Skip to content

Oodi as textbook case of service design

Central library Oodi. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo, Helsinki Marketing

The development and design of Helsinki Central Library Oodi reflects the evolution of service design thinking within the City of Helsinki. The success of the 10-year library development process is manifest in Oodi’s popularity.

The number of visitors welcomed by Helsinki’s new central library Oodi since the library opening in early December 2018 has exceeded 20,000 on the busiest days, twice the predicted number.

Oodi Director Anna-Maria Soininvaara says in February 2019 that the weeks following the opening have been demanding. “Our resources have been stretched,” she admits.

“But our intention is soon to continue the development process that started more than 10 years ago.

“Oodi is a development library. We’re tasked to produce here services for all libraries. As a larger unit than the rest, it’s easier for us to test new approaches and operations. Whatever works here, we share with other libraries.”

Soininvaara reminds us that Oodi is one of the flagship projects celebrating the centenary of Finland’s independence. As such, Oodi plays a national role in the development of Finnish libraries.

“Library of the future”

When the planning of the central library project got underway 10 years ago, the library was referred to as a library of the future.

“The future has changed many times over these years,” Soininvaara comments and provides an example: “At that time, the craze for new digital applications was at its highest, and one idea born inside the Helsinki library administration was to cover the exterior of the central library building with digital screens.”

“We’re always looking into the future, and Oodi will never be finished,” she asserts.

“Ten years ago, general awareness of the user-centred design framework was gaining strength,” Soininvaara continues. “Oodi’s library concept has been built piece by piece on that framework.”

She summarizes the library concept that Oodi represents:

“To us, the library is an institution that combines both traditional and new elements: the library should continue to promote reading and literacy and, simultaneously, it should promote equal access to information, equality, freedom of speech and active citizenship. The library should support and grow the skills of citizens, help them to gain control over various information channels and teach media literacy.”

People in the central library Oodi. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo, Helsinki Marketing

A meeting place open to all

“Our guiding principle in the central library development was always the voice of citizens,” says the project’s leading planner Pirjo Lipasti, who served the project from 2008 until the Oodi opening.

The work was commenced with an extensive survey in 2008, after the Helsinki City leaders had launched a project to develop and build a world-class public library of the future that would be a meeting place for all.

On the basis of expert interviews, a review of similar international projects and an evaluation of contemporary trends, the Helsinki-based consultancy Pluto Finland produced a report to serve as a starting point for further work. The report recommended a complex 2.5 times the size of the current building. The complex could have been placed in the General Post Office or at Lasipalatsi, or it could have been located in the Töölönlahti area.

The site eventually chosen for Oodi had been zoned for a new office building. As soon as the site and preliminary costs were known, the process moved on to the project planning stage.

Helsinki’s library administration City Library participated in project planning by dividing staff into teams that focused on specific topics.

In 2010, an idea emerged among the staff for public dreaming with the help of a Tree of Dreams.

“The Tree of Dreams was a new method to survey people’s thoughts and wishes for the library: we encouraged everybody to give feedback, which was compiled into a database. The tree was up for a long time and gathered 2,300 dreams,” Lipasti says.

Public dreaming continued with a “megaphone call” in 2012: citizens were urged by well-known public figures to visit the Tree of Dreams.

City Library employees mingled with people in public places to collect spontaneous feedback. This was a way to interact with people, many of whom weren’t current library users.

“The best way to meet both current library users and potential new users is to meet them face to face in places where they are naturally present,” Lipasti comments.
Many of the spontaneous meetings were held in conjunction with the major design programme of Helsinki as World Design Capital 2012. The central library project was a natural part of this programme, which focused on embedding design in all aspects of everyday life, putting the user in the centre of service development.

Brainstorming at workshops

Side by side the active recruitment of citizens, experts and potential partners of the central library gathered together in workshops and networking events to brainstorm about services that they could provide with the library. They included National Audiovisual Institute KAVI, which today operates a cinema at Oodi for its regular film screenings, and the City of Helsinki Education Division, which runs Playground Loru at the library.

One workshop was organized for immigrants under the theme multicultural library. The workshop attendees brainstormed how to create new contacts through the library.

The workshops evolved into regular meetings between library users and experts. Central Library Friends in 2014–2015 worked on details related to the library design. They evolved into Library Friends, tasked to make the users’ voices heard in all Helsinki libraries. Today the development community works through Kirjastoheimo (library tribe) customer panels, each of which focuses on a specific theme in regular meetings.

Green wall at central library Oodi. Photo: Maarit Hohteri, City of Helsinki

At the roots of participatory budgeting

The central library development was supported by the City of Helsinki’s first participatory budgeting initiative in 2012. Participatory budgeting has since matured into a standard practice in Helsinki City operations.

Citizens were encouraged to propose how City Library should spend 100,000 euros of its budget. The proposals were worked into four projects in open workshops: (1) Storybook birthday parties were joyous encounters of children and parents at Rikhardinkatu Library. (2) Urban workshops were organized at Lasipalatsi and Library 10. (3) A place of tranquility was a silent space at Library 10. (4) Authors presented popular classics at Kallio Library.

The projects served as tests and models for the planners and designers of Oodi. The concepts of the projects have been realized at Oodi in one way or another.

Service design agencies and international collaboration play key roles

“When we moved from library dreams to implementation, the planning process was joined by service design professionals to ease our work,” Lipasti says.

