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5 December 2018

Helsinki’s €100m new library includes sewing machines, recording studios and kitchens (and books)

With robots and 3D printers, Oodi wants to change the very notion of a library.

By Augusta Riddy

Helsinki’s latest addition to its large cohort of libraries opens to the public today. The €100m project – funded entirely by Finnish taxpayers – has been in the works for 20 years; public servants wanted to create a “birthday present” for the nation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its independence.

The library, which was designed by Finnish firm ALA Architects, is not your average book-lending institute. Comprising three floors, the top level will house 100,000 books, but the rest of the building will be used quite differently. The second floor is dedicated to skills development, giving library users the opportunity to use sewing machines, 3D printers, tools, recording studios, and even rent out kitchens and meeting areas. Elsewhere in the building is a cinema and cafés; the space is intended to act as a “living room” for Helsinki residents.

Lead architect Antti Nousjoki said although Oodi is classed as a library, “it has range, reach and functionality well beyond a traditional book depository.” Project leaders are hopeful that it will help to create equality of opportunity amongst those living in Helsinki, particularly supporting residents such as refugees and benefits claimants to develop skills, and access social services.

In an effort to limit costs, the library will not employ any new staff. Instead, librarians working in the existing Helsinki network of 37 libraries were asked to apply for a position at Oodi. An automated sorting process and robots that carry boxes of books to their correct locations are expected to relieve staff of menial tasks, enabling them to devote their time to interacting with visitors. This decision and some accusations that the library has not catered adequately for Swedish-speaking Finns (the country is bilingual) has attracted criticism from certain parts of Finnish society and press.

Despite this, the project has received very little public opposition, and was developed out of a consultation that asked Helsinki residents what they would like to get out of their newest public library. This led to, among other things, a sliding bookcase that reveals a story room for small children, who requested an element of surprise.

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Located opposite the Parliament, the library cuts a striking and highly visible figure. At a press preview, executive director of culture at the City of Helsinki Tommi Laitio speculated that it may well be sitting on the most expensive plot of land in the country. Laitio hoped Oodi would generate “hope” and a “sense of community”, and claimed that the library would treat every person that came through its doors as “equal, curious, responsible and as an individual”.