I’ve been shushed by a librarian several times in my life, but never has a library rendered me speechless – until recently. The National Library of Finland, in Helsinki, is in one word – breathtaking. While this library is an architectural marvel, it is in some ways—true to all things Nordic—understated. The sign on the door of this majestic building, for example, is tiny. The sign makes it hard to locate, but once I entered the imposing library any frustration that I harbored, fled.
I walked into the Cupola Hall, my eyes riveted on the intricate cupola above. And that’s not all. The hall’s other details included artistic pillars and awe-inspiring art. For some moments, I forgot this is a research library, my gaze captured by the sheer grandeur of the place. It might well have been a museum, or even a palace. But a glimpse of the shelves reminded me: this is a library.
The Cupola Hall connected to a second grand hall, the Rotunda, where I found a young man lucky enough to be surrounded by such beauty every single day. He was helpful in providing us with some details about the library.
Construction on the structure began circa 1840 and the library opened its doors circa 1845. A new extension was completed in 1903. This library, he told us, is the repository of every thing that’s been published in Finland. While I could see books stretching up the spiraling six floors, the bulk of the collection, he informed me, is stored in Kirjaluola (Finnish for Bookcave), an underground bunker ( yes, under the ground! ) drilled into solid rock, below the library.
“So, can people check books out of this place,” I asked the young man since it didn’t seem likely.
“Yes,” he said, “Books published after 1950. But you can study or work on research here as well.”
Not a bad place to do that, I thought.
I had to ask him this, “How do you bring people into the library?” I meant not to just look around. as a tourist would, but to really use the services of the library. These days, with so many electronic sources, fewer people seem to go into a library.
“We have events,” he said and directed us up the stairs where an impressive exhibition on the life and works of Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik Von Wright unfolded.
Upstairs, computers hid in quiet corners behind the shelves, a subtle reminder of the times we live in.
I’ve tried to capture the many facets of this gem with my camera, but I’m afraid I do it little justice. If you’re ever in Helsinki, even if you’re not a bibliophile, this library is well worth a visit. Had Usha, the protagonist of my new novel, A New Dawn, worked in a library like this one, she’d have been ecstatic.