Mirjam Mõttus: Libraries dying out as there are no people, no money

Mirjam Mõttus.
Mirjam Mõttus. Source: Mana Kaasik/Tartu2024

Public libraries in Estonia, long considered sacrosanct, are increasingly dauntlessly being closed down, and earlier talk of service centers and broad community centers has been forgotten. There just aren't any people and isn't any money, ERR regional correspondent Mirjam Mõttus says in Vikerraadio's daily comment on Wednesday.

I remember well when I covered stories about stores closing, about postal service points being relocated, about bank branches being closed down. While this was going on, libraries were declared sacrosanct — they must stay. Moreover, libraries were promised to be transformed into centers loaning out intellectual work and providing other services as well.

And yet things have turned out completely differently. Since 1995, the number of public libraries in Estonia has remained in stable decline. In 2011, there were 563 public libraries in the country; by 2021, there were 50 fewer.

The primary factors behind libraries closing, according to the Ministry of Culture, have been a lack of users, people's changing trajectories and a decrease in reader numbers. Starting late last year, local governments' difficult financial situations could be added to the list of reasons why libraries are being closed.

It is precisely due to tough financial circumstances that members of Rõuge Municipal Council decided at this week's municipal council meeting to close one of ten libraries located in Rõuge Municipality and bring the rest under unified management. Luutsniku, Ruusmäe, Viitina and Haanja libraries will disappear from the map. Rõuge Municipal Library will remain, together with service points thereof in Haanja, Viitina and elsewhere.

People and signs at a protest in support of Rõuge Library. "INIMESED LOEVAD" is a play on words in Estonian, which can mean both "People read" and "People matter." Source: Mirjam Mõttus/ERR

The initial plan is that three employees will remain across nine service points. Any way they slice it, locals won't end up with the same service they're used to.

In an emotional peak, the entire process is even compared with the expansion of Nursipalu Training Area — the state is coming in and doing things, the municipality is coming in and doing things, but nobody asked us. Locals are taking these changes very hard. "If this keeps up, then it will really be the case that everything's been taken away from us," said one library employee.

For them, the library has been more than merely a place to loan out books; it's been free internet access with which to communicate with the state or pay bills. It has been a place where one keeps up with current events with the help of periodicals and, first and foremost, where people get together and socialize.

As in other countries, the library is among the most popular cultural institutions in Estonia. According to a study conducted in 2018, 50 percent of the population visits libraries. In many places, the library is the last remaining place where one can sense that their local government and state hasn't quite abandoned them after all. Of course wiping the last remaining public service located close to your home will spark defiance and despair.

But there's another side to this coin as well. In Rõuge Municipality, one public library is being closed, but it will formally continue operations as a school library. Meanwhile, it isn't the only collection in the area; another library is located just five kilometers away. And that's not all. Nearly six kilometers from there, in a place that was located in a different local government prior to the administrative reform, is the next library.

To onlookers, three libraries within a ten-kilometer stretch may seem like a pretty big luxury. At the same time, it turns out that behind each library is 150-300 residents. The Ministry of Culture admits that it is the impact of the administrative reform that has changed and continues to change both the number and function of public libraries.

A lot of libraries have been brought under unified management, are offering deliveries and operating lending locations. For example, Antsla Municipality shut down two libraries as of the start of the year. The initiative to do so came from library employees, who said that there just aren't any visitors. Urvaste and Kuldre libraries were merged, however, and Urvaste Library was converted from the new year to Kuldre lending location. In essence, absolutely nothing changed for local residents.

Also closed was the service location of Loosi Library in Võru Municipality. And for the same reason — a lack of readers, and the fact that a proper, big library is located close by.

I suppose this is the real challenge for local governments in a new environment now — how to manage reasonably, yet save the last remaining point still reminding people that they haven't quite been abandoned after all. And if a library is closed, ensuring how primarily elderly residents can continue to access a library far from home must be considered; it's possible that this may require on-demand transport or some other solution.

Finally, two positive highlights as well. Residents of the Põlva County village of Leevaku are getting a brand new library building, which is being built by the local government with state support.

The Ministry of Culture also said that they will be launching Library Accelerator this March, a library innovation fund that will provide nearly €500,000 in support for renovating public libraries and their technical capacities.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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