From a distance it is unmistakable. As you walk along the icey, gravel-covered footpaths of Elielinaukio towards Töölönlahdenkatu it is impossible not to gaze in both awe and curiosity at the wooden and glass exterior of Oodi Library as locals stream towards what looks more like an airport terminal than a place where you go to borrow and read books. However, Oodi is so much more than a library and, in Finland, a library is much more than just a library.
Finland has, for years now, been an advocate of open learning in a relaxed setting and a key protagonist in the learning process here is an institution, which in many countries is sadly dying slowly, but not in Finland — the public library. While more and more stories of library closures make the news, spaces dedicated to reading and studying — individually or collectively — are still a cornerstone of Finnish society, something which is passed from generation to generation and judging by my visit to Oodi, it seems like their public libraries are in rude health.
“Finland is a country of readers,” declared Finland’s UK ambassador Päivi Luostarinen recently. A Guardian article which focused the on Helsinki’s state-of-the-art Oodi library — described by Antti Nousjoki, one of Oodi’s architects as “an indoor town square” — outlines how “Finns are among the world’s most enthusiastic users of public libraries — the country’s 5.5m million people borrow close to 68m books a year”. Moreover, in 2016 the UN named Finland the world’s most literate nation. The Guardian article also details how “According to local authority figures from 2016, the UK spends just £14.40 per head on libraries. By contrast, Finland spends £50.50 per inhabitant.”
Director of Helsinki Central Library Oodi, Anna-Maria Soininvaara, tells me that, “We have very good school system, the tradition to read is passed forward in families, and foreign TV programs have subtitles rather than being dubbed so kids are eager to learn how to read,” while alluding to the fact that Finland “has fine libraries everywhere, so opportunities to get something to read are always readily available.”
In an interview with Voices of Leaders, Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori explains why education has always been a key focus for Finland: “As a relatively young nation, we understood that our only natural resource was our human capital. That is the basis for our education system because that’s the only natural resource that we have. We have always had the mindset of seeing the city above all as a place and a community, not as a bureaucracy.”
However, in a country where 75% of land is covered by forests, libraries are not just places to read; they serve as a key meeting point for friends and families, a refuge from the harsh weather which dominates the area for a large part of the year, a place where people can catch up and have a coffee — the Finns drink a lot of coffee (according to Statistics Finland 9.6kgs of coffee is consumed per capita per year).
A sanctuary for all
The visually stunning library was commissioned to mark the 100th year anniversary of Finland’s independence, which again illustrates the importance of education and learning to the country. Walk around Oodi and you will see meeting rooms containing students working together on assignments; elderly couples enjoying a coffee while reading the newspaper; toddlers crawling around the floor while their parents chat about the week gone by; young children reading their first books — Oodi really is the centre of life in Finland and demonstrates that here, one never stops learning — the idea of lifelong learning is another concept under the umbrella of education which is given huge importance.
The interior of Oodi — ode in English — is remarkable: beautiful, Nordic wooden floors; an undulating roof which forces you to crouch down to reach the farthest corners of the building; spiralling black stairs whose walls are dotted with inspirational Finnish words I don’t understand; numerous trees, yes real, big trees, in the middle of main reading and meeting areas.
The design simple but complex, modern yet functional and exudes a sense of comfort as people can choose a space to suit their needs. It all feels very Finnish as huge groups of people can go about their business in a polite way without bothering anybody else.
When asked about the inspiration behind the library, Anna-Maria Soininvaara explains how they received “more than 2000 different ideas (“dreams” as they were asked for) from citizens. These ideas were developed further and the dreams collected from the citizens were used as the framework of the project plan for the architecture competition. Among the main principles were non-commercial public space for families, house of literature, new digital skills for everyone, sustainable building, great architecture, space as meeting point, peer learning and active citizenship.”
Education for all
The library aligns with the Finnish belief in free education for all — equality is one of the fundamental pillars upon which Finnish society operates upon. In an interview in the same Voices of Leaders publication, Ilkka Paananen, CEO of gaming giant Supercell, alludes to the Finnish mindset of “everyone being in the same boat” and outlines how “The idea that everyone has access to free, very high-quality public education and healthcare underpins this. That idea of inclusiveness and making sure everyone is on board is very important to us.”
Finland and the future
Anna-Maria is optimistic that Finland will continue to be a nation of readers for generations to come but is well aware of how this space continues to evolve. “We don’t ourselves read on papyrus, why should the future generations read our printed books? They may use some very different platform. Maybe there will be some different ways to enjoy literature and stories.”
It is undeniable that we, as a society, are reading less paper books than ever but that does not necessarily mean that the future of libraries is bleak. Oodi is a fine example to libraries all over the world of how to evolve into more than just a place where you rummage through dusty old books; it has embraced and integrated technology, created a dynamic yet comfortable space that is open to all and where, most importantly, people of all ages can come and learn individually or collectively at the pace which best suits them. Moreover, the library also offers enjoyable cultural programs and events like concerts, gaming events, lectures, discussions and language courses.
Oodi is a wonderful place which exudes energy yet tranquillity and is a portrait of Finnish society as different generations come together to share a beautiful space that belongs to the people.
It’s Finland in a nutshell really.