To Mark Its Centennial, Finland Gives Itself the Most Finnish Gift Possible: A New Library

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Over 20 years in the making, Helsinki's highly anticipated new central library is now open for book borrowing ... and a whole lot more. (Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo/Oodi Helsinki)

Earlier this year at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, Finland wowed the crowds — in the most low-key way possible —with a library-themed exhibition titled "Mind-Building."

Serving as a tribute to Finland's longstanding tradition of erecting libraries that transcend what we think printed matter-stuffed public spaces should look like and how they should be used, the exhibition — which itself took the form of an ultra-cozy pop-up reading room — used audio, video and other media to showcase 17 noteworthy Finnish libraries built throughout the decades. It began with the bookworm-ish Baltic nation's very first public kirjastot: the stately Neo-Renaissance Rikhardinkatu Library in Helsinki, which was completed in 1881.

In addition to taking a library-centric trip down memory lane, "Mind-Building" also functioned as a teaser for a much-anticipated Finnish library project that at the time was not quite yet finished: Oodi Helsinki Central Library.

Prominently positioned next to parliament in the heart of Finland's capital, the landmark library — if you can even call it that — is now open to the public after years of planning.

Described as a "non-commercial public space open for everyone," Oodi is engineered to function more like a multi-purpose cultural space-cum-community hub where there's a lot more happening than just the lending of books.

As Antti Nousjoki, of ALA Architects, the local firm tasked with designing the 10,000-square-meter mega-library, described the project to the Guardian earlier this year:

"[Oodi] has been designed to give citizens and visitors a free space to actively do what they want to do." He adds: "Our aim was to make [Oodi] attractive so that everybody will use it — and play a role in making sure it is maintained."

spiral staircase at Oodi, Helsinki, Finland
Imprinted with Finish words, the helical central staircase at Oodi is a prominent element of the building's decidedly non-library-esque design. (Photo: croviking/Flickr)

Books are just the beginning ...

The opening of Oodi — or "Ode" in English — coincides with the 100th anniversary of Finland's independence. In that sense, you could view the library as a 98 million euro (roughly $11 million) birthday gift to itself. And what a gift it is.

First and foremost, Oodi has over 100,000 fiction and nonfiction titles in circulation — certainly enough books to keep the denizens of one of the world's most literate countries, if not the most literate country in the world, happily occupied.

Visitors who step inside the swooping, spruce-clad edifice (the New York Times describes the energy efficient building as resembling a "ship topped with a layer of ice") will also find a restaurant, recording booths, coffee shop, performance venues, pop-up event spaces, co-working areas and a maker space stocked with 3D printers, sewing machines and other gear. For easily overwhelmed out-of-towners, there's also a EU-funded visitors center on the ground level of the building. A cinema is due to open early next year.

Finland News Now reports that books only take up a third of the tri-level space. All forms of printed matter can be found on the third floor (aka "Book Heaven"), which is brightly lit and populated with large potted trees. (The New York Times calls it as being a "conventional, if inordinately tasteful, reading room.") Patrons can also take out DVDs and Blu-ray discs, board games and a wide range of other non-printed media.

The third floor also includes a sizable outdoor terrace with panoramic views that can be enjoyed during Helsinki's warmer months.

stacks at Oodi, Helsinki, Finland
Stocked with over 100,000 volumes of fiction and nonfiction, the third-floor stacks at Oodi are unfettered and brightly lit for easy, non-distracting perusal. (Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo/Oodi Helsinki)

Keeping in line with Finnish libraries that came before it, there's ample open space for everyday socializing at Oodi — 6-inch voices are not required throughout the building although there are, of course, designated areas where conversing in a hushed tone is de rigueur. (It's also open late, till 10 p.m. on weekdays, and remains open on Sundays.)

And in a somewhat unorthodox related design decision, adult and children's book sections are not physical separated, as is the case at many contemporary libraries.

"We think that the noise the children bring into this floor is positive noise, we hear the future, and we enjoy that we have children's and adult literature on the same floor with no walls in between," Katri Vanttinen, head of library services for Helsinki, explains to AFP. "Acoustics have been planned really well, so even if people are shouting at one end you can hardly hear them at the other end."

Social area at Oodi, Helsinki, Findland
Like other community-centric Finnish libraries, Oodi is meant to function like an expansive public living room that just happens to contain a whole lot of books. (Photo: Risto Rimppi/Oodi Helsinki)

Early plans also included an on-site sauna but that idea was scrapped. This is kind of a shame, really, as there isn't a more typically Finnish place in which to skim the morning newspaper or devour the latest Nordic noir paperback than from within an extremely hot wooden box. Perhaps the crossover between these two largely communal national pastimes — patronizing a book repository and sweating it out in a sauna — was just too Finnish to bring into existence.

Books and other media are ferried around the massive space by trolley-esque robots, which use elevators to transport returned volumes to the stacks, at which point one of the library's human staffers place them on the proper shelves. AFP notes that Oodi is the first public library to employ self-driving autonomous machines — just think of them as novel-toting Roombas.

"Oodi gives a new modern idea of what it means to be a library," Tommi Laitio, executive director of culture and leisure for Helsinki, tells AFP of the next-level library's multitasking nature. "It is a house of literature but it's also a house of technology, it's a house of music, it's a house of cinema, it's a house of the European Union."

Grand opening festivities at Oodi, Helsinki, Finland
Fins flocked to Oodi's opening festivities, which kicked off on the eve of Finnish Independence Day. Over 10,000 daily visitors are expected to visit Helsinki's flashy new library. (Photo: Risto Rimppi/Oodi Helsinki)

Reinventing the library for the digital age

Considering that embattled public libraries are facing budget cuts and declining usage in places like the United States and Great Britain, it may seem questionable that the most significant building to open in Finland in decades is, well, a public library.

Yet literacy — particularly the intersection of literacy and public space — is deeply embedded into Finland's cultural DNA. And it's a similar situation in other Nordic countries where libraries — increasingly being retooled for the next generation — continue to be lavished with unwavering support.

(A similarly high-tech and multi-use new central library is also set to debut in the Norwegian capital of Oslo in 2020.)

Citing 2014 figures from the Institute of Museum and Library sciences, The New York Times notes that Finland invests as much as one-and-a-half times more per capita on libraries than the U.S. does.

Reading at Oodi, Helsinki, Finland
Located opposite Finland's parliament building at Kansalaistori Square, Oodi describes itself as 'a library of a new era, a living and functional meeting place open for all.'. (Photo: Daniel Leiviskä/Oodi Helsinki)

Estimates from that same year show that the reluctantly happy Finnish citizenry — total population: 5.5 million — borrowed roughly 91 million books (16.67 per capita) from the country's public libraries, which can be found in all 300 of Finland's municipalities, even the most far-flung ones. And as mentioned, it's common for Finnish libraries to function as lively and democratic community living rooms of sorts — the country's high rate of urbanization and brutal winters help to explain this phenomenon.

By embracing new technology and reimagining how a library can better serve users of all ages and walks of life, the relevance and longevity of libraries like Oodi are all but guaranteed.

"We have to make sure that libraries aren't just relevant for people who can't afford books or a computer," Laitio explains to the Times, noting that Oodi "fits very well into the Nordic story of how societies work."

"There are so few of us here, so we have to make sure everyone can develop to their fullest potential."