Historic Helsinki

Finland may be known for avant-garde architecture, but they also appreciate beauty from the past.  Despite the modern constructions and sculptures in the lovely parks, magnificent neoclassical edifices dominate the tree shrouded boulevards and squares, and an open air museum presents folk dwellings.

I reached a prime example of this preservationist attitude after a quick stroll along a shady, traffic free subterranean walkway.

Rikhardinkatu Bibliothek


Rikhardinkadun kirjasto (RK), part of Helsingin kaupunginkirjasto (Helsinki City Library or HCL) is, with the possible exception of Denmark, the oldest public library in any Nordic country.  Finished in 1881 and opened in 1882, the monies to build it and the land were donated by Helsinki License Company.  By the 1920’s, it was already overcrowded, so a level was added.  After several other changes over the years, the original design was unrecognizable, but a historical renovation in the eighties brought it back to its splendid initial style.

Eyecatching pattern

Eye catching pattern

In the lobby, board games and an urn of water (welcome on this warm morning) share the self check island beneath striking modern artwork.  As I enter, helpful Topi greets me from the circulation desk.

Friendly Topi on the front lines

Topi at the front lines

RK specializes in art literature and the basement has an Artotek where people pay a monthly fee to rent or own the paintings, along with a storytelling room.  The branch houses the British Collection and Swedish publications and has wifi and 19 computers for the public.

They allow a whopping 100 loans, 50 holds, and five renewals.  Things that are in great demand go out for two weeks while other stuff gets four.  Since there are “3.4 million… – The books do not run out” 😉  At some locations, users pick up their own holds and this convenience should be at RK soon.

Snowy by the picture books

Snowy and the kiddy lit

In the noisy (as it should be) youth area, all racks are on wheels and intriguing benches, barstools and beanbags provide seating.  Wood puzzles top toddler tables and plush animals spill out of wicker baskets.  A miniature trunk full of football related paperbacks is sure to please, as is a cabinet holding a few of Miss Longstocking’s adventures propped above a doll size version of ramshackle Villavillekula, replete with models of Tommy, Annika, Pippi, and the full grown horse she likes to carry around.

Corner in Children's

Corner in Children’s

Adolescents attend puppet theater, Spanish and Italian story hours, Harry Potter Day, Anime Sundays and summer reading bingo or go see choirs, concerts and bands for all ages.  Multicultural and tambourine are just two of the clubs and groups practice Finnish, Swedish, Russian and English.  Adults can hear panel discussions or learn Italian cooking.  Girls become skilled street dancers and Polish families have playtimes.

At every turn the decor delights.  Soft illumination bars hover atop pretty polished stacks.  In a rounded section, a curved case hugs the wall and fascinating elongated wooden figures of reading women perch on shelves.

Main level

Stunning surroundings

HCL has home delivery, 37 locations, plus ten premises in hospitals.  Moomin, ubiquitous indigenous literary characters beloved by citizens, prance around the second bookmobile which is (as they say, tongue planted firmly in cheek) ” …presumably the only Moomin illustrated mobile library in the world.”  The vehicle, named Skidi, is for the younger set and has schools on its route.  The first one, Stara has older users, but both got to neighborhoods without facilities.

Three Makerspaces locales have tools to check out and machines for crafters and hobbyists.  Use instruments and record in the music studios and if you want, add it to the collection.  At the Urban Workshop you can create buttons, badges and magnets or physical objects from models on the 3D printer and scanner.  Access the graphic, video and media workstations, shoot for up to a fortnight with their digital camera or use the format converter.  A laptop doctor will solve any software or hardware problems free of charge and someone will assist you with the more exotic technology.

Fin de siècle grandeur

Fin de siècle opulence

The website is HelMet (Helsinki Metropolitan Area Libraries) and covers the public institutions of Helsinki, and the suburbs of Espoo, Kauniainen, and Vantaa.  This cooperative awards a yearly literature prize to a native author.  It’s a little confusing as it’s a different entity than HCL alone, but it shows they really know how to collaborate and maximize the potential for their funding.