Service design agency Hellon built the Oodi customer service map, that is, a visual representation of all the components of customers’ interaction with Oodi.

Palmu produced concepts for the lobby and lounge areas. The agency sought to ensure that the customer experience would remain the same regardless of the medium that the customer uses to approach Oodi.

Design Studio Muotohiomo focused on services for families.

An important model and partner for Oodi has been the Dokk1 public library and culture centre in Aarhus, Denmark.

“Dokk1 and Oodi have tackled similar issues – asking ourselves, what is the new library? However, the solutions of Dokk1 differ from our solutions,” Soininvaara says.

What to call the new library?

The new central library was to be everybody’s library in every respect including the library name. Consequently, City Library organized an open name competition. The competition produced 2,600 proposals, 1,600 of them different names.

The jury was unanimous in their selection of Oodi as the winner. The name had been proposed by Mirja Lounameri. Oodi, the Finnish for ode, is associated with literature and denotes a lyric poem typically expressive of exalted or enthusiastic emotion (according to the definition given by the Webster’s Dictionary of English).

Central library Oodi. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo, Helsinki marketing

Participatory design as basis of architectural design competition

The preparation of an architectural design competition for the central library was launched in 2011. The competition, entitled The Heart of the Metropolis, would be international, open to all architects and firms fulfilling the competition criteria, and anonymous.

The competition became a part of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 and so supported the crucial role of the design year in the establishment of Helsinki’s international reputation as a city of design.

A City Library team made summaries of the library dreams gathered from citizens to ensure that the user perspective would be included in the competition criteria. The summaries clearly spelled out the users’ main wishes: tranquility, services for families, peer learning and learning by doing, events, and digital services.

The competition received an amazing 544 design entries from all over the world. All entries were put on public display, and visitors were invited to bestow their favourite designs with hearts. Six designs were shortlisted and put on display on interactive screens in public places, where people were encouraged to like their favourites.

The winner and the design to be realized was the entry entitled Käännös by ALA Architects of Helsinki. The entry was one of the top favourites in both public votes.

“ALA Architects has ingeniously implemented the library dreams of the public and combined all main wishes,” Soininvaara says.

The tranquility asked for by the public is realized in the Book Heaven of the third floor, which is a traditional library environment. Services for families can be found in the third floor’s family library and the section assigned to Playground Loru on the first floor, which is also the space for public events and encounters. The second floor is the space for learning by doing and houses urban workshops, studios and spaces for study and work.

“The huge popularity of Oodi reflects the success of the participatory design process,” Lipasti rejoices.

In the first month of service, Oodi recorded 400,000 visitors, 2,000 new library cards issued, and 70,000 of Oodi’s 100,000 books borrowed including close to all children’s books.

Eyes turned to the future

“It’s impossible to think that any service could be developed today without the involvement of the user,” Soininvaara deliberates.

“But what should be the method of development? We have tested many methods at Oodi – open surveys, workshops, library friends and customer panels. New methods of interaction could include stands and some instant tools,” she envisions.

Soininvaara’s visions extend far beyond the library building. She wants to take interaction and dialogue to Oodi’s neighbour Parliament House. The library for all and the lawmakers’ palace already have a physical connection, staring each other across Kansalaistori (citizens’ square).

“This location is very important to us. We want to declare with everything and to make visible everywhere that we are here!”

Under Soininvaara’s leadership, Oodi wants to make the principles of service design – placing the user (citizen) in the centre of development, interaction and participation – elements of the development of the whole of society.
Oodi’s timeline:

  • 1998 Minister of Culture Claes Andersson proposes a new major library to be built in the Helsinki city centre.
  • 1998–2010  Several studies and student projects on a new Helsinki central library.
  • 2007 Mayor Jussi Pajunen establishes a working group to explore ideas for a world-class public library that would be a meeting place for all.
  • 2008  Consultant Mikko Leisti (Pluto Finland) produces an extensive survey entitled The Heart of the Metropolis to serve as a basis for further work.
  • 2010  A preliminary project plan is completed including the location and a cost estimate.
    City Library participates in project planning by dividing staff into teams to focus on specific topics.
    Central library pilots are conducted at Library 10.
    Tree of Dreams: an online survey that encourages citizens to share their thoughts and wishes for the central library.
  • 2011 The preparation of an open, international and anonymous architectural design competition entitled The Heart of the Metropolis is launched.
  • 2012 The development of the central library and the architectural design competition are parts of the programme of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012.
    Six entries are shortlisted and enter the second phase of the competition.
    A “megaphone call” supports the second phase of the competition: citizens are urged on digital screens to brainstorm.
    City Library employees mingle with people in public places to collect spontaneous feedback.
  • 2013  The winner of the architectural design competition is announced: ALA Architects.
  • 2014–2018 Project and general planning. A number of service design agencies are employed in the work.
  • 2015  Construction begins.
  • 2017  An open competition for the library name.
  • 2018  Oodi opens to the public.
  • 2019– The development of services at Oodi continues. Oodi begins its work as a national development library.
  • 2019 Oodi named as the Public Library of the Year 2019

Text by Johanna Lemola
Photos by Tuomas Uusheimo, Helsinki Marketing; Maarit Hohteri, City of Helsinki

19.02.2020 16:47