Reading North: Books in the Arctic

Oula has run a mobile library in the Nordic Arctic for 40 years, but as retirement looms the bus’ future is uncertain.

Despite travelogues brimming with northern lights and reindeer rides, daily life in the Finnish and Nordic Arctic can be lonely. 

The closest shop or school can be hours away and one of the only remaining services is Oula Kotakorva’s mobile public library.

Serving parts of FinlandSweden and Norway, Oula drives hundreds of kilometres each week. 

He and his colleagues are often more than librarians; they’re listeners, friends and a human contact.

Now, after nearly four decades on the road, he’s about to retire. Finding someone to take over has been difficult and the future of the library bus hangs in the balance. 

We follow Oula as he goes on his last ride as the beloved driver of the bus and, along the way, we meet those for whom the library bus is a lifeline.

For many in the Finnish and Nordic Arctic Oula's library bus is a lifeline [Saila Huusko/Al Jazeera] 
For many in the Finnish and Nordic Arctic Oula’s library bus is a lifeline [Saila Huusko/Al Jazeera] 


By Saila Huusko

Back in September, I was at a library in Lapland in the north of Finland. The book I was looking for appeared in the database of the Joint Nordic Library Bus.

A closer look at the mobile library revealed a history rooted in the belief that access to information belongs to everybody and people dedicated to serving that mission. The bus first began operating in the late 1970s as an initiative of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Though diminished over the years, the bus’s route still covers vast areas of the Arctic border region between Finland, Sweden, and Norway, carrying books in all three languages and Sami. I was fascinated.

A few weeks later, I’m travelling on the library bus in Northwestern Lapland, Finland. At each stop along the 2,500-kilometre route, the driver-librarian Oula Kotakorva greets the borrowers by name, chatting about everything from books and weather to the latest gossip in the village. This bus, with its books, music, and magazines feels like a familiar, warm place.

The warmth inside contrasts with what’s outside. As we make our way past snowy landscapes, I think about how the quiet vastness here has a calming effect.

It’s November, and we’re nearly 400 kilometres above the Arctic Circle. At 2pm, the sun’s quickly disappearing behind the horizon, turning the entire atmosphere blue. Soon, the sun won’t rise above the horizon at all, launching a polar night lasting a few weeks. In the summer, it’s the opposite. Around midsummer, the sun doesn’t set at all.

This region attracts thousands of tourists every year. Travellers come in search of the winter joys of northern lights, Santa Claus and husky rides.

Yet, daily life here can be quite lonely.

Distances are long, the natural conditions can get harsh, and services are limited. The closest school, hospital or shop can be a long drive away.

Oula and his colleagues are more than librarians. They’re friends and listeners; a human contact. For Oula this bus is a life mission. He has spent almost four decades lending an ear and a hand, making sure the wheels keep turning.

Libraries have always been a place I go when I need a moment to think. These days, the library is a way to cut myself off from the overwhelming world of the internet. I like seeing knowledge organised on shelves; unmoving, manageable, and within my reach.

Turns out, I’m not alone. Survey results published by the Pew Research Center last year showed that, in the United States, millennials were the most likely demographic to use the public library.

Yet, it seems that the trend in many places is a downward one. Services have moved online. Internet, screens, and mobile phones eat away at our attention spans and, often, public libraries and bookmobiles face eventual extinction.

I can’t help but feel that we risk losing something special.

This documentary is a small attempt to communicate this special quality and why it is so important to so many people, particularly in remote areas. It’s a letter of appreciation for libraries, the value of human connections in our online age, and for people like Oula who go out of their way to help others – in their own quiet, amiable way.

[Saila Huusko/Al Jazeera] 
[Saila Huusko/Al Jazeera]