The borrowers: why Finland’s cities are havens for library lovers


Helsinkis state-of-the-art Oodi library will stand opposite parliament and boast a cinema, recording studio and makerspace. Its a perfect fit for a literate nation taking public learning to the next level

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 citys 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 countrys UK ambassador Pivi Luostarinen recently, and its hard to argue with her. In 2016 the UN named Finland the worlds most literate nation, and Finns are among the worlds most enthusiastic users of public libraries the countrys 5.5m million people borrow close to 68m books a year.


  • Revolutionising the library artists impressions of the design for Oodi, including (clockwise): the exterior, the top floor childrens area and the recording studio



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 years Venice architecture biennale, is a love letter to the nations literary landmarks.


  • Helsinkis 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 Sundstrm Helsinki City Museum

Its also not hard to see why Finlands city libraries are so heavily used: 84% of the countrys 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 Oodis 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 flneur, explains Nousjoki.




  • A country of readers clockwise: Lohja main library, which was completed in 2005; Vallila library, Helsinki; Aalto University library in Espoo

Oodi Ode in English is more than a sober monument to civic pride. Commissioned as part of Finlands 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 Finlands 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. Theres strong belief in education for all, says Hanna Harris, director of Archinfo Finland and Mind-buildings 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 Hard af Segerstad, Helsinki City Architect, in 1909.

Those feelings of pride in the equality of opportunity offered by the citys 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. Its remarkable that when standing on the open balcony of the library people are looking straight into the parliament and standing on the same level.

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But Oodi isnt the only Helsinki library to cause excitement. Tl library is one of my favourites, says Harris. Its 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.

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