The first Helsinki People's library in the corner of the streets Hallituskatu and Fabianinkatu.

160-year-old Helsinki City Library keeps up with its time, reaches residents with versatile services

Helsinki City Library reaches the age of 160 years on Wednesday the 7th of October 2020. The anniversary is celebrated through work, and customers are as welcome to the library as on any other day. In 160 years, the Helsinki City Library has developed from a People’s Library with one apartment and about 400 borrowable books into Finland’s biggest library complex, with 37 local libraries, two mobile libraries, senior centres, and services reaching homes and hospitals. Customers can borrow materials from the entire collection of the metropolitan area’s Helmet libraries, including about 3.2 million volumes, an e-library and versatile facilities and equipment for customers’ use. The function of the modern, publicly open library has extended far beyond book lending.

The Helsinki City Library, originally known as the Helsinki People’s Library, was established in 1860 at the instigation of active noblewomen and their association Fruntimmersföreningen i Helsingfors. The task of the library was to increase people's eagerness to read and to ”raise the poor classes into the sphere of civilisation and moral refinement”. The first library was opened on the 7th of October 1860 in the corner of the streets Hallituskatu and Fabianinkatu. The opening drew widespread attention and attracted a large crowd. The doors were open for one hour at a time on two days of the week, and the shelves contained barely 400 books — most of them written in Swedish. Borrowing was free of charge, but voluntary support fees were collected in connection with lending. Personnel and location changes were initially common, as library work was unpaid and rents could not be afforded.

The City of Helsinki started to award grants to the People’s Library. This bond strengthened over time, and on the 28th of March 1876 the Helsinki City Council decided to take over the People’s Library. In 1877, the Helsinki Alcohol Dispense Company (Helsingin Anniskeluyhtiö) granted 61,405.29 Finnish marks to the People’s Library as a base fund for acquiring an own house. The purpose of the Alcohol Dispense Company was to use its profits for the promotion of workers’ education and sobriety. The Helsinki City Council approved architect Carl Theodor Höijer's drawings in 1879, and the Senate confirmed them in 1880. The Rikhardinkatu library was completed in 1881 and opened on the 1st of September 1882.

After the opening of the Rikhardinkatu Library, new local libraries were established and built during the following decades, and mobile libraries started to operate. The Central Library Oodi was opened in December 2018, and libraries can now also be found in shopping centres – the latest of them is the Herttoniemi library, which was opened in the Hertsi shopping centre this year. Last year, the total visitor number of all Helsinki libraries set a new record of 9 million.

Libraries are among the most used leisure cultural services of municipalities. The library is an important place for studying, working and leisure activities. Meeting the demands of a digitalising society is also one of libraries’ functions. This is done continuously by developing web services and providing customers with digital consultation and devices.

“With the Helsinki City Library turning 160 years old, it feels wonderful to think of the great impact of the publicly open “people’s library” on equality and literacy in the whole of Finland. Back in October 1860, it was a progressive move to open a library without any certainty of its future. Later on, libraries have established themselves as a statutory and essential municipal service, and Helsinki has committed itself to a strong network of local libraries. In these times, the library’s role as an intimate, safe and open space for people is particularly important. It should be a place where everyone feels welcome to thrive and learn, both physically and online”, says Katri Vänttinen, Director of Library Services at the City of Helsinki.

Customers can congratulate the 160-year-old Helsinki City Library while simultaneously manifesting their own love for libraries. The congratulatory message can be shared either in one’s own local library by writing it onto a piece of paper and attaching it to the congratulatory board, or in social media under the hashtag #onneakirjasto.

Photo: Helsinki City Museum / Signe Brander