It’s been an epic first week in Finland. I still gaze out of my window at the snow falling like feathers,the blanketed rooftops and the powdered branches. I am slowly acclimating to the subzero temperatures and now feel a little guilty about my shortcut trudges through fresh drifts of snow. I live behind a twelfth century cathedral; the Aura River is right across the street. I’ve been to the castle and walked on excavated medieval cobblestones. I buy rye bread and cheese at the covered market and eat cod or salmon every day- sometimes for breakfast. I travel on buses and trains, but prefer just walking. Within twenty or thirty minutes I can get any place at any time of “day.” While all of this is charming and romantic, my biggest joy has been watching Finns go about their daily routines.
Mink covered matrons. Swaddled, serene babies in snow-crusted strollers. Toddlers moving stiffly in their bulky snowsuits. Moms pulling young boys through town on a sled. Dapper gentlemen with canes gracefully navigating the downtown ice. Preschoolers carefully boarding the bus with their caretakers. Twelve year olds with hockey sticks getting to and from practice hockey-mom-less. Occasional fashionably fierce blondes in pantyhose and stillettos, but more often sporting stylish motorcycle boots and jeans. Men and women carefully protected in the essential scarves, hats, and mufflers that are just fun accessories in the South. Young lovers tenderly holding hands, unable to see each other across their hoods or touch through their mittens. The absolute dignity and professionalism of each sales clerk, government employee, waitress, taxi driver, and banker that I have encountered. Waiting- every single one of these guys– always– for the crosswalk icon to turn green before crossing.
I made a lunchtime trip to one of my favorite places- the public library- and was able to see yet another dimension of the behaviors observed casually on the street. These guys are bookworms. It’s one thing to read that Finns consider libraries a national treasure; it’s another to see it. It has been observed that a culture reveals itself in the nature of the grandest buildings. See here for a chart recording the tallest buildings across time. In the Middle Ages, churches dominated the skyline. These were replaced by municipal buildings, and later by banks and corporations. The Turku City Library commands the most prestigious location in the city; architectural details both outside and in announce how greatly the citizens treasure this place.
A beautiful lion fountain adorns the entrance to the old section of the library. It was constructed in 1903, and later significantly expanded. The building is three stories high and over 30,000 square feet. It is beautiful; I happily spent my first visit admiring the artwork and the architecture. Everywhere it is designed for comfort- from the functional study desks with lamps, to living room style sofa and chair reading arrangements, to cloth covered inner tubes and hanging acrylic pods in the children’s section, to available blankets for readers who want to snuggle. There is a bistro and several outside modern sculptures.
But what was really impressive was the behavior of the patrons. I was first struck by the fact that in the middle of a sunny day in an otherwise gray week- it seemed like everyone was at the library. A middle school teacher waltzed her lively charges through the children’s section. Stroller and toddler wielding moms browsed and coached. Scores of students with laptops lined desks. Several city workers with reflective tape on their clothes read as they lunched. Seniors were out in force- leafing through papers and magazines, attending a lecture, hunkering down with a novel. A number of long-haired tattooed gentlemen were scattered throughout the many reading sections. It was impressive that during the last hour of sunlight, all of these people chose to be at the library- a community demonstration that this is a great place to spend time.
Another remarkable thing was how self-regulating the patrons were. There were a lot of people inside- the library seemed almost full. Yet, there was very little noise. There were scattered signs on certain tables designating them as quiet and/or study zones. But there were just a few admonintions- none prominent. While there was some talking, sharing, and even phone conversations- nothing became disruptive. The large “quiet” study section was serious and silent. And while I did not see the warning signs, it seemed that food, drink, and phones were permissable. A few patrons did munch on sandwiches while they worked. Many had bottles of water at hand. I saw no trash anywhere; patrons were evidently good about cleaning up afterward. So without reminders and enforcement, it seemed that everyone respected the space of others.
Probably the most remarkable thing that I saw during my visit was that most library patrons were reading. There was a small section using computers; one man was trying to Skype. But almost everyone else- from the studiers with books and laptops, to the seniors with magazines and papers, to the kids laying on the giant doughnut chairs or hanging plastic pods -were reading. Print. Turning pages. I circled at least twice, checking this phenomenon again in disbelief. I believe that on my typical library visits in the US about half of the patrons are online. At the Turku library, the patrons were drawn to print.
Again, a lot of people were in the library- it was almost filled to capacity on a weekday afternoon. It seemed that all respected the use of the facility- no serious noise, trash, or mess. And for the most part, patrons were reading. Is this what happens when people come from a true sense of equality? Everyone shares. When people understand- really believe in their bones- that if someone does something to disturb another’s enjoyment of a shared good, the system is at risk? And further is this question of reading for enjoyment. How is it that seniors, students, city workers, children, mothers- all are inclined to read? What has made literacy something so enjoyable? Perhaps part of it is the wonderful experience of the library- a true national treasure.
More trips to the library are needed to explore this. Wonder if I can make it before closing- it will be an exploration I will treasure.