Finland’s ode to literacy: Helsinki Central Library Oodi

Finland’s ode to literacy: Helsinki Central Library Oodi Helsinki 2019

On 26 March 2019, Helsinki’s new central library Oodi welcomed its millionth visitor, less than four months after opening its doors. By that time, Oodi had issued 9000 library cards, and approximately 60% of Oodi’s books were on loan, including most children’s books. Daily visitors averaged 8000, and the number had reached 20,000 on the busiest days.

The popularity of Oodi – which is the Finnish word for ‘ode’ – has been overwhelming at times, but Oodi Director Anna-Maria Soininvaara rejoices: “What’s best about our success is that Oodi hasn’t drawn customers from other Helsinki libraries. Oodi has in fact boosted the use of all public libraries. That’s exactly what we wanted – to promote the entire library function, acting as a magnet.”

The public’s eager embrace of Oodi bolsters the library in fulfilling a larger national role. Soininvaara explains, “Oodi is a national development library. We’re tasked to produce here services for all libraries in Finland.”

Oodi was the flagship project celebrating the centenary of Finnish independence in 2017. As such, it powerfully underscored the achievements of the independent nation in literacy: Finland is one of the world’s most literate nations, with 5.5 million citizens loaning 68 million library books per year.

A public library developed with the public

The Oodi library building is an architectural landmark occupying a central site in the Helsinki city centre. The three-storey building making extensive use of wood and glass is the result of an open international architectural competition, which received 544 entries from all around the world. The winner was the Helsinki-based architectural firm ALA Architects.

Soininvaara attributes much of Oodi’s popularity to the ingenious architectural design attentive to user wishes, which were gauged through multiple channels during the library development phase. These channels included Tree of Dreams, an online forum for suggestions from citizens. The dreams were incorporated into the competition criteria.

“ALA Architects have successfully combined multiple elements requested by users: tranquility, services for families, peer learning and learning by doing, events, and digital services,” Soininvaara explains.

The tranquility asked for by the public is realised in ‘Book Heaven’ on the third floor, a traditional library environment with bookshelves, reading and working environments, and meeting areas. Skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows bathe the floor in ample natural light.

Services for families can be found in the third floor’s family library, including a nest-like fairy tale room, as well as in a section assigned to Playground Loru on the first floor. The first floor is the space for public events and encounters, accommodating cafés, an auditorium, a cinema, information counters and exhibition space.

The second floor is the space for learning by doing with maker spaces. There are recording studios, workstations, video editing stations, 3D printers and scanners, a range of tools for do-it-yourself activity, and a game room serving all ages of gamers. There are meeting rooms and spaces for quiet study. All equipment and spaces can be used free of charge.

Library services make use of robotics and artificial intelligence. For example, the Oodi Recommender gives recommendations for books to borrow and events to attend based on customer preferences.

“Oodi complements literary culture with digital culture, and both cultures co-exist in harmony,” Soininvaara says, explaining the blend of services.

A public library in transition

In rethinking the role of public libraries in society, Oodi joins the Dokk1 public library and culture centre of Aarhus, Denmark, which opened in 2015. Dokk1 has been a model and partner for Oodi.

“Dokk1 and Oodi have tackled similar issues. We have both asked ourselves, ‘What is the new library?’” Soininvaara says. “However, Oodi’s solutions differ from those of Dokk1.”

She continues to explain the library concept that Oodi realises:

“To us, the library is an institution that combines both traditional and new elements. The library should continue to promote reading and literacy and, simultaneously, it should promote equal access to information. The library should promote equality, freedom of speech and active citizenship. It should support and grow the skills of citizens, help them to gain control over various information channels, narrow the digital divide and teach media literacy.”

Promoting democracy

Oodi faces the Finnish Parliament House directly across the open space of Kansalaistori, which means “citizens’ square” in Finnish. The library’s top floor is at the same level as the elevated Parliament House façade. The connection makes the two buildings equals in space.

“This location is very important to us,” Soininvaara comments. “We want to declare with everything and to make visible everywhere that we are here!”

She envisions a role for Oodi that extends far beyond the library building, one in which Oodi promotes a dialogue with lawmakers.

“The physical connection is an ideal context for interaction between citizens and the state. It opens a new avenue for democracy.”

Article courtesy of Helsinki Marketing