Helsinki’s new Central Library The heart of a flourishing city

A new library will be opening up in Helsinki – right in the centre of the city. Influential bodies at the top of the executive branch in the City of Helsinki are actively working to complete the new library for the year 2017, Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence. A report concerning the Helsinki Central Library was published in March 2008: Central Library. The Heart of the Metropolis – the Heart of Helsinki.

Long live the library!

The report was the outcome of an inquiry commissioned by Mayor Jussi Pajunen in August 2007, and it stated the following:

“The aim of the review process is to further develop the project concept, with a view to creat-ing a locally, regionally, nationally and internationally attractive location where experiences, culture, learning and communication and the traditional library meet. The centenary year of Finnish independence in 2017 is the target completion date for the project as a whole.”

In his report, Mikko Leisti, head of the inquiry and CEO for Pluto Finland Oy, examined the role of libraries and their significance in Finnish society, both in the past and in the future, from the perspective of someone on the outside of the realm of the library field. The report reveals that libraries have played their own part in Finland’s rise to become a successful, civilized state and reminds us that, still today, the library fulfils many of the objectives set forth in national strategies and visions, such as fortifying expertise, preventing marginalization, developing cooperation, and increasing regional innovativeness and the vitality of city centres. Therefore, the significance of libraries will be just as vital in the future as well. The report also states that in Finland people love the library.

Leisti bases his views not only on various resources and research, but also on the interviews of more than 100 people. Those interviewed included political decision-makers and persons influential in the commercial and cultural sectors. In addition, Leisti refers to surveys conducted on the municipal level from 1996 to 2004 in which residents were by far the most satisfied (74 % or the respondents) with library services every year. To obtain an international perspective in the inquiry, Leisti visited the main library in Stockholm, Kulturhuset, Amsterdam’s new main library, the Rotterdam Library in the Netherlands, the Seattle Library in the United States, and Sendai Mediatheque in Japan.

The report does not provide detailed solutions about what the library of the future should be like; rather, it creates vignettes of the library and describes the significance of the library in people’s lives. It sends a clear message, though: The library’s position as a multimedia hub for knowledge, skills and stories, where there is always something going on, will be strengthened. It is also gratifying to see that those not involved in the library field view the library as an interesting institution, which is constantly developing new things, and as a place where a number of different activities can take place.

A joint venture

Leisti suggests that the total area of the building be 25,000 m2: 5,000 m2 for commercial purposes, 8,000 m2 for places where people can meet and socialize, and 12,000 m2 solely for the library’s purposes. The relatively small proportion of space allocated for library purposes is due to the fact that the libraries on Rikhardinkatu, in Kallio and Töölö will continue serving patrons and therefore there is no need for a large library facility.

The City of Helsinki will be carrying out the project together with other bodies and investors, which poses a challenge to the implementation of the project. The aim is to divide the costs between the City of Helsinki, the government, other municipalities in the Greater Helsinki area, and commercial investors. Naturally this means that those committed to the partnership must also participate in the planning of activities in a later phase. The basic concept must be so enticing that different bodies will want to participate.

Three alternatives for the location of the library in Helsinki’s city centre are described in the report. The alternatives in question were introduced earlier during the planning phase of the project, and they are as follows:

Töölönlahti, which is under construction and where the city has a zoned lot. However, the suggested size of the library would require two lots, and this would require negotiations with the owner of the neighbouring lot, the government. It is the only place of those suggested where a completely new building would be possible.

The former main building of the Post Office, which is now privately owned. The building still houses postal activities (currently Itella), such as the Helsinki 10 Post Office. It is a landmark building in Helsinki’s city centre, and it is something with which everyone is familiar. Library 10, which is affiliated with the city library and specializes in music and IT, operates in one wing of the building. The wing has a little less than 1,000 m_ of space. Regulations protecting the building set limitations on using it for new purposes.

The Lasipalatsi area, which comprises a barracks building dating back to the 19th century, the functionalist Lasipalatsi building and the square between these two buildings. This location would require underground construction, and the square would need to be covered at least partially.

Meetingpoint AT lasipalatsi is an information service point for electronic services, which falls under the administration of the Helsinki City Library and which operates in Lasipalatsi. The service point works in cooperation with many different bodies including enterprises.

At this point, a team of officials, nominated by the Mayor of Helsinki as early as December 2006, is seeing to it that the project progresses. Deputy Mayor Tuula Haatainen, who is responsible for the Municipal Educational Administration, is the chairperson for the team. The members of the team are officials who represent the various aspects of the library field, construction and financing in the city’s organisation. Currently, the team is concentrating specifically on determining the guidelines for construction and financing as well as the nature of the activities to take place in the library. The objective is to advance to the negotiation phase, the purpose of which is to seek out partners, decide upon the location and prepare competition among architects, by the beginning of 2009.

