Turku City Library is one of the most multilingual libraries in Finland. Our libraries have books in more than 90 languages. For more than 50 of these languages, there are at least ten titles available. In Turku, the proportion of multilingual books in borrowed adult books is about 10 per cent and in borrowed children and young people’s books, about 5 per cent.

It is not very surprising that literature in English is borrowed most. Material in Russian comes second and material in German third. The new books added to the English collection are mainly topical books or books that have received awards. Translations from languages that are less often translated into Finnish are also bought to the collection. The new material acquired to the different genres of literature in turn includes popular series, for example. In the material in English, the focus is on finding new and interesting literature.

The proportion of all material acquired in languages other than Finnish or Swedish is approximately 20 per cent. About 15 per cent is in English and about 5 per cent in other languages. In other words, a lot of material in English is acquired and the demand for it is also high.

Päivi Räihä and Susanne Äijälä are responsible for selecting multilingual material. 

Challenges in acquiring multilingual material

There is almost too much material available in English and German, but the situation for many other foreign languages is the opposite. In addition, selecting material is a lot more challenging for other languages as the persons selecting the material rarely master the language of the acquired material themselves. Päivi Räihä and Susanne Äijälä are responsible for selecting material in languages such as Arabic, Persian, Somali and Chinese.

“The range of material available in foreign languages is much narrower than in English or in the official languages Finnish and Swedish. The collections are not developed as systematically as the material in Finnish,” explains Susanne Äijälä, who is responsible for the multilingual material for adults.

“The ways of selecting multilingual material vary and are a little bit confusing from time to time. Sometimes you have to do detective work,” continues Päivi Räihä, who is responsible for the multilingual material for children.  

Occasionally, only short descriptions of the books are available, so their content may remain slightly unclear to the person acquiring the material. Every now and then, it is possible to find a library employee who speaks the language and may help with acquiring the material. 

“We are at the mercy of what is available when we acquire multilingual material. The library procures the material through contract suppliers and we cannot therefore buy anything directly even from good online stores. Books in Arabic and Somali can be obtained, for example, through the library service of Sweden. Publishing companies that offer literature in languages such as Arabic and Somali have also been set up in Sweden. People ask for material in Somali all the time, but there is not enough of it available,” Räihä explains.  

In the children's department, a fairly large amount of material is also donated. For example, all the books in Hebrew have been received as donations. However, the library buys hundreds of books in foreign languages every year.  

Multilingual material is acquired according to demand

Multilingual material is acquired to the library on the basis of what languages are spoken by the people living in Turku. Of course, the books in some languages sometimes do not move from the library shelves at all. On the other hand, if the collection is small, it is not easy to find anything suitable to borrow from it, either.

“Naturally, we acquire material according to what we think people will borrow and read. However, it is not always possible. We cannot acquire all the languages in the world just like that,” Räihä specifies and adds:

“If people start to ask for a language, we will try to find material in that language. In the children’s department, it is difficult to also take into account children of different ages and girls and boys and their reading preferences when the range of the material is limited.”

“The majority of the proposals we get focus on books in English, which people propose directly. In addition, people often request a specific language or more books in that language. For example, Hindi has now been requested more than before,” Räihä explains.

“Requests for material usually concern a specific language rather than a specific book,” Äijälä continues.

The most sought-after languages in the library

In the past few years, the number of books in Arabic, Persian and Chinese has increased in the material for adults. The number of books in Thai has also increased. In the children’s department, a lot of people have been asking for Arabic, Russian, Somali and Japanese.

“In the children's department, there have been fewer requests for books in Chinese as we now have a fairly good collection of material in Chinese,” Räihä explains.

Languages such as French, Spanish and Italian are also often requested by both adults and children.                                      

“Once, a customer asked whether it would be possible to have books in Brazilian Portuguese as the material is now in European Portuguese,” Äijälä says and smiles.

In addition to special requests, unusual books have also been encountered.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in Latin is definitely the most unusual book that I have ordered to the library,” Räihä laughs and continues:

“When you build up the multilingual material, you feel linked to the big wide world, and it is fascinating.”

“I find that I am in a privileged position as I have the opportunity to peek into so many different cultures through the multilingual material,” Äijälä says.

Books as a channel to one's own culture

Libraries are for everyone, so a multilingual library also has a special role.

“Although many immigrants may be illiterate when they come to Finland, it is still important for them to be able to find books in their own language in the library,” Äijälä explains. 

“Exactly. Reading and language are linked to one’s own identity and the book may be an important channel to one’s own culture,” Räihä continues.

“I hope that this will be a low-threshold service for customers, so that they feel they can propose and ask about material. That would be great,” Äijälä says.

Although all multilingual material cannot be acquired, the library can also offer the services of the Multilingual Library funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Multilingual Library is situated in Helsinki and serves all public libraries in Finland.

“If there is a book that we do not have, we can supply material from the Multilingual Library. We can order material for customers from the Multilingual Library or they can go online and look at the material available in the Multilingual Library themselves. They can then ask the library to order the book,” Räihä explains. The service is free of charge to the customer.