reduce the customer service hours or the library's staff.
How do the self-service library services look in light of the statistics? Finnish Public Libraries Statistics are published annually online under a Creative Commons license. The self-service opening hours have been recorded since 2014. A few observations about the statistics:
The impact of self-service library services on the number of library staff is more difficult to assess, as the number of staff has been declining even before self-service libraries became widespread. However, the statistics indicate that especially in smaller municipalities the introduction of self-service libraries is one of the factors contributing to the decrease in the number of staff.
The number of self-service libraries in Finland continues to grow. The concept of a self-service library has not changed significantly over the years, which indicates that the concept works well. There has been no need for reinvention. Customer feedback has been almost exclusively positive.
However, it is good to remember that a self-service library is not just a technical solution. It is also an opportunity to review work processes and culture and increase flexibility in the library's everyday life. Self-service does not reduce work but changes it. At best, it frees up resources for other tasks. It also challenges the staff's views on the ownership of the library space and sometimes leads to unwanted customer behaviour.
In conclusion, a self-service library is based on trust and the service cannot function without it. The staff must trust the patrons, but mutual trust and respect among the patrons is also necessary. After all, a self-service library is a service where an unsupervised public space is shared with different people. People whose needs and habits may be very different from your own.
The Regional State Administrative Agency's report Self-service libraries in Finland 2022: flexibility and equality of access (abbreviation available in English)
Jonna Toukonen Senior Officer, Library Affairs Regional State Administrative Agency for Western and Inland Finland