A library for people, not storage

The need for a library in the centre of the city and the type of library it would be have been discussed in the city library even before Mikko Leisti’s report was published. Discussions have centred around the development of the city centre, the structure of Helsinki’s library network, the lack of space in Pasila’s main library and other large libraries, as well as the changes that have taken place in the library field and the impact they have had on both services and facilities.

In December 2006, the Cultural and Library Committee of Helsinki approved a needs analysis for a library in the city centre in which such a library was characterized as follows.

The Central Library is:
• A cultural meeting point, both physical and virtual
• The city’s public face, a place where interactive democracy takes place and the city can present the various sections of its activities
• A place where city-dwellers can spend their free time, feel at home, and meet others
• A place for the entire family right in the centre of town.

The primary messages in the needs analysis concerning the new library include: The Central Library will not be a new main library, nor will it be a place to store books. It will not be a main library in the sense that the administration and other supportive services for the entire library network, such as acquisitions, cataloguing, IT unit, bookmobiles and the logistics centre would be transferred there. Rather, the so-called supportive services will remain in the Pasila library, which is located outside the city centre, because the library has the appropriate facilities for them and there is no reason to transfer the administrative activities to expensive facilities in the centre.

Moreover, the book storage for old books from Pasila will not be transferred to the new facilities. A current, vivid collection of approximately 200,000 items will be created in the Central Library, which will comprise books and other materials in use at the time the library is completed. Thus, we are not striving to build a book tower like the one in Seattle, where there are a million books; rather, space will be reserved for the activities of the patrons because, more and more, the library has become a place where people meet and work. The estimated number of visitors per day is 5,000, which may prove to be too modest, as we are aware of the number of patrons that visit libraries in large cities.

Alternatively, the Central Library will house the existing units of Library 10 and Lasipalatsi’s Meetingpoint. Part of the main library’s current collection will also be transferred there and, most significantly, a multilingual collection, which will comprise works in approximately one hundred languages. In this way, the collection will be more easily accessible. The new facilities also offer the opportunity to bring forth both the collection and the cultures of the various language regions in a fresh, new way.

The Central Library will also house the Sanataiteen talo (house of verbal art). An important perspective with regard to Finnish cultural life, literature, is lacking in the city centre, an environment where there are numerous art museums, historical museums, music institutes, cinemas and an abundance of commercial services. One of the more crucial tasks of the Central Library is to make literature, with special emphasis on fiction, an omnipresent, vivid part of people’s lives.

There are also activities being planned, which have not been possible to offer due to the lack of space in the existing libraries (the largest library as regards public space is the Pasila library, which has a mere 3,500 m2 of space). As a new service, the Central Library would like to offer a ‘family library’, the spirit and prototype of which is Kulturhuset’s Room for Children (Rum för Barn) in Stockholm. Further developing the concept of the Room for Children, for example by creating various fun learning environments, we will be able to offer a type of paradise to families in the city centre, which is otherwise such a commercial place.

Another target group, which has not received as much attention, is that of young people. Although they are welcome to use all of the library’s services abiding by common rules, a separate area for them is needed where they can participate making both services and rules.

Upcoming challenges in planning So far, the needs analysis of the Cultural and Library Committee of Helsinki has been sufficient. However, more detailed planning of the facilities in the form of spatial planning is required for the project to gradually take shape and enter the architect competition phase.

The new phase is a great challenge and an opportunity not only for the Helsinki City Library but for all Finnish libraries.

Finland is full of beautiful libraries, but often they have been built decades ago. Therefore, we are all faced with the same question:What types of facilities and activities should we offer to keep patrons interested in the library for years to come. Competition with others is also becoming fiercer constantly, as banks, for example, advertise their new facilities as combined living room, café, reading room and events. Libraries must find an answer to this ‘invitation to combat’.

The best way to plan the future is to set to work, because everything that we can do differently today will serve our purpose tomorrow. For this reason, long-term planning for the future should be concrete, innovative, interactive and committed, and it should progress through several different projects.We are building a grand library but taking small steps to do it to ensure that as many as possible are able to participate in the planning and benefit from that planning in their own library and its activities. Involving various bodies in the project means new, unidentified partners. However, the most important issue in planning the Central Library is hearing the voices of the patrons and creating services that the residents of Helsinki and people visiting Helsinki need.

We must seek ideas for planning from near and far. They can be found in existing libraries, the newest and closest of which is the new main library in Turku. Also, contacts with cities that are currently planning new libraries are just as important and beneficial. Birmingham, Oslo, Stockholm and Århus, we are on our way!

Maija Berndtson
Library Director
Helsinki City Library

maija.berndtson AT

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Library Director in Helsinki, 1987-2013