Apr 2021
Peter Hefti

Libraries are evolving in both appearance and content. From the architecture and layout through to the new services and technologies on offer, these time-honoured temples of knowledge are becoming frontiers of contemporary living. A prime example is Oodi, Helsinki’s Central Library – an ode to the user experience.

Long live public libraries. Contrary to predictions, the internet has not made these centres of knowledge obsolete, and this is thanks in part to millennials. According to several international research projects, this generation is by far the most assiduous user of these temples of knowledge. These young people don’t only go to libraries to borrow books, but also to meet up in shared spaces and partake in various activities, from relaxing and socialising to playing games and learning new skills. And public libraries are typically free of charge, so they have little impact on young people’s limited budgets. This is why the best managed libraries have adopted new strategies to appeal to this generation.

Historically speaking, libraries have always been important cultural centres, but over the past few years they have shifted from a narrow focus on offering collections of books, to evolving into spaces where people congregate for a variety of reasons. Activities appeal to members of the public regardless of age, and range from supporting parents with child-friendly services to providing adult courses such as cookery, languages, art, dance, personal finance or even repair workshops. The first step in this evolution was providing internet facilities, followed by communal spaces for a wide array of activities, complete with software and hardware equipment such as 3D printers and laser cutters, sewing machines and photography studios.

Today, libraries are light, airy and welcoming – far from the stuffy, austere places of the past.

Oodi Central Library Helsinki (2019), ALA Architects
Oodi Central Library Helsinki (2019), ALA Architects

The challenge for new libraries is to switch from a purely scientific approach, in terms of preserving and disseminating culture, to trying to interpret what potential users really want, as well as providing facilities and services linked to their original mission.

One of the finest examples is the Oodi, Helsinki’s Central Library, designed by Finnish practice ALA Architects. The library was inaugurated on 5 December 2018, on the eve of the 101st anniversary of Finland’s independence, and stands opposite the Finnish Parliament. Today it is a beacon for libraries looking to evolve in the digital age, to preserve and develop their cultural leadership.

The library’s manifesto declares: “Oodi provides its users with knowledge, new skills and stories, and it is an easy place to access for learning, reading, working and relaxing. It is the library of a new era, a living and functional meeting place, open to all.”

Defined as “the nation’s birthday present to its citizens”, Oodi was designed around functionality. The planning team consulted with Helsinki’s residents, gathering opinions and ideas at city meetings and events as well as suggestions online.

The spectacular building features three floors, with multiple areas performing specific functions, apparently contrasting with the mission of the traditional library. Each floor has its own character, based on the possibilities it offers, with room for both quiet and louder group activities.

Book Heaven (third floor) at Oodi Central Library
Book Heaven (third floor) at Oodi Central Library

Oodi is a library designed for the present as well as the future – an organisational model than can be followed and implemented across the world.

Essential provisions, such as the fast borrow and return service, are located on the ground floor. This floor also accommodates large events, with a multipurpose hall and the Kino Regina cinema, showing films and documentaries six days a week. The ground floor also features a bar and restaurant, and EU@Oodi, where visitors can find out more about the activities of the European Union.

The second floor is dedicated to learning and creating. The Urban Workshop provides a wide range of tools and facilities,
from a soldering station to a vinyl cutter and sticker printer. Studios for arts, crafts and music, gaming services, meeting rooms and co-working spaces are all geared to interactivity and connectivity. All these facilities, some of which are free of charge, can be used independently or with the support of the library’s specialised staff.

The third floor, known as Book Heaven, is for study and recreation. Here, more than 350 white Libreria CF bookcases, designed by Dante Bonuccelli and manufactured by UniFor, hold around 100,000 books. The modular bookcases were fabricated in various versions to suit the needs of the library. This floor also features comfortable reading spaces, the Citizens’ Balcony – a relaxation area that offers spectacular views over the city and beyond – and Children’s World, which provides board games, films and opportunities for storytelling and play.

Oodi is a library designed for the present as well as the future – an organisational model than can be followed and implemented across the world. After all, culture knows no borders.

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