Finland just celebrated its Centenary with an amazing and very useful gift to itself: a state-of-the-art library called Oodi — Finnish for “ode.”

Image credits: Tuomas Uushei.

All countries like to sing odes to themselves — but they do it in different ways. Finland, arguably the most literate and educated country in the world, chose to do it with a new “living room for the nation”, as they call.

Helsinki’s new central library just opened, after being in planning for about two decades. It celebrates the centenary of Finland’s independence after breaking free from Russia in 1917. The huge building consists of mostly wood and glass and sits in a prime, central location, right in front of the Finnish Parliament.

Image credits: ALA Architects.

While the emphasis is, as always, on books, having a nice place to read in also helps. In addition to its minimalist and very pleasant design, the facility also features studios for music and video production, a cinema, and workshops containing 3D printers and laser cutters, all free of charge for the public.

“Finland is a country of readers,” declared the country’s UK ambassador Päivi Luostarinen recently, and it’s hard to disagree with him. At a time where most libraries in the world are struggling with funding and readership, Finland’s trends stand in stark opposition. They are well-used, accessible, and more often than not — quite resourceful. With the addition of Oodi, there are now 730 public libraries in Finland, a country of 5.5 million people.

Image credits: ALA Architects.

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The library is also dedicated to a sustainable and egalitarian future — everyone can borrow books from a library, making the institution a great equalizer. These values, while constantly attacked in countries like the US and UK, are harbored in Finland, and brilliantly exhibited at Oodi.

As a child, Nasima Razmyar, the daughter of a former Afghan diplomat and the current deputy mayor of Helsinki, struggled to make sense of what seemed to be a very strange city. But she was surprised to see that even as a child, she was entitled to a card that would offer her access to books, for free.

“A library card was the first thing that was mine, that I had ever owned,” she says. “I think Finland could not have given a better gift to the people. It symbolizes the significance of learning and education, which have been fundamental factors for Finland’s development and success.”

The library will also feature several innovations, indicating that libraries are most certainly not a thing of the past — they can still play a vital role in a society’s future.

Image credits: Tuomas Uusheimo.

For instance, the building will feature a fleet of book-carrying robots — not humanoid robots, but rather grey wagons that will travel in and out of lifts, avoiding people and furniture, bringing the returned books to the correct bookcase, where a human member of staff will place them back on the shelf. It’s a similar technology to what’s currently being trialed in self-driving cars.

Oodi will also have quiet areas for studying, but all other rooms will not have a “silence” rule, as is common in most libraries. The library will also have a dedicated area (a “nerd loft”) where people of all ages can get together and create different projects — and in that area, creating noise and (creative) mess will be encouraged. Of course, users will also able to use the library workshops, which feature state-of-the-art equipment, as well as borrow musical instruments or even play console games.

“We are prepared to constantly have discussions with the users and the staff about what behaviour is welcome in the library, but it’s definitely a place of noise and all sorts of improvised activities,” Helsinki’s head of library services, Ms Katri Vanttinen, said.

Image credits: Tuomas Uusheimo.

Vanttinen is also proud of the decision to keep children and adult books together. However, the architects were also careful to design the rooms in such a way that they are never overcrowded or too noisy.

“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,” Ms. 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.

Credits: ALA Architects.

In addition to boasting one of the best educational systems in the world and a thriving economy, Finland was also named the happiest in the world by the United Nations, just earlier this year. Perhaps there’s something to learn from them.

“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,” Razmyar concludes.