Oodi – A Living Library

Oodi – A Living Library

The flagship library for a nation of booklovers, Helsinki Central Library, Oodi has set a new standard for public libraries around the world. With a mandate to promote lifelong learning, active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression, Oodi embraces technology and progressive values to provide a variety of innovative services alongside its lending collection of books.

Designed by Finnish architecture firm ALA Architects, following an anonymous international competition that attracted 544 entries, the completed Oodi is full of symbolism and national pride.

Located opposite the Finnish Parliament, the site was chosen to symbolise the relationship between Government and the populace: with their two houses facing one another across a civic square surrounded by institutions of the arts and culture including the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, the offices of the Helsingin Sanomat Newspaper and the Musiikktalo Concert Hall.

“Oodi is the figurehead of a public library service that exists to offer every citizen a free space with access to culture, freedom of expression and possibilities for self-realisation,” Anna-Maria Soininvaara, Head Librarian of Oodi said.

“Oodi sits in the heart of Helsinki, surrounded by the institutions of a modern liberal democracy – the national parliament, the free press, the arts and museums. Our hope is that this palace of ideas will bring people and institutions together and enable new interactions, experiences and understanding that will lead us to achievements that are greater than any of us could achieve on our own.”

The design and programme of Oodi embraces technology to create new opportunities for access to books and culture. Only one third of the space within the library is used to hold books - a relatively modest 100,000 volumes at any time - however thanks to online services and a team of book-sorting robots, users of the library will have access to nearly 3.4 million items at the click of a mouse, making Oodi the principal service point within a much larger, distributed library system. Oodi is supported by the already well-established HelMet online library catalogue and ordering system, which gives access the Helsinki Metropolitan Area’s full collection.

The shift in priorities away from storage of a large static collection of books meant that Oodi’s librarians and designers were able to reconsider the role of the library. By entering into an extensive programme of workshops and consultation with library users, they chose instead to explore new and more inclusive ways of creating access. The resulting library is an indoor extension of public space, a civic “living room” that offers facilities such as a movie theatre, recording studios and a maker space, access to public services, exhibitions and community events in addition to books.

Public Libraries in Finland have begun to explore a broad range of services in addition to the core activity of lending books. It is not unknown for Libraries to provide amenities that range from music rehearsal and recording facilities to community space. Oodi’s Maker Space, equipped with technologies such as 3D printers is a recent innovation that extends the tradition of lifelong learning by giving citizens the opportunity to access and experiment with new technologies that will shape design and manufacturing in the digital economy of the 21st century.

Libraries in Finland have also expanded into the sharing economy, offering users to borrow physical items, such as sports equipment, power tools, dinner services and other items of occasional use. Finland used its 2018 contribution to La Biennale di Venezia Architettura to stage Mind Building, an exhibition that tracked the design of Public Libraries in Finland from the years before independence to the present day.

The design of Oodi has been heavily influenced by consultation with users and experimentation in branch libraries around Helsinki. By asking users how they used the library, and what they hoped libraries would help them achieve in the future, Oodi’s planners were able to reprioritise space in the library, giving more space for events and participation.

The structure is built in three levels; an open ground floor; a floating box; and a space on top of the box. This followed the need for a welcoming, social space worthy of its location, a black box maker space with a matrix of rooms for multimedia activities and also, the traditional library with bookcases.

The team then worked with structural engineers to achieve a solution that would leave as much open column free space where it was needed. A 100m arched bridge of steel is the basis for the design. The two open-plan levels sit above and beneath the bridge, while the makers space occupies the bridge itself, and a double spiral staircase connects all three together. The overall shape is not primarily structural, it’s functional and sociological.

The traditional, serene library atmosphere can be found on the top floor. Nicknamed “book heaven”, this is a calm and contemplative area floating above the busy central Helsinki. From this level visitors can enjoy an unobstructed 360-degree panorama view of the city centre, or step out onto the terrace overlooking Kansalaistori square.

An enclosed in-between volume containing rooms to accommodate additional services and facilities within the library. This spatial concept has been realised by building the library as an inhabited bridge, with two massive steel arches that span over 100 meters to create a fully enclosed, column-free public entrance space, clusters of rooms grouped around the structure, and the open-plan reading room carried above.

Oodi has been built using local materials and with local climate conditions in mind. The timber façade is clad with 33-millimeter-thick Finnish spruce planks that conform to the sweeping curve that extends the building outwards to create a canopy above the Kansalaistori square, blending the interior and exterior spaces and creating shelter for public events in front of the library.

“From the very beginning we realised the only real natural resource we have is human capital,” says says Jan Vapaavuori, Mayor of Helsinki, “Oodi symbolises our way of putting people first.”

These passionate words were matched by reality and saw Oodi chosen as the winner of the 2019 Public Library of the Year award in the World Library and Information Congress of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).