Finland’s new library speaks volumes about the world’s most literate nation

While Brits watch their libraries disappear, Helsinki’s radical new library combines reading, skills and recreation.

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This is book heaven,” says Katri Vänttinen, beaming. As the City of Helsinki’s library director, she should know. Standing on the third floor of the brand new Oodi library in the city centre, it is a little bit heavenly. Trees, beautiful furniture and books fill the huge space, which follows one sweeping curvature as natural light floods through the glass that encloses it. 

In Helsinki – home to almost 650,000 people – there are 36 public libraries. “Libraries are the second-highest rated public service in Helsinki; the number one is drinking water,” explains Helsinki’s executive director of culture Tommi Laitio. It is enshrined in law that every Finnish municipality must have a public library, and as a result there are 853 across the country. 

Brits might find this tough reading. In 2016 alone, 105 libraries closed in the UK; as local councils continue to bear punishing cuts, library budgets are getting slashed. Between 2016 and 2017, public library spending fell by £66m. Oodi, meanwhile, is publicly funded to the tune of €100m, and has been given what Laitio describes as “probably the most prestigious, most valuable piece of land in the country” opposite the Finnish Parliament. 

A concept 20 years in the making, it is a birthday present to the nation to mark the 100th anniversary of its independence. After a “blind” architectural competition – a common process for large Finnish projects in which architectural firms anonymously submit their proposals – Helsinki firm ALA Architects was selected to design the building. Construction has taken three years, and the hotly anticipated library finally opened to the public on 5th December 2018 to ecstatic crowds and Twitter fanfare. “Everyone in the city knows about this project, because it’s so big,” says Laitio. It faced virtually no public opposition, and expects to receive 10,000 visitors per day. 

All this fuss… for a library? Yes, because Finns love libraries; they are such a core aspect of public life that as soon as an asylum seeker is granted permission to remain in the country, they are handed a library card. Oodi was not built because “we’re lacking libraries”, jokes Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori, but because the library is a symbol of national identity. 

The average Finn visits libraries more than nine times a year, borrowing around 15 items. There were 50m library visits in 2017, and use of online library services is increasing by 40 per cent year on year. The average UK citizen visits libraries 3.5 times a year, and library use here is falling. The combination of an advanced public library network and one of the world’s most respected schools systems has seen Finland ranked the world’s most literate nation.

Putting the book down for a moment, Oodi is no normal library. It houses 100,000 books, which in proportion to the building’s size – over 10,000 sq. metres – is not a huge number. In fact, only one of the three floors is dedicated to reading; what is happening in the rest of the building bends – or stretches – the concept of a library. 

Upon entering Oodi, an enforced hush does not descend. Nor are there any bookshelves in sight, but on the first floor – a large, fluid space – there is a cinema, a multi-purpose hall and a restaurant. The second floor, called the “attic”, is entirely dedicated to skills development. Here the public can use 3D printers and sewing machines, or borrow musical equipment and rock out in specially modified studios. There is even a kitchen and socialising area, which can be hired for a small fee, where the librarians hope birthday parties will take place, perhaps followed by a spot of karaoke. Staff roam the site ready to help the public use the resources available. 

According to one member of staff, library users can pretty much do anything with what’s on offer at Oodi. Antti Nousjoki, partner at ALA Architects, describes the building as “almost an open platform, which the users can occupy the way themselves see fit [sic]”. And on the third floor – the “book heaven” – Nousjoki says that users can read their book or magazine “in a relative sense of shared privacy”. 

Each floor has a different character and purpose, but the design is infused with purpose. A “massive public consultation” heavily informed Oodi’s development, as library director Vänttinen explains: “When we started to dream about bringing a library to the city centre, we went to the people and asked ‘what are you dreaming about?’. It was an open-ended question – we didn’t even talk about libraries at the beginning.” Staff point out specific features that were requested by members of the public, including a sliding bookcase that reveals a story room for small children, who asked for an element of surprise. “We asked the people, and we are trying to deliver what they want,” concludes Vänttinen. 

Oodi is set to increase annual spending on libraries in Helsinki by 20-25 per cent and will cost roughly €7-8m a year to run. However, no new librarians were hired to work in Oodi. Instead, 50 people were selected from the existing Helsinki libraries workforce, and these people are supported by a number of robots. During our visit, these small devices could be spotted whizzing past people’s ankles, returning and sorting books. Elsewhere in the building, as if to complete the futuristic impression, a man manoeuvred a drone. 

Spending time with figures from the Oodi inner circle, it is striking how emotional – perhaps even a little melodramatic – their descriptions of the library’s identity and purpose are. Mayor Vapaavuori says the library “symbolises education, equality, transparency, civilisation itself. In today’s world. It symbolises the need to defend democracy”. 

"We believe,” Laitio expounds, “that everyone deserves to have free access to not only knowledge, but also our shared culture, spaces that are beautiful, and to dignity.” Central to Oodi’s concept, he explains, is bringing a wide range of people together under one roof. “A lot of emphasis has been put on how we make sure that this building is safe and welcoming to homeless people [or] to CEOs with a couple of hours to spare … We need to make sure that people believe that we can live together, and I don’t think €100m for that feeling is a lot of money.” 

But €100m is quite a lot of money; it is 12 per cent of what the UK, a country with 13 times as many people, spent on libraries last year. Was it difficult to achieve the political consensus needed to launch the project? Mayor Vapaavuori, who is a member of the centre-right National Coalition Party, responds that it was not; “everything is relative.” He says: “Finland is among the very few countries where it’s still possible to spend a lot of public funding on cultural institutions.” For some in Finland, there seems to be a resistance to any private funding for public projects; during the visit, one professional involved with Oodi expressed their disapproval at the recent use of private funding assistance for a children’s hospital in Helsinki. 

Vapaavuori says former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was right when he said “culture brings more capital than capital brings culture”. In the case of Hull in the North East of England, this is certainly true. “Since Hull was awarded UK City of Culture in 2013,” the UK government website states, “it attracted over £3bn of investment and created 800 new jobs.” In response to the revelation that cultural investment is not always money for old rope, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced a measly “£20m government boost for culture and creative industries in England”. Towns and cities were given the opportunity to bid for up to £7m of the £20m pot to “help regeneration, create jobs and maximise the impact of investment”. The idea of the state spending £100m on a public library here in the UK seems ludicrous in today’s austerity-driven political culture.

Oodi is not the only public project in the works. Another library in Helsinki was completed just before Oodi opened, and the city is now looking at building a centre for dance, and an architecture and design museum. Vapaavuori predicts that the majority of the funding for these schemes will be public. “The fact that we’re doing something like this in 2018 tells something really about who we are as people,” says Laitio. “It’s our community, and our society, at its finest.”

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.