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Future library – a fascinating mystery


The international library conference discussed lighter and more serious topics regarding the Central Library and other intriguing library plans.

A sunny and interesting library conference took place in Helsinki on 10–11 February. The New Library – Design and Function conference gathered library professionals from all over Europe to the Marina Congress Center in Katajanokka. The visitors included lecturers and seminar participants from, for example, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Spain, Greece, Estonia, England and Holland as well as representatives from many Finnish libraries. The seminar discussion was characterised by avid excitement and love for libraries and library development. The Helsinki Central Library project received many insights from countries that already have a major central library as well as from countries that are currently exploring the same options as Helsinki.

Presentations in the conference organised by Helsinki City Library and its partner libraries in Akureyr, Oslo, Gävle and Tårnby included various important topics such as the increasing importance of technology in the library domain, the changing role of the library and the architecture of the library building. What kinds of practical and spiritual characteristics does the new library carry? Conference participants especially agreed on one particular opinion: changes are coming. However, it is difficult to predict the future; one can only define outlines, map demand and future needs and make educated guesses.

The library is no longer just a library

What will the future library be like in, say, 2017? Can it even be called a “library” anymore? Conference participants reflected over the changing identity of the library. Many speakers used the term “living lab”, where the library is seen as a living space – a lab – in the middle of urban surroundings. The library’s main role was seen as being a meeting place for people. However, defining just what kind of a meeting place this would be stimulated a lot of discussion. The future library should be a virtual, social as well as a physical place for city residents who want to meet each other and also spend personal time with literature, information technology and hobbies – individual activities together with others.

Throughout its history, the library has been a place for storing and transferring information. However, now it should become a place for creating information. A modern library is more than a book depot, it is a living organism that creates new information through novel channels and new kinds of expertise. At the same time, a physical location creates social cohesion.

Klaus Oesch, PhD, from Futuria Consulting compared the new library with residential living rooms and urban offices. Modern communication technologies create diverse possibilities. For example, interactive seminar facilities, video and chat-enabled meetings or webinars could be one way for future workers to make use of the library facilities. Oesch also hoped that the library would act as a continuous Future Finland exhibition. So, the library must live with contemporary times and even reach out to the future as well. In fact, many new European libraries have a special floor for science.

Helsinki Library Director Maija Berndtson discussed the necessity of the Central Library. Why are the Rikhardinkatu and Pasila libraries not enough? Rikhardinkatu Library is a living legend from 1882, attracting annually some 600,000 visitors.  With 300,000 annual visits, the visitor numbers for Pasila Library are significantly smaller. Pasila is too distant from the city centre, and Rikhardinkatu has become too small. Finland needs a larger, more creative space. Berndtson also considered the tourist’s point of view. The Central Library could provide iconic Finnish experiences for foreigners, showcasing the latest designs or a winter garden, for example, or – imagine this – even host a sauna.

Photo: Virve Miettinen

Youth as forerunners

Several conference discussions were centred on new technology and its first steps regarding literature in digital format. The opinions by young library customers were considered essential. Young people constantly adapt to new communication and information management methods. They are forerunners as testers and adopters, also in the library. Already today, youth utilise many innovations in communication and learning.

Danish Århus Public Libraries have utilised a so-called prototyping method in library planning. In the method, different age groups, such as people of 9–14 or 14–20 years of age, were asked for their opinions, and their wishes and needs were discussed together in discussion groups and workshops. Local residents participated in discussions between architects and players in various sectors. While asking opinions is fine and good, the speakers reminded that all individual wishes and requirements cannot be met. The final decision and responsibility are always with the designers themselves. Therefore, the key question is: do the library users want the same things as the designers? This is hopefully the case, as it is the residents who, in practice, finalise and shape the space and its function.

What about the staff?

Library activists were also intrigued by the staff’s own changing role in the future. What kinds of staff members are needed in the Central Library? Multitalents or experts in specific domains? What about the traditional librarians? As their tasks become more diverse, the staff become producers and organisers to an increasingly greater extent. In the new library, the staff organise events, workshops and exhibitions. They manage a wealth of information, and they have to grasp diverse communication methods and the continuous technological advances. Do the current staff have the resources for managing a variety of domains, or are completely new experts needed?

Conference participants also valued a wide knowledge of current trends in the world, in the city and outside the library in general. Library staff must keep an open eye to see and experience what is happening in the lives of different age groups every day. The staff’s role as customer guides becomes emphasised. Self-service will increase, but the need for guides, experts and helpers will never stop.

There was a consoling consensus: it’s all about your own attitude! And, in the end, that is what adjusting to new things is all about – being eager and active, having an open mind!

What will happen to books?

One thing about the library conference really stood out: there was close to none discussion on books. This time, discussion focused on the library’s creative role as a channeller of different kinds of information and as a location where people can meet equally. However, a few participants remembered to bring up the concrete, traditional books along with electronic books and the importance of presenting the traditional editions. It is important to remember the library’s history and to develop the future without forgetting the old traditions. Memories will build anew, but the past cannot be lost. Chris Wiersma from the Almere Library in Holland stated: “When you look towards the future, you should also look to the history.” The best combination is found when you remember the need for human culture and the importance of real – not just instrumental – meeting of people. The library atmosphere is created by its users, not just by new and impressive multimedia.

Thus, the building itself will have a major role. How can the architecture meet all this? According to the seminar participants, the right key word here is adaptability. The building, especially a large library building, must be diversely adaptable. At the very least, the building should have spaces that can be taken into different uses as the years pass. Teemu Kurkela, Professor in Architecture, presented Central Library designs by Aalto University students of architecture and said that the spirit of the student seminar was very hopeful. The Töölönlahti area is small and inconvenient, but the excellent student designs proved that there are plenty of possibilities! From an architectural point of view, it is important to consider that the building should be functional also after a hundred years. The library will transform and adapt the city and will be an important part of the urban cityscape. The new library will become part of a map of libraries – of a continuum – and the smaller libraries and their roles should not be forgotten.

The students of architecture, six of whom participated in the seminar, reminded of the library’s change regarding silence. The future new library will no longer be a silent retreat where the smallest sounds will be met with disdain. Instead, the Central Library’s role will be to provide a bustling, communicative meeting place for people, a centre for a variety of activities. No longer static, but living. No longer stagnant, but transitient.

Challenges in designing spaces

A new and large space creates new challenges. It is also good to remember the danger of creating a non-space. If the space is not enough of something, it can become nothing. While visitors can fill an empty space, they must be given content in itself. What makes a library different, special in itself? These kinds of questions were addressed in the closing panel at the seminar. Many people may think that they no longer need a library as they have their computers, movies and bookshops. With all these, what kinds of different and interesting things could the library offer? What adds value, what is attractive and invites people to share their common energies? What breathes life and spirit to a space filled with books, events, technology and encounters with people? Is it the home-like qualities and living room-like atmosphere of the building, or is it stylishness and design that takes your breath away? Is it the free, democratic space, where you can go when you have no other ideas or money to spend? Is it the atmosphere that offers the possibility to be somewhere in between spaces – in a non-commercial space, not at home? Rather somewhere in the middle of a story.

You should always remember the story – fiction and imagination, the wells that literature draws from. The library tells the story of its own time, at the same time feeding the visitors’ need for fiction. The new Central Library can be a tool for creating, telling and recording a new, humane story that is both personal and socially shared.

PS: The conference keynote speaker was architect Helle Juul from Denmark. Her thoughts on future libraries will be presented in the next instalment of this column.

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