In early June, I was given the opportunity to visit the University of Helsinki as part of the International Staff Exchange Week (ISEW). ISEW is an Erasmus+ programme aimed at allowing librarians from Europe to meet and share best practice.
Coming into this experience, I was very new to the librarianship profession, and working my first academic librarian post, having only graduated from my Librarianship Masters in January of this year. I put in my application with the understanding that as I was new to the profession, I might not be chosen, only to be amazed to be accepted onto the programme to visit the University of Helsinki.
The week involved both a number of library visits as well as workshops with free time in the evenings to explore the city. We visited academic libraries, such as the Kaiser House and Tekko Health hub, public libraries, such as the Oodi, and the national library of Finland.
All of the Academic Libraries we visited featured fantastically modern buildings, including large book collections in a variety of languages with silent working areas scattered throughout the floors. The Kaiser House library featured modern architecture and a large balcony looking over the city. The Aalto University library was also a beautiful learning space, featuring architecture by Alvar Aalto with distinctive chairs, furniture and several beautiful indoor gardens, which served as scenic study spaces. One of the primary differences I noticed within the academic libraries of Finland compared to those back home were that there were no barriers for those wishing to use the space, both students and the public were welcomed inside to use the resources. This atmosphere of openness seemed to extend the buildings themselves, with large windows and airy buildings, which all felt welcoming to everyone.
Whilst in the academic library, we fittingly covered the theme of ‘User Experience.’ This involved a series of talks surrounding how the services offered to students can improve, such as through longer opening times and featuring performance spaces within the library. As part of this activity, I led a session on Cognitive Mapping, asking librarians to map out the space within their home libraries switching to different colours every few minutes to show the order of what elements of the library took priority in their map. This process allowed us to see some of the differences between libraries within each country and displayed the different perceptions held by the librarians through what they chose to include within their cognitive map. This was a highly rewarding activity and I enjoyed seeing all of the librarians engaging in the task.
We also visited the Oodi, the recently built public library of Helsinki. This building featured three floors each with a variety of resources; this included sewing machines, VR equipment, 3-D printers and kitchens all available for the public to use. The third floor held the appropriately titled ‘book heaven’, a vast collection of books featuring a floating ceiling with trees bookending each row. This beautiful building was truly a marvel of public libraries and I wholeheartedly recommend this library to anyone who ever happens to be in Helsinki.
While the visit involved a number of fantastic workshops and library visits, it was not all work. We also had a taste of Finland, including a visit to a sauna and a jump into the sea. The workshops, as well as these social activities, gave us the opportunity to discuss with the other attendees the differences between our libraries and share best practice. This sharing of how our libraries practice allowed me to develop a thorough understanding of the ways that libraries can improve, such as a greater focus on user experience, to environmental factors, such as increasing the number of plants within the library to develop a welcoming atmosphere for those studying.
Overall, this experience was one of the greatest I have had. I can recommend that anyone involved within libraries participate in one of these visits, as it allowed me to develop a greater understanding of international libraries and develop a shared knowledge of library services. This visit also gave me a greater understanding of what we do well, as it allowed me to see the areas we excel in and appreciate our commitment to customer services. I am grateful for the ERASMUS+ programme, the University of Helsinki and the wonderful people I met on this visit, as it is something I will never forget!
About the Author
Ella Wharton is a recent graduate in Librarianship from the University of Sheffield. She is currently working as a Library Assistant at the University of Lincoln and has previously worked as an Academic Subject Librarian.