Fin­nish ‘ode’ to a new era of li­braries

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Sam Kings­ley

WH AT do you give the world’s most lit­er­ate coun­try for its 100th birthday? For Fin­land’s politi­cians and pub­lic, the answer was simple – a vast, state-of-the-art li­brary, a new “liv­ing room for the na­tion”.

Twenty years in the plan­ning, Helsinki’s cen­tral li­brary of­fi­cially opens on De­cem­ber 5 at the end of a year of fes­tiv­i­ties mark­ing the cen­te­nary of Fin­land’s in­de­pen­dence af­ter break­ing with Rus­sia in 1917 fol­low­ing six cen­turies un­der Swedish rule.

It is a huge, flow­ing struc­ture of wood and glass sit­ting on a prime spot in the city cen­tre, di­rectly op­po­site the Fin­nish par­lia­ment.

But whereas the par­lia­ment build­ing is an aus­tere and im­pos­ing hunk of gran­ite, the new li­brar y was de­signed by Fin­nish firm ALA Ar­chi­tects as a wel­com­ing, un­du­lat­ing struc­ture, clad in 160km worth of Fin­nish spruce, draw­ing peo­ple in­side with a “warm hug”.

Named Oodi – “ode” in Fin­nish – it is in­tended as a paean to knowl­edge, learn­ing and equal­ity in what was ranked the world’s most lit­er­ate coun­try by a 2016 re­port based on of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics.

As the grand open­ing ap­proaches, work­ers are fran­ti­cally try­ing to fin­ish the out­side of the build­ing. In­stalling the flow­ing wood pan­elling has proven harder than ex­pected in Helsinki’s freez­ing cli­mate.

The in­te­rior, how­ever, is largely ready.

While books will fea­ture heav­ily – 100,000 of them – the cut­ting-edge fa­cil­ity also boasts stu­dios for mu­sic and video pro­duc­tion, a cin­ema, and work­shops con­tain­ing 3D print­ers and laser cut­ters, all free of charge for the pub­lic.

It will also house an EU-funded vis­i­tor cen­tre, of­fer­ing in­for­ma­tion on the 28-mem­ber bloc’s work and its im­pact on peo­ple’s daily lives.

“Oodi gives a new mod­ern idea of what it means to be a li­brary,” said Tommi Laitio, Helsinki’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of cul­ture and leisure.

“It is a house of lit­er­a­ture but it’s also a house of tech­nol­ogy. It’s a house of mu­sic. It’s a house of cin­ema. It’s a house of the Euro­pean Union.

“And I think all of these come to­gether to this idea of hope and progress,” Laitio said.

Ro­bot li­brar­i­ans

One sign of such progress is the build­ing’s fleet of book-carr ying ro­bots – small grey wag­ons which nav­i­gate them­selves in and out of lifts, avoid­ing peo­ple and fur­ni­ture, in or­der to bring re­turned books up from the base­ment and drop them off at the cor­rect book­case.

There, a hu­man mem­ber of staff will place the books on the shelf.

Oodi’s plan­ners be­lieve the ro­bot li­brar­i­ans are the first in­stance in the world of self-driving tech­nol­ogy be­ing used in this way in­side a pub­lic li­brary.

The ro­bots will be­come a fa­mil­iar sight to the li­brary’s ex­pected 10,000 vis­i­tors a day.

Oodi will have ar­eas walled off for quiet study­ing, but for ev­ery­where else, there will not be a “si­lence” rule in force, as is com­mon in li­braries.

In fact, mak­ing a mess and noise a re posit ively en­cou raged i nside t he “nerd lof t” – a place to in­spire peo­ple of a ll ages to come to­get her and cre­ate.

Users can build things in work­shops equipped with cut­ting-edge tools, bor­row mu­si­cal in­stru­ments or play games con­soles.

“We a re prepa red to con­sta nt ly have dis­cus­sions with the users and t he sta f f about what be­hav iour is wel­come in the li­brar y, but it’s def­i­nitely a place of noise and all sorts of i mprov ised act iv it ies,” sa id Kat r i Vant­ti­nen, Helsinki’s head of li­brar y ser vices.

She is par­tic­u­larly proud of the li­brary’s de­ci­sion not to sep­a­rate the chil­dren’s sec­tion from the adult books.

All are housed on the li­brary’s pan- oramic top floor – a sweep­ing 50-me­tre long space, with glass walls on all sides sup­port­ing a bil­low­ing, cloud­like roof.

Si­lence is not golden

“We think that the noise the chil­dren bring into this floor is pos­i­tive noise, we hear the fu­ture, and we en­joy that we have chil­dren’s and adult lit­er­a­ture on the same floor with no walls in be­tween,” Vant­ti­nen said. “Acous­tics have been planned re­ally well, so even if peo­ple are shout­ing at one end you can hardly hear them at the other end,” she added.

Although many coun­tries have been cut­ting back on li­brary ser­vices, Laitio said there were no prob­lems win­ning po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic back­ing for the € 98 mil­lion ($110 mil­lion) pro­ject, thanks to the value that many Finns place on li­braries.

Some 68 mil­lion books a year are bor­rowed by the coun­try’s 5.5 mil­lion peo­ple, named the hap­pi­est in the world by the UN ear­lier this year.

“Li­braries in Helsinki are the sec­ond high­est-rated pub­lic ser­vice af­ter drink­ing wa­ter,” Laitio said.

“So li­braries are re­ally loved in Fin­land. And if I look at this pro­ject, a € 100 mil­lion in­vest­ment, I hear zero to min­i­mal protest. Ac­tu­ally peo­ple are re­ally joy­ful and proud.”


A room of Cen­tral Li­brary Oodi. The li­brary opens its doors to the pub­lic on De­cem­ber 5, a day be­fore Fin­land’s 101st birthday.

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