Helsinki University Library – sleek design and a corkscrew staircase

Written by Dr. Derek Cash

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Helsinki University Library in Helsinki, Finland is an academic library with over a million volumes.  Although the institution has the primary goal of serving the students and faculty, the public has free access to the facility.

The library is located in the building known as Kaisa House.  It was completed in 2012, so it is relatively new.  Typical of Scandinavian architecture, the 7 story building looks rather organic in design.

Unlike many American universities that are located on land that is separate from the surrounding community, the University of Helsinki campus is contiguous with the adjacent office buildings.  I reached the library by going through an area that had a supermarket.

One of the first impressions that the library presents is the sleek elliptical design of the atrium and the white color that dominates the interior.  If you stand in the center, you can see the ceiling on the 7th floor.  You can also see that the atrium is constructed in an ‘A’ look shape.  With each ascending floor the hole gets smaller.  Whereas the appearance is aesthetic, it has a functional use as well.  The architects placed circular sitting stations on some of the floors above the ground floor. The corkscrew staircase at the entrance of the library and the circular columns throughout the library compliment the atrium’s elliptical design.

This circular or elliptical motif has a clean, sanitary appearance, because the atrium, the staircase, the columns, the desks/counters, and the bookshelves are white.  Because the white color is so striking, the architects were careful to offset the effects by muting the artificial lighting.  They limited the ceiling lights to very thin fluorescent bulbs. Finally, the book covers deflect the monotony of the white color as if they were colored sprinkles of pepper on mashed potatoes.

In the United States, university buildings are designed with an emphasis on utility, safety, and security.  So, it came as a surprise to me that on the 7th floor there is an outdoor balcony, where patrons can sit, relax, and smoke.  You look directly at Tuomiokirkko (Helsinki Cathedral) I wondered if students threw books from the balcony.

The library is very user-friendly and is equipped with the latest technology.  The study rooms are large and come with TV monitors.

Along with books for circulation, the library has rows and rows of textbooks.

I did not ask, but I assume that students who choose not to buy the textbook can use them in the library.  Some American university libraries employ such a system.  The Helsinki University Library posts messages in Finnish, Swedish, and English.

There are touch screen catalogs (about 100 cm x 60 cm), and they are somewhat easy to use.

A person who needs instruction in their use could probably learn how to use them in one lesson.

One aspect of service that I could not comprehend was locating books on the shelf.  The library employs a classification system, but many of the items do not have call numbers on them.

I asked a librarian and a staff member, and they tried to explain how they arrange things, but because their English was limited, and I do not speak Finnish or Swedish, they simply could not explain it.  Translating complex jargon is not easy.  Even so, they were very courteous and service oriented.

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