Over the last few days I have discussed the role of public libraries in society with a handful of ‘library workers’ from all over the world. Many agree that their library needs to provide new services in order to attract new visitors. But, some consider turning the library into a ‘digital hub’ that collects and stores electronic information through advanced technology, whilst others consider turning the library into a community meeting place. They are at different stages of the journey.
Today, I visited Entresse library which is the second largest library in Espoo, on the outskirts of Helsinki. Entresse library contains many of the same activities and settings as Sello library which I visited yesterday. As Eva Wilenius, who showed me around the library today, noted ‘we think children, and families, and immigrants are really important here so we dedicate over half the library space to them’. But, providing so much space for children and families in one library, on a single floorplate, generates a lot of noise for others.
Most users with whom I spoke, who use the library to study, said that they do not mind the noise. So, why is Eva concerned? She believes that the library should be an inclusive space in which everybody can find refuge. But, in providing a sanctuary for everybody, librarians spread themselves (and their resources) too thinly. If only a handful of individuals study at Entresse library, at certain times of the year, librarians should not commit to providing a quiet space for all of them. In Finland, everybody has access to university libraries, which provide quiet spaces. Individuals wishing to study can use these libraries when they choose to. What would university libraries need to do to accommodate the overflow from public libraries? They would need to provide spaces – such as family areas - so that adults and elderly visitors can use the study rooms.
What learning for UK libraries? Rather than attempting to satisfy every need within a single space, it is more useful to consider the library as part of a network of spaces, each satisfying a few requirements.
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.
The Black Diamond (Royal Library) in Copenhagen was the first building that I visited on my tour of innovative libraries in Europe. It is a modern extension to the Royal Danish Library's old building on the waterfront. It opened to the public in 1999.
The addition of a glass atrium, which creates a bright and organic central space in the library, provides the library with a multifunctional entertainment space. Its facilities include an auditorium for 600, concert hall, theatrical performance and conference space. A travellator links the ground floor facilities to the main floor of the old reading library.
The library is well situated in a business community – the new atrium is an attractive spot to have a meal. It offers a café and restaurant as well as outside dining space.
At the time I visited, there were a few diners in the restaurant, mainly individuals having business lunches. The café was crowded with young professionals and students meeting over a light lunch. Some brave individuals were sitting outside on the waterfront – there is the option of buying sandwiches from the café and eating outside. There were about 30 individuals enjoying a stand-up buffet lunch on the ground floor.
What learning for UK libraries? In an age in which the ‘middle classes’ are attracted to coffee shops with wifi, which are easy meeting and eating spaces, one way of continuing to attract people to libraries is to incorporate reception, dining, and events spaces.
On the final day of the Next Library conference, held at Aarhus Urban Mediacentre, I listened to five ‘ignite talks’ - aimed at encouraging individuals to use libraries.
Living Cookbook, Milan
Branch libraries are hosting many of the EXPO events taking place in Milan this year. For Emma Catiri, this was an opportunity to ‘look outside the standard concept of a library’. She developed the concept of a ‘living cookbook’ - a way of getting people to use her branch library. She invited people to visit her library to share recipe ideas. It has become a place ‘for listening and telling stories … sharing knowledge’ about food. She explains, ‘libraries are living stories … and people are the living collection’.
Pillars of Democracy, Denmark
Sara Jorgensen wants to ‘re-invent libraries as agoras of the 21st century’. The Greek ‘agora’ is a place where people share ideas, she explained. She has developed the concept of the ‘democratic relay’ – consisting of a bunch of people on a bike who ride from town to town. They spend two weeks in each town, exploring notions of democracy with individuals in each place. Locals are encouraged to participate in a workshop. In one workshop, participants wrote poems about democracy on the door of a toilet. She believes that ‘libraries can fill the gap between people and politicians’.
What learning for UK libraries? Libraries can provide a neutral place for conversation – which of course requires libraries to have dedicated meeting spaces.
Aarhus Urban Mediaspace is the first of many buildings that will be constructed at the waterfront. It was designed as an entrance point to the city to get the ‘people to move around it in a new way’.
As Stephen Willacy, Aarhus City Architect, explained, ‘how we live in and use the city is very important’. The library brings a flow of people to the waterfront so that the people reclaim the waterfront and the waterfront reclaims the people. 'It was built as a hinge between the old city and harbour’, explained schmidt hammer lassen architects, who designed the new library.
There are train tracks leading up to the front door of Aarhus Urban Mediaspace that will be part of a light rail transit system. There is also automatic parking for 1000 vehicles under DOKK1. These car-parking spaces are for library patrons – as well as anyone else who wants to use them. The library will become a transport hub for anyone wishing to shop, eat, and explore the area.
What learning for UK libraries? Libraries can provide visitors with access to other services. They can become a gateway to other spaces.
I attended Next Library conference opening event this evening which was held at Aarhus Urban Mediaspace this year. It was an opportunity to meet delegates from all over the world who were collectively considering the role of libraries in society today. I met with individuals from Singapore, Brazil, Australia (to name but a few).
The opening event was an opportunity for them to mingle together to share their ideas, for example, on how to deal with a lack of funding, how to encourage individuals to remain interested in books, and how to encourage teenagers to use libraries.
Since I am interested in how we design libraries, I was particularly concerned by how the library as a ‘day time’ space became transformed into a ‘night time’ space.
As I anticipated, the first floor of the library became an events space for the delegates, who helped themselves to the buffet on the long tables in the café and ate their food on the chairs and sofas in the adjacent reading room. The delegates, some 200, spilled into the reception area towards the entrance. The auditorium in the centre of the library, a link between the first floor and second floor, became a formal seating area where delegates attended the presentations. And later, when the softs seats in the auditorium were removed, leaving only the concrete steps, it became a venue for the resident DJ.
Whilst chatting to delegates, I fluidly moved from the first floor to the second floor, from buffet area to presentation area, from reception, eating, to entertainment. The library has been designed as a multi-functional space for both day-time and night-time which required an adaptable layout and flexible furniture (and mobile guests).
Next Library conference is being held in Aarhus Urban Mediaspace this year. Delegates were given the opportunity to visit branch libraries in neighbouring districts. Taking the bus out of town, we visited Aaby, a branch library for an area with a population of around 25,000 people.
The library caters for patrons with diverse economic and social need for which the library must cater. ‘Branch libraries need to adapt to the local environment’, explained our guide. In designing the library, staff ‘aspire to turn the library into a community centre’. They tried to make it open to everyone, turn it into a place where people can meet as a community, and accommodate multiple needs in the same place.
Instead of a ‘traditional counter desk’, one member of staff walks the floor to provide visitors with assistance. The ‘floor walkers’ create a link between library staff and visitors.
As well as ‘floor walkers’, library staff provide visitors with a ‘citizens’ service’. Library staff offer advice on how to renew a passport, how to apply for a driver’s licence, and how to move to another doctor. They are an essential point of contact for a diverse range of people with a spectrum of needs - which transforms the library from a place for reading books into a place where visitors can meet, receive support, and learn new skills.
This branch library is a civic centre. It is an example of a space where many services are provided in a single place. What learning for the UK? Where there is a shortage of funding for libraries as places for reading books, there remains a need for shared community spaces, where visitors can receive advice relating to various aspects of daily life.