The history of Kallio Library in a nutshell

The origins of Kallio Library

Kallio Library first opened its doors on October 1 1912, but its history dates back to 1889, when a privately funded library called Sörnäisten Kansankirjasto (The People’s Library of Sörnäinen) was founded to serve the needs of the new, rapidly growing neighbourhood. First sharing its premises with a temperance house on what is now Hämeentie, the library soon moved to Kansankoti (The People’s Home), a community centre for the working class founded by Alli Trygg and situated just a stone’s throw away from the present Kallio Library. In 1899, the library was integrated into the public library network and became a branch library of Helsinki City Library.

The premises soon turned out to be too small for the library, and in 1904 planning work began for a new building. In 1910, architect Karl Hård af Segerstad’s floor plan was approved and construction work began. The new building, which was finished in 1912, was the first library in Finland financed entirely by the public sector: Rikhardinkatu Library, built in 1881, was largely funded by a private company (Helsingin Anniskeluyhtiö), while the branch libraries of Töölö, Punavuori and Vallila operated in rental premises.

Free loans and story hours

The new library proved popular among citizens from the very beginning: during 1913, there were nearly 150 000 visitors in the reading rooms, and nearly 110 000 loans checked out. The numbers are partly explained by the fact that library loans had become free of charge in 1912.

Kallio Library was a forerunner in the equal treatment of citizens: in Rikhardinkatu Library, for example, books intended for different classes of people were placed in different parts of the library, but in Kallio there was no such segregation.

Kallio Library has also been at the forefront of children’s library work. The story hours held by Sirkka Salovius, which began in 1924, were so popular that there were at times as many as 170 children attending. It was a custom well into the 1950s to send every new children’s librarian in Helsinki to Kallio Library for one day to learn from Salovius.

Kallio Library as a building

Architecturally, Kallio Library represents late Jugend (or Art Nouveau) and early Classicism. The facade of the building has remained close to its original form, but indoors, several changes have taken place during the years.

Originally, the first thing encountered by a visitor to the library was a cloakroom, after which one would enter the central hallway bordered by two reading rooms, one for newspaper readers and one for children. The hallway led to the dome hall, where the bookshelves were placed in radial formation behind a large service counter. On the second floor, there were two more reading rooms and office rooms for the librarians.

The butterfly-like floor plan was designed so that the staff could easily monitor the reading rooms from the  service counter. This was deemed necessary, since disturbances in the reading rooms were not uncommon. To avoid loiterers, there were no chairs in the newspaper room.

The first major changes to the floor design were made after the wars, as the building was in need of a renovation in any case due to damages caused by the bombings. Arched openings were made in the interior walls to make the space as open as possible; these arches remain to this day. Most importantly, after the renovation, the bookshelves in the dome hall were no longer placed behind the counter and could now be accessed by customers on their own.

The next big change took place in 1988-1990, when the library was fully renovated. The large attic was put into use and turned into the new children’s section and music section, with two skylights providing plenty of natural light. When the renovated library opened again on Father’s Day, 1990, a new record was made in the history of Helsinki City Library: 6 500 loans were checked out during six hours.

In 2017-2018, the ground floor of the library was renovated. The bookshelves and the returning machine were replaced with new ones and the service counters were relocated. The renovation also brightened up the space and highlighted old architectural elements.

Sources and more information (in Finnish)

Jyri Vilja: Kallion kirjasto ja kaupunginarkkitehti Karl Hård af Segerstad. Helsingin kaupunginmuseo, 2007

Sven Hirn: Kansankirjastosta kaupunginkirjastoksi. Helsingin kaupunginkirjasto 1860-1940. Helsingin kaupunginkirjasto, 1998.

Mikko Laakso: Kansanvalistajasta kansalaisten olohuoneeksi. Helsingin kaupunginkirjasto 1940-2005. Helsingin kaupunginkirjasto, 2010.

Vihtori Karpio: Sytyttäjä. Alli Trygg-Helenius. WSOY, 1960.

Picture: ©Marianne Skurnik