During the Next Library conference held in Aarhus this year, delegates spoke of the library as a democratic space, where patrons can participate as equals. It is a modern ‘agora’.
When I spoke to Tuula Haavisto, Director of Helsinki City Library, she explained that the ‘library is a space of possibilities. It is a place where you are a respected human being, whether you are an immigrant, young, or elderly. The library does not ask you to belong to any special group’. The library offers a safe place; it is a neutral place with trusted people.
The automation of many library services has reduced the working hours of librarians – and even led to some redundancies. We can ask whether librarians still play a role? As Tuula explains, their focus should change to ‘getting patrons to engage with each other in a shared space instead of concentrating on the collections’. ‘The ideal is to get people and users to do more together’, Tuula continues. ‘It is good for people to be doing things together it is vital to democracy’.
However, this work can be stressful. When the new city library opens in 2017, the library staff will be rotated around the different libraries. They will take it in turns to staff the new library with the new participatory service model. As Tuula explains, ‘we want staff to have this experience but we don’t want it to be heavy or stressful’. It is expected that the library will have about 10,000 visitors per day.
What learning for UK libraries? Librarians could become facilitators. But, they will need new skills and resources to do this, and new facilities where they can slip out of view when they want to stop participating.