Online, patrons can download ebooks, emags, eaudiobooks, evideos and emusic, study the local lingo and five other languages, or search a variety of databases.

Pretty paintings

Pretty paintings

Ceilings get lower as I go higher.  I found cool dark spaces tinted with shades of maroon.  Cushions on window sills supply charming places to lounge and lookout over the roofs of Helsinki.  In a large chamber, an iron spindle offers long poles for newspapers and magazines are neatly tucked behind slats on glowing caramel fixtures.

Illuminated objects

Illuminated objects

Glass displays feature sketch pads from the eighties, fanciful paper cuttings and artists’ books.

The music department has pictures advertising Charlie Parker sessions and a Tiffany lamp close to an antique radio.  Nearby, I spied an old card catalog near a quill and inkwell.

On a table, gloves let you review Russian Olympic posters without damaging them.

Elegant ascent

Elegant ascent

Up the gorgeous black and white spiral staircase I count four balcony levels…

Fine fenestrations

Fine fenestrations

…and pass more marvelous areas seemingly preserved from yesteryear.  Vivid ruched drapes cover tall arched panes framed with colorful molding.

For students, Rikhardinkatu has a quiet reading hall and study enclosure.  The meeting room has fixed IT equipment, fits around 30 and is free for cultural or nonprofit organizations while businesses are charged a small fee.  There’s a book exchange and exhibition space.  Brochures come in multiple tongues and they lend video games.

Sunny serenity

Sunny serenity

Innovation is clearly the watchword for the system.  This May, they set up service in a metro car.  Kysy.fi, the “Ask” portal, publishes questions which are answered by logged in residents as well as reference.  You can practice piano or stitch on the sewing machine.  Other branches have group work rooms for professionals, stages and in one, customers relax ensconced in EnergyPods outfitted with headphones.

But perhaps the biggest innovation has not yet been realized.  The municipality approved a new central facility in January.  By 2017, according to the conceptual slideshow, it will be enormous, spacious, airy and bright, situated on its own campus overlooking a magnificent fountain and other construction wonders.  With indoor trees, huge super high tech screens and the best extreme Finnish design, it’s definitely an institution for the space age.

To stay cutting edge, HCL wisely keeps its ear tuned to advances in the field worldwide and hosts several hundred foreigners per year.  Staffers participate in exchange programs, join associations, travel as visiting lecturers, and take study tours.

Friendly Ulla

Upbeat Ulla

I encountered informative Ulla, a reference librarian with a bachelors in sociology and political science who got a certificate for libraries after two years of study.  She said that surprisingly, HCL is arranged via their own Helsinki Classification, which is based on Dewey.  The city controls the budget and five hundred employees work to make the lives of the 600,000 inhabitants better.

Pleasant surprises everywhere

Looking down on it all

On the top floor, a breeze floats in through open double windows, the atrium lets in sunbeams and scattered plants produce a light and airy feel.  A ledge along the gallery rim has suggestions on top of cubbies holding more titles.  It’s such a graceful structure – thank goodness it was restored to its natural state.

Finns value their libraries highly and it’s always been a popular outing.  After touring the kirjasto it’s easy to see why.  About the only thing missing is one of the ever-present saunas.

Harbor - Helsingin Tuomiokirkk is the white domed building on the right and Uspenskin Katedraali is by the ferris wheel on the left

The harbor from Helsingin Tuomiokirkk to Uspenskin Katedraali

What an awesome addition to the community here in handsome Helsinki.

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2 Responses to Historic Helsinki

  1. Patricia Hassan says:

    Just look what a high priority the Finns place on libraries – reflected by their investment! Trees in a building, and with the poor natural light for part of the year, that also means ensuring that the trees prosper – all to enhance a library building for residents’ enjoyment. I’m impressed.

    • jshaffner says:

      Yes Pat, I was very impressed with the Scandinavian libraries, especially their children’s services. But I still haven’t found any that beat all the adult services at our great ones in CO and KS (though they really go all out for kids-next month, my post on the Stockholm one can’t do justice to the amazing setup for tiny ones)!

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