Libraries as forums of democracy

An improved connection between the public and decision-makers would strengthen Finnish democracy. This project is piloting libraries as new forums of democracy.

What is it about?

The foundations of Finland’s success story have been trust, open societal dialogue and a low hierarchy between elected political representatives and voters.

Societal polarisation seems to be growing around the world in this decade, and democracy has started to lose its foothold as a widely shared intrinsic value. In recent years, we have seen a number of examples where people who feel silenced and disadvantaged have manned the barricades in different countries. Finland is also seeing a change in inclusion and the ways citizens participate in and influence society (in Finnish).

In a small country like Finland, trust among people and their faith in societal institutions is – and will continue to be – a vital resource.

It requires everyone having access to reliable information about decisions affecting their lives and having the opportunity to be heard in these matters. This is why we need to strengthen the preconditions for societal discussion.

What will we do?

Trials will be carried out in six different libraries around Finland to test different forms of interaction and to improve people’s opportunities to influence and participate in societal decision-making. The trials will look for different forms of encounters and, based on the experiences gained, conceptualise operating models that can be used to turn libraries into forums of democracy in many different ways. The aim is that all the concepts can be implemented nationwide.

For example, Mäntyharju is developing a concept that is particularly suitable for the libraries of small towns. The concept is based on remote connections that enable encounters between young people and politicians. Mäntyharju is already running a pilot scheme to scale the concept to the Pieksämäki library. The target group in Imatra consists of older people, and the aim is to enable their involvement in virtual information events by providing digital support. Inari is developing stations called Tutustu ja vaikuta! (Learn more and influence!), where people have the opportunity to improve their everyday life.

In Turku, the activities include workshops that use methods used in art to bring the trial to people who feel as if politics is a distant subject. In Pietarsaari, the aim is to wake people up to the fact they can influence both small and large issues, and to find ways of bringing EU-scale topics closer to people. In Oulu, plans include EU-themed online discussions entitled Globaalista Lokaaliin (From Global to Local) and discussion events titled Kansanvallan kahvit (Democracy coffee) and Nyt saa sanoa! (The floor is yours!).

Continuous funding will be sought for the operating model during the trials, and the model will be developed based on the experiences gained.

Who are involved?

The Libraries as forums of democracy trial has been the result of extensive co-operation between various groups, including the Speaker’s Council of the Parliament of Finland, the Library of Parliament, the Council of Public Libraries (Yleisten kirjastojen neuvosto), the Finnish Library Society, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Finnish Delegation to the European Commission, the Union of Local Youth Councils in Finland, the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities and Sitra.

The libraries in Oulu, Turku, Pietarsaari, Imatra, Inari and Mäntyharju were selected for the trial phase, which started in autumn 2020.

The trials were launched by Sitra in co-operation with key stakeholders, and Sitra will fund and facilitate the trials.

Where are we now?

The trial concept was developed in the summer and autumn of 2020 using methods such as service design. The actual trial period started in October 2020 and will continue until June 2021.

Project background

Sitra’s Updating Democracy working paper (2018) suggested that libraries should be turned into spaces for dialogue and democracy and that a separate appropriation should be reserved for this purpose.

The working paper presents libraries as natural facilities for promoting encounters, and emphasises the importance of libraries as promoters of democracy in Finnish society. Another point of interest is to see how different societal discussions can be held in libraries.

Since the publication of the working paper, events similar to those proposed in in the working paper have been organised with good results, such as the library tour of the 2019 Government Programme.

The Libraries as forums of democracy project wants to test how a physical and virtual meeting place could be built using library services, combining the local, regional, national and EU levels.

The trials also fit the spirit of the recently revised Library Act. The objectives of the act include promoting active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression. In addition, the act states that the tasks of public libraries also include the promotion of social and cultural dialogue.

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