Libraries: Traveling to Iceland, Finland, and Sweden, Part 1

Finland's Kallio Public Library 2

This is a post in a series about visiting libraries in Iceland, Finland, and Sweden earlier this month.

Not many get the opportunity to travel far from their home. Those who do often take advantage of their free time and the spent resources to relax, adventure, and otherwise enjoy with leisure their journey. Over the past few years, my privilege acknowledged, I’ve come to the conclusion that in most of my travels I enjoy myself most by seeking out professional exploration. In other words, when I travel, I like to visit libraries. And I travel quite a bit, so these experiences are quite illuminating.

Most recently, I had the opportunity to travel with my mother to several countries in Europe during the academic break between the Spring and Summer quarters at LWTech. We had decided to visit, through various discussions, Finland and Sweden. Iceland ended up being a good stopover point (thanks to the incredible degrees of marketing over the years), Tallinn, Estonia ended up being a good day trip out of Helsinki, and we added on one of my mother’s favorite cities, Milan, to the end (we’d end up visiting Lisbon for a few hours as well, but that’s another story). Expecting Iceland to be a mental zone of jet lag, and Milan a mental zone of exhaustion (following two weeks of travel), my library preparations were limited to Finland and Sweden. But oh did I prepare! With a handful of evenings free in each place, I reached out to Helsinki University and University of Stockholm to have meetings with librarians. Both schools responded positively and appointments were scheduled. I also did the necessary research on public libraries and other points of interest (as any good researcher does) and plotted them out on Google Maps as appropriate. If there’s one thing that can summarize the library landscape of Helsinki and Stockholm, it’s that there are libraries all over the place. Finding the libraries would not be the issue; their opening hours during the Midsummer’s Holiday was more pressing.

Reykjavik, Iceland

But the details can go on and on, can’t they? I did want to include in this post a bit of narrative, complete with a beginning to the story of the adventure. It started, as I mentioned, in Iceland. My mother missed a connection due to weather, which put me in Reykjavik exactly 24 hours before her. The first day was scheduled to account for jet lag and basically allow to explore the city in general. I ended up rendezvousing with a Couchsurfer using the app’s “hangout feature,” a guy who was, coincidentally, also from Seattle. We got coffee and set out to explore. Admitting my librarianship from the beginning, it was pretty obvious we would be making a stop into at least one library. The library we chose was right in the middle of many other architectural and cultural hot spots, the City Library. A cute, innovative multi-floor space, this library included a handful of patrons moseying about. The librarians were friendly. There was a rather unorganized art gallery (with art for sale) in the back of the main floor, complete with a mushroom-themed ceramic work:

Iceland City Library Sculpture

It was nice being able to so casually enter a space and feel welcomed, invited, appreciated. Though I didn’t really engage with anyone (aside from asking for a bathroom key), I found the design of the space and the objects within to be curiously warm. Maybe it was in contrast with the rainy, Icelandic summer weather? Or the jet lag was giving me reason to coast and “chill”? Or maybe, just maybe, it was the curiously different sense of being that greeted me around the very “Western” library experience? Take the book stand below, for example:

Iceland City Library Book Stand

It may seem like many to be a strange, artful book stand, but for me it indicates action, flux, and movement. It drew me in as much as it allowed me to keep traveling. The librarian within me was charmed. My new Seattle friend and I headed up to the top level of the library, which housed a photography museum. I didn’t take any photos, as the place was closing and we didn’t want to pay for a few minutes of access, but I remember enjoying the space from the outside. The woman working the front desk had a direct manner and was able to ask my questions about the exhibit, which was all about Black Metal. Seeing the genre in represented form made me wish I could spend much longer in Iceland, even though I had just arrived. What a fantastic, mesmerizing place with perfect priorities!

Speaking of priorities, sleep ultimately landed me in bed. My mother eventually arrived, we did the Iceland road trip adventure for a couple of days (and desired to be on the road forever!), before heading off to the sunset. Literally. It was just before the Summer Solstice, which meant light lasts forever, and the country experiences the Midnight Sun phenomenon, where the sun skirts against the horizon creating this eerie, endless sunset effect.

Iceland Midnight Sun

Gazing at the sunset (I swear, the horizon wasn’t crooked when I stared), I knew I was in a place far different from what I knew, what I was capable of knowing, and yet also distinctly familiar and comfortable. This feeling would stick around through the moments of energy and the moments of fatigue as the journey continued in the region and beyond.

Rather than explain the entire trip in retrospective, I’ve entered this post thinking specifically to focus on the libraries. As mentioned above, they are, quite directly, all over the place. But before I talk a little bit about what I saw in Helsinki, I wanted to point out the first experience of Helsinki, which ran parallel with that of Iceland: a sunset on water. In this case, a sunset aligned with the Midsummer Holiday that Finland (and Sweden) are known for, a time when the locals head to the forests for their summer cabins, summer saunas, and otherwise merriment, ancient in nature and ritual. For those stuck in the city, the bonfire cruise, which showcases the huge heaps of fire that litter the islands around the urban areas, is the activity of choice.

Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki Midsummer's Sunset

Now onto the libraries! Helsinki as the urban center of Finland has a lot of things going for it, and it certainly has a lot of space to showcase the country’s commitment to Education. Libraries are a part of that. From the academic libraries to the national library to the public libraries–I was impressed by everything I did see and everything I didn’t (but heard about). To me, in the same way that Seattle represents a playground for the affluently creative, Helsinki appeared to represent a playground for design, society, services, and education.

