Finland and the Libraries of Eden

This past December Helsinki’s revolutionary new central library, Oodi, was opened and the implications are remarkable. In an interview with the Guardian, Nasima Razmyar, deputy mayor of Helsinki, recounted the importance of libraries in her childhood as the daughter of Afghan political refugees. “A library card was the first thing that was mine, that I had ever owned,” she said.

A library card was also her first encounter with the notion that free books and education were a right and a way of life in countries such as Finland. In 2016 the UN declared that Finland was the world’s most literate nation and the Finnish people are the world’s most avid library users with the population of 5.5 million people borrowing close to 68 million books a year.

Around the world libraries are going underutilized, facing budget cuts, and unfortunately closing. Finland is emphasizing its tremendous commitment to public education and libraries by spending around €57 per person on libraries in general and €98 million specifically on the construction of Oodi.

In addition to Finnish libraries being state of the art institutions, there are many other factors involved in the libraries’ high usage rates. Antti Nousjoki, one of the architects behind Oodi, categorized libraries as a place for socializing away from the occasionally severe weather, calling Oodi “an indoor town square.”

The new central library was commissioned as a gift to Finland commemorating 100 years of independence. “I think Finland could not have given a better gift to the people. [Oodi] symbolizes the significance of learning and education, which have been fundamental factors for Finland’s development and success,” says Deputy Mayor Razmyar.

Finland is dedicated to education, active citizenship and equality which is promoted by the library movement. Mind Building, an exhibit of library architecture celebrating 100 years of Finnish libraries at the 2018 Venice Biennale, is focused on depicting local librarians and library architects as the people building the minds of entire populations. Hanna Harris, the commissioner of the Mind Building, asserted that education and active citizenship is something that everyone is entitled to and libraries are the embodiment of that.

The location of the new library echoes values such as equality and active citizenship more than anything else for Oodi now stands next to parliament. Razmyar proclaimed  “I think there is no other actor that could stand in front of the grounds of democracy like the public library does. It’s remarkable that when standing on the open balcony of the library people are looking straight into the parliament and standing on the same level.”

Libraries in Finland are not designed to be sullen book repositories that collect dust in an increasingly digital age, rather they are intended as vibrant spaces where much more can be borrowed than a stack of books. A local may enter their library and leave with the latest Murakami, a set of skis, and a sanding belt all in their possession. The beloved houses of books depend greatly on user input and adapt their functionality to fit the needs of their users.

Oodi houses a cafe, restaurant, public balcony from which to watch democracy in action, audiovisual recording studios, and a makerspace. Multifunctionality and ownership are crucial to assuring that libraries are used. “We want people to find and use the spaces and start to change them,” says Nousjoki. “Our aim was to make [Oodi] attractive so that everybody will use it – and play a role in making sure it is maintained.”

While the design and location of Helsinki’s new library are impressive, what’s more, striking is the fact that such a project was completed without protest. The creation of a center such as Oodi is a true testament to the values Finish people share, and it is these values above anything else that makes Finland a true book lovers haven.  

Photos provided by Helsinki Central Library Oodi, photo credit: Tuomas Uusheimo

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