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Library reopenings a "pleasant surprise" for staff but normal service won't return yet

Lending will restart as soon as possible, with customers allowed back into buildings from 1 June.

Helsingin keskustakirjasto Oodi
Helsinki's central library, Oodi, is braced for a flood of returned books now that lending activities are starting again. Image: Jyrki Lyytikkä / Yle

One of the first measures Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced on Monday as she unveiled the government's plan for lifting some coronavirus restrictions was that libraries are to restart lending activities with immediate effect.

The move has been widely welcomed in the country where libraries are cherished and where 5.5 million residents borrow 68 million books a year.

However, the news came as a surprise to authorities around the country who are now tasked with setting up lending activities for the rest of May before the buildings themselves are allowed to open on 1 June.

"We thought that the government would decide to lift restrictions and allow borrowing from 14 May. It came as a pleasant surprise that we can now start lending straightaway, but we first have to make some arrangements," Anna-Maria Soininvaara, director of Helsinki's central library Oodi, told Yle.

"We have to make sure, for example, that people maintain a safe distance from each other and that there are not too many people in the space at the same time. We also have to consider how to implement the guidance and translate it," Soininvaara said.

Oodi will not be ready to start lending books on Tuesday, but Soininvaara said they are working to make it happen as soon as possible.

Some services to remain closed

Some of Oodi's services will remain closed even after customers can enter the building again starting June 1st.

"Those where customers are guided hand in hand through using some of our devices. Many other libraries do not even have these services. In addition we have to carefully consider arranging events due to the restriction on gathering," she said.

The capital's libraries have also been bracing themselves to receive a huge number of returned books in the coming weeks as there are around a million items currently on loan.

Helsinki libraries have been receiving returns since Monday, while those in Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen will begin taking books on Wednesday. From then on, customers can return library items to a return hatch or an automatic machine.

Oodi received around 3 million visitors last year, and library bosses there, as well as elsewhere in the country such as Rovaniemi, have ordered plastic shields for service desks to keep customers and library workers safe.

"Good news in any case"

In Mikkeli and Savonlinna, libraries have been calling for more detailed guidance from regional authorities about how the borrowing is to be organised while the buildings are officially closed to visitors.

"It was a bit of a surprise that we were not given any warning, but it's OK," Mikkeli Library Services head Pia Kontio told Yle. "This is good news in any case."

Vaasa's culture and library services director, Marita Ahola, echoed the sentiment.

"The timetable was a surprise. We were prepared for the restrictions to start being lifted on 14 May and to start operations after that. But after an initial shock it does feel great that libraries and borrowing are the first thing to be brought back," Ahola said.

Ahola said that lending activities will be very limited at first, most likely requiring customers to make a reservation in advance and collect the item from a specific service point.

In Kokkola and Jyväskylä, lending will not begin for another few days, most likely at the end of the week, library directors said.

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