The first library I’m going to profile, though technically the second library visited (due to the opening hours), is the National Library of Finland. Originally I attempted to arrange a meeting with them, but upon discussions we quickly learned that a simple visit would be well-worth everyone’s time. The library, seen from across the street at the Helsinki Cathedral, is compact and gorgeous.

National Library of Finland 1

Entering the library expanded everything. Note the hypnotic allure of the inner dome (and my spontaneously offset camera skills):

National Library of Finland 2 - Dome

While I haven’t been to a lot of European libraries in my life, I was reminded of several historic American libraries in the Northeast and South of the United States, specifically New York and Georgia. Though the preservation in Finland’s National Library, as well as its adornments, was distinctly impressive.

National Library of Finland 3 - Interior

National Library of Finland 4 - Interior

National Library of Finland 5 - Interior

National Library of Finland 6 - Interior

National Library of Finland 7 - Interior

(Blue Screen of Death, anyone?)

National Library of Finland 8 - Interior

National Library of Finland 9 - Interior

National Library of Finland 10 - Interior

Design. It was all about design. The visibility. The circuity. The prolific balance of lighting. Libraries fundamentally are centers of design, spaces of architectural opportunity. And yet only when I visit those “exotic” libraries I’m not used to, whether domestically or abroad, do I feel the empathy and intention of the designer pour out of the walls.

It certainly also didn’t hurt to have antique furniture throughout the space, too. How about this gorgeous chair?

National Library of Finland 11 - Chair

Quite humorously, the de Sade collection was limited to the “SAD” volumes. I almost find it more perfect this way.

National Library of Finland 12 - Sad Collection

National Library of Finland 12 - More Interior

National Library of Finland 13 - More Interior

National Library of Finland 14 - More Interior

National Library of Finland 15 - More Interior

Though my visit didn’t include a proper tour, or a visit to the most niche-laden areas of the library (which, believe it or not, some librarians don’t enjoy spending time in), I did venture into the “gallery space” in the basement, which covered an exhibit called “BEAUTIFUL!” featuring a collection of bookbinding, an artist’s book called Time’s Memory, and “The Most Beautiful Books 2017.” Why does it seem like every first time I visit a library, there’s an art book display? It happened twice on this trip, and recently on a visit to University of Miami. Sigh, I’ll never get enough of them, of course.

National Library of Finland 16 - Beautiful Exhibition

National Library of Finland 17 - Beautiful Exhibition

National Library of Finland 18 - Beautiful Exhibition

National Library of Finland 19 - Beautiful Exhibition

National Library of Finland 20 - Beautiful Exhibition

National Library of Finland 21 - Beautiful Exhibition

National Library of Finland 22 - Beautiful ExhibitionIn retrospect, visiting the National Library was a very touristy, flighty affair. It was in, then out, and that was that. I could have spent a lot of time commenting on the nuances and subtleties, but I did not. Sometimes even the most careful adventuring, as a quasi-professional, can be filled with pressures of immediacy and surplus experience.

The opposite was the case for the following two libraries: a public library in the trendy neighborhood of Kallio, and the university library (which will be the second post in this series). I have just a bit more energy to showcase the public library in all its adorable features. So let’s begin!

Even from the outside, the public libraries were sporting Pride flags. Being the holiday, the streets (and interiors nearby) were devoid of most folks, but the library when we visited was open and ready to serve.Finland's Kallio Public Library 1Much of the marvel of the library was found in the central art display, which filled a courtyard in between the building’s walls with colorful umbrellas. A quick search on Google will demonstrate that umbrella art isn’t strange or unheard of, and it was a delight to see the umbrellas so prominently displayed!Finland's Kallio Public Library 26

The umbrellas were indoors as well. Notice the giant spiraling staircase taking folks up floor after floor.
Finland's Kallio Public Library 25 Finland's Kallio Public Library 24 Finland's Kallio Public Library 23 Finland's Kallio Public Library 22 Finland's Kallio Public Library 21Odd, decorative artworks filled the corners of the sunlit library space.Finland's Kallio Public Library 20Around the corner, what did I find? Another art book exhibit! The joy of these books and their diverse creators was enamoring to me.Finland's Kallio Public Library 19 Finland's Kallio Public Library 18 Finland's Kallio Public Library 17 Finland's Kallio Public Library 16 Finland's Kallio Public Library 15 Finland's Kallio Public Library 14 Finland's Kallio Public Library 13 Finland's Kallio Public Library 11 Finland's Kallio Public Library 10Though I didn’t know it at the time, Finland is a haven for illustrators and graphic novelists. Some of the works (which I never felt too compelled to acquire due to the language barrier) were proudly on display here:Finland's Kallio Public Library 9 Finland's Kallio Public Library 8Some unique furniture near the library’s main entrance allowing for privacy and relaxation one and the same:Finland's Kallio Public Library 7An incredible font poster:Finland's Kallio Public Library 6Tablets, ready for use!Finland's Kallio Public Library 5 Finland's Kallio Public Library And of course the stone engraving one would expect at a public library around the world:Finland's Kallio Public Library 3 Finland's Kallio Public Library 2I realize at this point, there has been the traditional “overload” and so I’ve chosen to break up the post sequence here. Overall, I managed to squeeze in the brief library moment in Iceland, as well as the National Library and a branch of the public library in Finland. There’s much to come! In the next post I hope to cover the Helsinki University Library, as well as a few moments in Sweden. The final post will cover the University of Stockholm, and some overall thoughts on the trip. For whomever discovers this, I hope you’ve found it curious and enjoyable. I’m always available at should you want more specific information or have any questions!