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A Citizenship Factory

In which Helsinki throws down a gauntlet.

November 11, 2019

If you haven’t already seen the CityLab piece on Helsinki’s new central library, check it out. The pictures alone are well worth it, though the article is excellent, too. It’s a reminder of what a culture can do if it decides to make something a priority.

In Finland’s case, it has decided to make a public library a priority. The library is enormous, and beautiful, and accessible, and geared toward a broad range of interests: apparently, patrons can borrow power tools or season tickets to the local professional basketball team, as well as books and media. (The article notes that the average Finn takes out three times as many books per year from the library as the average American.) My first thought was that it was a monument to the Danish notion of “hygge,” which loosely translates to comfortably and contentedly staying in with a good book.

But it’s not only that. Tommi Laitio, the city’s executive director for culture and leisure (!), notes that it’s self-consciously built as a “citizenship factory.” The idea is that with the various social pressures starting to play out in Finland that are also playing out across much of the West, the Finns faced a choice: either surrender to the trend of racism, separatism and fear that many of the rest of us have, or buck it. They chose to buck it, doubling down on universalism and inclusion by building a monument to the idea that everybody is worth respect.

Can you imagine?

Yes, Finland is a smaller country -- it has roughly the population of Minnesota -- and it’s less diverse than the U.S. But it’s becoming more diverse, and it has pressures of its own. For geographic reasons, for instance, it has much more reason to fear Russian military aggression than we do.

It could easily retreat into a fortress. But instead, it’s banking on the untapped capacity of its people. And to get there, it’s deliberately inculcating the idea of “a people” in the most inclusive way it can. Instead of relying on nostalgic invocations of the volk, as some have been known to do, it’s making the choice to build institutions designed to bring people together and raise them up educationally and culturally.

I love the idea of citizenship factories. Public schools were supposed to be that, and on their best days, they are. But they’re riotously segregated by race and class, and the quality is notably uneven. Public libraries in the U.S. are some of my favorite places, but again, they’ve been underfunded for so long that many of them are just sort of limping. I’m told that the Seattle one is pretty wonderful, and it’s on my list of places to visit, but most are modest at best. The Girl volunteers at the Monmouth County public library main branch once a week -- it’s lovely in its way, and it means well, but the Helsinki complex it is not.

Community and state colleges try to pick up where public K-12 schools leave off, and sometimes do a good job. But decades of ratcheting austerity have done real damage. And our higher ed system, like our K-12 system, is wildly stratified by race and class, with predictable consequences for the nonelite places.

It wasn’t always thus, and it doesn’t have to be. The U.S. has more resources than a country like Finland could dream of having. We just haven’t been directing them to the right places.

Imagine if we had institutions like the Helsinki library in every city and large town, making available all manner of culture to everybody in a setting that conveys respect for them. Imagine it being well funded, amply staffed, peaceful and inviting. It would be a monument not only to books and to culture, but to the idea of a public itself. It could help to dispel the corrosive myth that anything public is bad, but it would do so simply in the course of being an amazing place to go.

If Finland could afford it, we could, too. Instead of building walls and cages, we could build magnificent libraries and well-funded schools and colleges. You get what you pay for; let’s start paying for the right things.


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