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Monday, July 15, 2024

Oodi, the incredible library in Helsinki that reflects the democracy and free society of Finland

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Imagine having two dresses to iron and some family photos to print. It may seem strange to many to choose a public library to do both for free. But in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, it is a reality.

The Helsinki Central Library Oodi, affectionately known as Oodi, is a non-commercial urban public space that offers much more than books and quiet reading areas. Located on Töölönlahdenkatu in the heart of the city, Oodi is a hub of various activities, both loud and quiet, with many facilities and machines available for public use free of charge.

Adeyemi Adesomoju at the Oodi Citizens’ Balcony, supporting the Finnish Parliament, Helsinki

Its 100-meter-long bridge-like structure constructed of steel and glass is adorned with a captivating wooden façade. The wooden perspective pays homage to Finland’s vast forests that cover more than 70 percent of the Nordic country’s land area. No wonder Oodi is a “seductive calling card of Finnish architecture.”

Oodi outdoor area, photograph by Kuvio (Helsinki Central Library Oodi website)

During a day-long tour of Helsinki organized by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I, together with eight journalists from several African countries and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), witnessed various activities on Tuesday, May 21, They took place in the three countries of Oodi. floors. It was an exciting moment for all of us from Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates during the visit.

A trip through Oodi

The journey through Oodi begins on its lively first floor, where a cinema and multi-purpose room bustle with activity. Also on this floor, users return borrowed objects, including books and balls used on the various sports courts on the premises.

The second floor is a space dedicated to creativity and skill learning. Workshop rooms, studios and games rooms are open to people of all ages on this floor and offer access to a variety of tools and technology. This is where you’ll find an iron on an ironing board, sewing machines, various types of printers (including 3D, vinyl, and UV printers), and other creative tools. Most of them were in use during our visit. The machines are offered free of charge, but you have to pay for the materials used. There is also a canopy where we found young and old people sitting on the ground while using their laptops. You can also charge your phone here.

Library users under the canopy of the second floor of Oodi

On the third floor you will find a traditional library appearance. In addition to the shelves, it has a children’s section. The apartment is also designed as a space for relaxation and rest. Under its undulating roof, visitors can enjoy a coffee and admire the view from the Citizen’s Balcony.

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The fascinating spiral staircase of the library displays a work of art that names a wide spectrum of every imaginable identity of people to whom Oodi is dedicated. Identities cover people of various nationalities, political and economic ideologies, religions, social and economic status, and various categories of human beings that you can imagine.

From left to right: Anu Lehtinen (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland), Darlington Mwendabai (Zambia Daily Mail, Zambia), Hanna-Leena Halsas (Helsinki city guide), Adeyemi Adesomoju (Premium Times, Nigeria) and Adnan Nijim (Alkhaleej Newspaper, UAE) on the third floor of Oodi.

The words written in Finnish were collected through a public campaign.

There you will find words like “syyllisille”, which generally means “to the guilty”; “alisuorittajille”, which means “for underachievers”; “tuleville” – “to the future”; “ujoille” – “to the timid”; “vasemmistolaisille” – “to the leftists”; “autajille” – “to the helpers kuoleille” – “to the dead”; “suomalaisille” – “to the Finns”; “rohkeille” – “to the brave”; “haihattelijoille” – “those who hate”, and many more.

The view is a reminder “that the library truly belongs to everyone, regardless of people’s background, age, wealth or any other factor,” says the website dedicated to Oodi. “The library aims to ensure that basic human rights, such as the right to access information and freedom of expression, apply equally to all.”

Hanna-Leena Halsas, our guide, emphasized Oodi’s commitment to inclusivity. “It’s a place for everyone,” she said, encouraging visitors to take advantage of the space for her various endeavors.

A beacon of democracy, freedom and inclusion

Oodi stands proud in front of the Finnish Parliament and serves as a symbol of democracy and civic engagement. It is testament to Finland’s long history of using political powers to build a free society, prioritizing well-being, equality and lifelong learning for its 5.6 million inhabitants.

Its location close to the Finnish parliament, Finland’s largest independent newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, the Helsinki Music Center, the Hall Finland, the Sanoma House and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art underlines its importance. From there you can see the 1952 Olympic Games Tower in the distance.

Halsas, who described the place as prestigious, added that it was “a square of political power, freedom of press and expression, art and continuous learning.”

Managed by the City of Helsinki and funded by taxpayers, Oodi plays a crucial role in supporting citizens’ democratic rights.

“We always talk about the parliamentary system and democracy in Finland. Here (Oodi), you can print your rally posters, then cross to the street and stand on the steps of parliament with your rally posters,” Ms Halsas said.

Library users under the canopy of the second floor of Oodi

This highlights a country like Nigeria, where police prevented the use of the Unity Fountain in Abuja, the capital, for protests during former President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration in 2018. The government subsequently erected a fence around the area, permanently closing against protesters.

No wonder the annual Freedom in the World report has ranked Finland as the freest nation in the world for many consecutive years. Finland scored top marks for political rights and civil liberties in the 2024 report. In comparison, Nigeria is classified as partially free with significantly lower scores.

Our guide told us that the Oodi Citizens’ Balcony was deliberately placed at the same height as the parliament building, to serve as a reminder to the political class of their responsibility to the people.

Interestingly, the name Oodi, a Finnish word that translates as ode, a song written to praise a person, in English, was suggested by a Helsinki resident inspired by the artistic and cultural environment of his location.

Adeyemi Adesomoju, on the third floor of Oodi, backs the ceramic-splashed glass wall to reduce the impact of sunlight on the books inside.

Likewise, the design of the library was largely based on ideas, advice and dreams gathered at urban events and workshops, as well as through websites and various campaigns. All of this was to ensure that the library met the wants and needs of library users.

gift to people

Completed in 2017, Oodi was a gift to Helsinki residents to commemorate 100 years of Finnish independence gained in 1917.

Although it is one of 38 branches of the Helsinki City Library, Oodi is Finland’s flagship library that helps implement the nation’s core values: education, equality and social cohesion.

Oodi, like other libraries spread throughout Finnish communities, is a product of the Public Library Act, first enacted in 1928 to protect the continuity and quality of library services.

The law requires communities to provide free library services to everyone. You do not need to be a citizen to obtain a library card and access the full range of Oodi services. All you need is an address in Finland.

READ ALSO: TRAVEL DIARY: A look at Finland’s fantastic bunkers designed to save citizens from air raids

Conveniently located near a train station, Oodi is open to serve more than 670,000 residents from morning to late night, seven days a week.

Society united by trust

The trust that permeates all of Finnish society is palpable in Oodi.

Most of its machines and facilities are self-managed by users without supervision, except for those that require technical assistance. Everyone is trusted to use all resources wisely and responsibly.

We passed a printer with a USB stick attached to it indicating that it still had over an hour of activities left to do. The owner was nowhere to be found.

At different places we visited during our visit to Helsinki, we asked several people about Finland’s consistent ranking as the happiest nation in the world.

Although everyone preferred to call it “contentment” rather than “happiness,” they all attributed the feat to the trust that unites Finnish society.

“The basis of Finnish satisfaction is mutual trust, in our parliament, in our politicians, in our president, in our police, in the media and in our economy,” our guide said, adding that Oodi “is an example of trust.”

And that sums up the most surprising lessons I learned from Finland as I reflected on my time there: nationality is governed by mutual trust. Leaders must strive to win over the people by genuinely serving and protecting them, and the people must reciprocate by trusting themselves and their leaders and living responsibly.

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