Volter Kilpi – A Book Chaos Clearing Visionary


Volter Kilpi (1874–1939) may be best known as a Finnish author, but he also had a long library career. Kilpi worked as the first head librarian of the Turku University Library from 1921 until his death. Kilpi’s legacy is clearly seen in the classification system, which is still in use in some of the library’s collections, and also in the Volter database named after him.

From Helsinki to Turku

Volter Kilpi’s (1874–1939) library career began in 1898 as a substitute assistant librarian in the Helsinki University Library. He was still a student himself at the start of his career, but he graduated two years later. He worked at the university library until 1919 while simultaneously managing to work at the Student Union Library (1906–1911), as well as at the public library of Helsinki (1912–1918).

After decades spent in Helsinki, Volter Kilpi returned to his home county in 1919 to a librarian position in the public library of Turku. He followed with great interest the building of the new University of Turku, and especially the founding of the library, and made suggestions particularly with regards to the cramped library space that instead of the university having its own library, the town should have a central academic library. This suggestion was never acted upon, but in 1920 Kilpi was picked to be the university’s first librarian, albeit with a temporary contract. This caused his time in the public library of Turku to be fairly brief.

A new academic library and a subject-based classification system

Once at work at the University of Turku, Volter Kilpi began building a new academic library from a chaos of books and other printed materials that had been sent from all around Finland. The first thing was to create a classification system to catalogue the materials properly. In Kilpi’s opinion, best suited was a subject-based classification system that could be based on a system just invented in Sweden. In the Turku University Library, main groups of the subject-based classification got a capital letter as its identifier, so for example, F was for linguistics, N for law, and V for medicine. The system was therefore wholly different from the ones used in public libraries, where classification is based on decimal systems with numbers as identifiers. Nowadays, in library staff’s jargon Kilpi’s classification is still familiar, and it is still in use in several of the library units. In the beginning of the 1990’s, Volter was also the name given to the library’s electronic database, after the first head librarian.

An author and a librarian

Volter Kilpi, who may be best known for his prowess as an author rather than a librarian, kept these two careers firmly separated from each other. The first years in the Turku University Library were very busy, not least because Kilpi had to work alone. The library was plagued both by a lack of funds and staff, as well as space, against which Kilpi had to contend with his whole time in office. The only thing there was plenty of was professional skills. After the library’s classification system was created, Kilpi could again start to focus on his literary pursuits. As of 1924, Kilpi worked half-days at the library for a decade to finish his famous Archipelago trilogy. With the money saved from his salary, temporary staff could be employed at the library.

Volter Kilpi’s career as head librarian of the Turku University Library ended abruptly of a heart attack in October 1938, after which he never returned to work. He passed away at the age of 64 in July 1939. The Feeniks library at the top of the hill where some of the university buildings are situated now, was opened in 1954.

Created 09.02.2021 | Updated 09.02.2021