Want a Well-Educated Nation? Copy the Finnish Public Library System!



How come a tiny country in the Northern Europe has managed to produce so well-educated citizens with such high literacy rate? The education system has its advantages, but I’d say there’s one more secret weapon, which is too often underrated even in Finland: the Finnish Public Library System.

What Would I Do without Them?

I am in great debt to libraries. Most of the books I review in my blog are borrowed from the library. I checked my “loaning history” – the list of books I’ve borrowed presented in my virtual library account – and during the past 6 months I’ve borrowed around 100 books. Most of them to read myself, some for my kids – who of course have their own library cards too. Kids usually get their library card at preschool age, when they start to read by themselves.

When I was at elementary school we had a library practically next door to our house. I used to visit it almost daily (and often with my dog, who sat with the library ladies receiving a whole lot of patting) and borrow as many books as I could carry. Oh those wonderful afternoons after school, when I had a batch of The Famous Five in my hands and I could throw myself on the bed and devour them all at once…

Secret Weapon: Library


Libraries: Books for Free

Let’s get to the beef of the matter – libraries. Finland has a nationwide public library system, which guarantees books are available all around the country. The three largest cities, capital Helsinki and its neighbours Espoo and Vantaa, have their libraries collaborate, which means if you live in this area, you can freely borrow books from any of their libraries and return them to any other library. Did you pay attention to the words free and any library?

While reading other book bloggers’ posts, I have sometimes noticed them saying they received the book “free from library”. To me this sounds absurd – are there libraries where it costs to borrow books? In Finland there isn’t.

The Finnish public library is free of charges. You can get yourself a library card by registering at any library, and with the card you can:

  • borrow books freely in your area (at maximum 50 books being in loan simultaneously),
  • the loan period is one month per book,
  • you can redo it via internet five times consecutively before returning the book to a library,
  • you can make requests for books that are in other libraries and they are then sent to the library of your choice, where you can pick them up.
  • All this with no cost at all!

Very popular new titles are labelled as “best-sellers” and their loan period is two weeks. There are books available in several languages and if you want to see a certain new novel in your library, you can suggest it to the new titles list.

The only scenarios where you need to pay charges are, when you’re returning books too late or when you have damaged or lost a book.

And naturally, the libraries have a whole lot other things besides books for you to borrow: cds, dvds, games, board games, music sheets, sewing machines, skis, tools…

Reading and Writing Go Hand in Hand

A library system has an effect at a nation. If you can read as much as you like for free, it is more likely you’ll read than if you would have to pay for each book. And reading is – without a doubt – good for you. And it is popular. Statistics tell us everything: The public libraries had 49 million client visits in 2015 and people made 89 million loans. Communes used approximately 58,3 euros to library services per resident. There are 288 public main libraries and 450 subsidiary libraries in Finland. 140 library busses circulate scarcely populated areas and visit schools. Libraries offered a selection of 44 313 ebooks in 2015, which gathered 265 000 loans. 1,8 million new titles were acquired and 2,8 million old titles were discarded.

Besides reading, Finns are eager to write books. About 4000 new titles are released every year, with only 17% of them being translations from other languages. There are around 3500 publishers in Finland (with the population of 5,5 million) of whom about 100 are members of the Finnish Book Publishers’ Association. The 10 largest publishers account for 33% of the new releases, 55% of the overall book production and 90% of the sales volume. About 31% of books are sold in bookshops, 18% in department stores, kiosks and supermarkets, and about 6% over the Internet. Book clubs account for about 10% of sales.


P.S. You may ask, whether Finland really is that well-educated and literate? Let me quote the Wikipedia: “The Education Index, published with the UN‘s Human Development Index in 2008, based on data from 2006, lists Finland as 0.993, amongst the highest in the world, tied for first with DenmarkAustralia and New Zealand.” and the Guardian: “Finland is the world’s most literate nation, according to new research, with the UK coming in 17th, behind countries including the US, Canada and Australia.” as a few examples.


One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


When was the last time you read a textbook? Did the pictures catch your attention? Sometimes pictures literally jump off the pages, other times you don’t even notice there are any. I’m a visual person and I remember things best in images (also text from a book page). The textbooks of my school years didn’t offer much for imagination. Mostly the illustrations of the time could be described as lame. Fortunately things have changed.

Types of Fruit by Eurwentala Illustration
Types of Fruit by Eurwentala aka. Maija Karala.

Illustrations have increased almost exponentially and they are now an integral part of textbooks. My own children go to elementary school and they study from textbooks with illustrated characters, who function as teachers – and indeed function, they have a very active role in the books.

How do you make an illustration?

Illustrating is a demanding process, even more so because of the realities of the publishing business. Maija Karala ended up working as an illustrator partly by an accident. Publishing company Otava contacted Maija to have a permission to use a picture they’ve seen in her blog and one thing led to another. Otava asked Maija to illustrate the new high school biology textbook called Koralli 1.

-A typical illustration process begins with a brief and a model picture sent to me by the publisher. This is the basis for my illustration assignment. Once I for example made a similar picture to the model picture, only changing the species into Finnish equivalents, Maija says.

How does a plant work? by Eurwentala aka. Maija Karala.

Tight Schedules

When the illustrator begins her work, she usually doesn’t have the final text of the book available. Maija made 46 illustrations for the biology textbook. Originally she had 4 months for the job, but in the end most of the illustrations were made in 4 weeks. Publishers often have very tight schedules, which become even more pressed if those working in the beginning of the project don’t keep up. As the book has to be ready by a certain deadline, the ones working in the end stages have to speed up. An illustrator is normally one of the latter.

Maija hopes that she could collaborate more with the writers of the textbooks, but the schedules often don’t allow that. However, she’s thrived even with the rushed work schedule. In fact, illustrating assignments have increased so much, she’s been forced to cut down writing jobs.

Written in bone by Eurwentala aka. Maija Karala.

A Good Illustration is a Clear One

-A good illustration gives all the information it should, but it is also esthetically pleasing. Although the schedules are tight, it’s worth while to use enough time to think over what you actually want to do. There is no point in copying something that has already been done. The illustrations also have to be very clear to look good in print, Maija says.

The blog has worked as a great reference for Maija. Besides Otava, the Finnish National Board of Education has found Maija through her blog.

-A blog gives you freedom to try things out. You don’t need to please any certain audience there, Maija tells. It is also an easy way to present your style and skills for a potential client. Choosing an illustration is often also a choice of the style and technique, especially if the illustrator has a distinctive style.



Maija Karala in Deviant Art

Maija’s blog: Erään planeetan ihmeitä