Wednesday 23 May 2018

The borrowers: Why Finland's cities are havens for library lovers

Helsinki’s state-of-the-art Oodi library will stand opposite parliament and boast a cinema, recording studio and makerspace. It’s a perfect fit for a literate nation taking public learning to the next level, writes Tash Reith-Banks in the Guardian. Read on: 

“A library card was the first thing that was mine, that I had ever owned,” says Nasima Razmyar. The daughter of a former Afghan diplomat, Razmyar arrived in Finland with her family in 1992 as a refugee fleeing political unrest. Unable to speak the language, with scant resources, and trying to make sense of the strange new city she found herself in, she was stunned to discover she was entitled to a library card that would grant her books – for free. Her appreciation of the privilege has not faded: “I still have that library card in my wallet today,” she says proudly.

Today, Razmyar is deputy mayor of Helsinki, and ready to champion the institution that has given her so much – starting with the construction of Oodi, the city’s new central library, due to open in December. She is not alone in her passion for libraries. “Finland is a country of readers,” declared the country’s UK ambassador Päivi Luostarinen recently, and it’s hard to argue with her. In 2016 the UN named Finland the world’s most literate nation, and 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.

Revolutionising the library … artist’s impressions of the design for Oodi
In recognition of that fact, at a time when libraries worldwide are facing budget cuts, a decline in users and closure, Finland is bucking the trend. 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. While more than 478 libraries have closed in cities and towns across England, Wales and Scotland since 2010, Helsinki is spending €98m creating an enormous new one. Not content with merely building a library, the Finns have gone public with their passion: Mind-building, the Finnish pavilion at this year’s Venice architecture biennale, is a love letter to the nation’s literary landmarks.

Helsinki’s Rikhardinkatu Library opened in 1882 and was the first building in the Nordic countries to be built as a library. This picture shows the reading room in 1924. Photograph: Eric Sundström © Helsinki City Museum
It’s also not hard to see why Finland’s city libraries are so heavily used: 84% of the country’s population is urban, and given the often harsh climate, libraries are not simply places to study, read or borrow books – they are vital places for socialising. In fact, Antti Nousjoki, one of Oodi’s architects, has described the new library as “an indoor town square” – a far cry from the stereotypical view of libraries as stale and silent spaces. “[Oodi] has been designed to give citizens and visitors a free space to actively do what they want to do – not just be a consumer or a flâneur,” explains Nousjoki.

 Lohja main library, which was completed in 2005
Oodi – Ode in English – is more than a sober monument to civic pride. Commissioned as part of Finland’s celebration of a century of independence, the library is no mere book repository. “I think Finland could not have given a better gift to the people. It symbolises the significance of learning and education, which have been fundamental factors for Finland’s development and success,” says Razmyar.

Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed the Viipuri Library in 1927; this picture is from 1935. Border changes during the second world war mean it is now located in Vyborg, Russia.
Libraries are seen as the visible face of the Finnish belief in education, equality and good citizenship. “There’s strong belief in education for all,” says Hanna Harris, director of Archinfo Finland and Mind-building’s commissioner. “There is an appreciation of active citizenship – the idea that it is something that everyone is entitled to. Libraries embody that strongly,” she adds.

Kallio Library was opened in 1912 in the rapidly growing working-class district of Helsinki.
Preliminary floor plan by Karl Hård af Segerstad, Helsinki City Architect, in 1909.
Those feelings of pride in the equality of opportunity offered by the city’s new library are echoed by the site chosen for Oodi: directly opposite parliament. “I think there is no other actor that could stand in front of the grounds of democracy like the public library does,” says Razmyar. “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.”

But Oodi isn’t the only Helsinki library to cause excitement. “Töölö library is one of my favourites,” says Harris. “It’s set in a park and has a rooftop balcony. Recently my colleagues and I went down there and there was a queue outside the doors – on a regular weekday morning, there was a queue at 9am to get in.”

Maunula House, which contains the local library, adult education centre and youth centre – and a door to the supermarket next door
Perhaps a clue to the Finnish enthusiasm for libraries comes from the fact that they offer far more than books. While many libraries worldwide provide internet access and other services, libraries in cities and towns across Finland have expanded their brief to include lending e-publications, sports equipment, power tools and other “items of occasional use”. One library in Vantaa even offers karaoke.

These spaces are not designed to be dusty temples to literacy. They are vibrant, well-thought-out spaces actively trying to engage the urban communities who use them. The library in Maunula, a northern Helsinki suburb, has a doorway that leads directly to a supermarket – a striking and functional decision which, along with its adult education centre and youth services section, was partly down to the fact that it was designed with input from locals.

Local favourite … Töölö library, Helsinki, in 1970
Oodi, however, will go even further: in addition to its core function as a library, it will boast a cafe, restaurant, public balcony, cinema, audiovisual recording studios and a makerspace with 3D printers. A sauna was apparently considered but seems not to have made the final cut.

This diversity is key, argues Razmyar. “Libraries must reach out to the new generations. The world is changing – so libraries are changing too. People need places to meet, to work, to develop their digital skills.”

Tampere’s Main Library, Metso, opened in 1986. Its shape was influenced by Celtic ornaments, sheep horns and glacial spin formations.
Moreover, as key urban buildings, libraries are designed to inspire ownership. “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.”

The site and design of Helsinki’s new library are certainly striking, but perhaps the most impressive thing about it is the lack of public opposition to such a costly project. “People are looking forward to Oodi. It’s not been contentious: people are excited about it across the board,” says Archinfo director Harris. “It will be important to daily life here in Helsinki.”

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