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Librarian Leena Laakso, walking database

The core of library work is concretised in Librarian Leena Laakso: She is a walking database, able to help when Google can’t.

“You should really interview somebody else,” says Leena Laakso trying to persuade me to change the subject of this story. I do not give in. It is precisely Leena that I want to interview. Why?
Because Leena Laakso is an interesting person with a wicked sense of humour, photographic memory and odd hobbies, and also because she has worked as a librarian for 34 years and probably knows the Finnish institutional and home service library field better than anybody else in the country.

Even though institutional libraries have existed since the 1940s, this kind of library and home service libraries are not very well known among the public.  The strange thing is that no major investments are made in the home service library system even though there is increasing demand for the service as the baby-boom generation gets older. No statistics are compiled on the service, either. This is a cause for which Leena Laakso has campaigned since 1988 when she was Chairperson of the Home Service and Institutional Library Group of the Finnish Library Association. “What is not statistically recorded does not exist. It can be made to disappear at any time,” she says.


“Socks are a luxury one cannot afford in my pay bracket”

I meet Leena in her office at the Laakso Hospital, where she works part of the week. The rest of her working hours are spent at the Roihuvuori Old People’s Home. The library is in the basement of the building, and the temperature there is quite cool. Leena walks barefoot in the office.
“Socks are a luxury one cannot afford in my pay bracket,” she usually answers when people wonder why she is barefoot.

“I have worked in libraries for 34 years. Everything has changed in library work except the pay. When you tell people how much money you make, they don’t believe you at first, and when they recover from the shock, they tell you it is your own choice or a matter of job selection. It is not a good pay policy to create jobs in which you can only manage financially if you have inherited money or married a rich man.” In library circles, Leena Laakso is known as a good storyteller and a passionate collector who has amassed an incredible amount of information on some very odd subjects. The national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published an article on her murder-related collection of articles and materials on Bodom, one of the most intriguing unsolved murder cases in Finnish crime history. Leena also collects material related to the well-known Finnish author Mika Waltari, not to mention paper dolls, scrap pictures, Christmas magazines, Easter cards, library related articles, you name it.  She has also given lectures on most of these subjects.

You can’t help wondering how crowded the collector’s home might be. “It is not crowded at all. There is plenty of room there. A library professional is also an expert in organising information in such a way that it is in a compact format and easy to find,” Laakso states.

“Then there is the old rule: one in, two out. That’s how archives are kept in order.”


“We have the best customers”

Even if librarians’ pay level sometimes gets on her nerves, Laakso loves her work and the library. She has had many different kinds of library jobs, but she likes the institutional library best. In Laakso’s opinion, work in an institutional library represents the true core of all library work; personal information service.

“Besides, we have the best customers. Their experience of life is broad, their work has made this country what it is now, and they are still interested in everything that happens in this world.” One of Leena’s customers in the 1980’s was a school girl when Governor General Bobrikov was shot by a Finnish nationalist in 1904.  The girls at the school were told to wear black ribbons in their hair, but by way of demonstration, they wore red ribbons.

Work in an institutional library is also very independent even if it is the entire personnel works together. “Independent work in which cooperation is power”, Laakso sums up.


Personal information service

Today, more and more psychiatric hospitals are closed down, even if the need for them has not decreased. In Laakso’s opinion, the need for institutional libraries is highest in psychiatric services.

“Mental health patients are often quite young, and reading is part of rehabilitation.”

Work in an institutional library is extremely diverse and personal – it cannot be replaced by self-service. Work involves meeting people at a personal level. It requires a good knowledge of literature and the ability to manage databases. You have to be prepared to answer any questions at any time.

We have Google but you can’t find a ready answer to everything on the Internet. You have to know cultural history in order to know what to look for and where. A library professional knows.


Institutional libraries are not advertised enough

One week later, I meet Leena again in the library of the Roihuvuori Old People’s Home. She works there two days a week. Two of Leena’s regular customers, Anja and Mikko Laine, are also there. They visit the library regularly and use the whole range of services that the library offers. They are still in good physical condition and do not live in the old people’s home.

The Laine family has lived in Roihuvuori since 1972, but it was only 8 years ago that they found this library. Institutional libraries are not advertised widely even if their services are available to local residents.

“There were periods in my working life when I did not have time to use library services, but now I have time for hobbies,” Anja Laine says.

Both Anja and Mikko have been bookworms all their lives. This mentally and physically active couple represents an ever-increasing group of people: well-educated pensioners with long careers behind them. They have the time and opportunity to engage in different kinds of activities and they know how to demand services. They borrow books, they visit exhibitions, they participate in literary and other cultural events, they do exercise, they learn how to use computers and communication devices…

What if this library did not exist?

“My life would be emptier. I have had spells of illness, and books have filled empty places in my life,” Mikko Laine says.