Libraries are not spaces generally associated with the latest technology in the world. In many ways they are becoming a symbol of the past as well the walls of books providing a link to it. With the rise of digital content and other technology-driven patterns of consuming information, libraries, once community hubs as well as providing public access to books and other written word formats such as newspaper archives, are becoming a dying in the UK.
With local authorities pressed for cash, local libraries have often fallen victim to cuts – a public resource no longer considered a ‘must have’. 478 community libraries have been closed across the UK since the beginning of the present decade.
Not so in Finland, despite the Scandinavian country’s international renown as one of the most technologically advanced in the world. By 2021 86% of Finland’s population is predicted to own a smart phone. It has one of the fastest broadband networks in the world and has produced a string of technology companies that have succeeded on the international stage despite hosting a population only fractionally larger than that of Scotland – Nokia, Supercell and a phalanx of major software companies.
Despite its status as one of the most hi-tech states in the world, Finland still holds the library as a vital element of its social fabric. So much so that to mark the centenary of the country’s liberation from Russian control at the end of the First World War, Helsinki will open a new state-of-the-art public library, at a cost of almost €100 million (€98 million is the exact figure).
But Helsinki’s newly refurbished and kitted out Oodi (Finnish for Ode) library, scheduled to open next month, will not be a traditional library. It will host Helsinki’s historical archive of books, with Finland’s 5.5 million population still borrowing a massive 68 million books a year. But the new library will also contain a cinema fitted out with the latest audio and visual technology in the world, a recording studio and a ‘makerspace’ fitted with 3D printers and other technology available to the public and designed to promote innovation and creativity. Digitalised content, both audio and written, will also be offered to the library’s users. Helping to develop digital skills is a cornerstone of the philosophy behind Oodi.
Finland’s library culture also doesn’t adhere to the silent, stuffy image we often have in the UK. They are community spaces and Oodi has been described by Antti Nousjoki, one of its architects, as ‘an indoor town square’. For Finns, libraries represent the significance of egalitarian learning and education – considered the foundation of the country’s success. That means in the modern world a library must combine traditional books with the latest technology.
Of course, Finland’s libraries come at a cost. The country spends £50.50 per head of population providing its inspirational public library facilities, compared to £14.40 in the UK. But with almost 100% public and government backing for Helsinki’s new €100 million flagship facility, it would seem it’s a price the country is more than happy to pay.