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Library conference an invitation to a time machine


When books are assembled into a collection, they form a library. When people assemble, they likewise form a rich, diverse compilation. In late March, such a multi-voiced community convened in Helsinki at an international library conference called Designing Today, Destination Tomorrow: Libraries Equipped to Serve and Innovate.

As in other countries, the library industry in Finland is undergoing a great transition, and the creation of the Helsinki Central Library is in the process of introducing a new library complex. In addition to representatives from Finland, the conference in Helsinki attracted visitors from Canada, Sweden, Denmark, the Baltic countries and Estonia. Most of the attendees were library employees and architects.

Even though the themes of the conference focused on future challenges that may be difficult, the atmosphere was relaxed, thereby inspiring discussion.

Anne Stenros, Design Director at Kone Oy, addressed the topic of peopleoriented cities.

Anne Stenros, Design Director at Kone Oy, addressed the topic of peopleoriented cities.

A glimpse outside the industry

Anne Stenros, Design Director at KONE, presented thoughtprovoking ideas and figures. Future libraries involve many variables – including changes in human behaviour. Ms Stenros addressed the upheaval of lifestyles and of public facilities which are in the turmoil of change even as we speak. Urbanisation and demographic growth are not about to subside, but instead gaining dimensions which will have consequences that are difficult to predict. By 2050, 72% of the Earth’s population will live in cities. This will affect purchase power and education requirements, among other things.

Stenros anticipates that future generations will value work, education and tackling poverty above family and home. The number of single people is increasing and freelance work is becoming more and more common. How can public facilities best serve young people to whom “bleasure” (”business + pleasure”) is an everyday affair at the “coffice” (“office + coffee house”)?

According to Stenros, people are already increasingly interested in neutral ground – “third facilities” – where new ideas are generated in cooperation with others. Facilities where a peer is comfortable and finds an atmosphere that generates pleasure.


Conference hostess Meiju Niskala with Knud Schulz, the Manager of the Aarhus Main Library

A review of the new library designs

In addition to an introduction of the Helsinki Central Library, the twoday seminar programme included presentations by Knud Schulz and Britta Bitsch from the Main Library in Aarhus in Denmark, Reinert Mithassel from Oslo, Kirsi Lukkanen from the University of Helsinki Main Library in Kaisa House, Åsa Kachan and George Cotaras from Halifax in Canada, Simona Ziliene from Vilnius and Anne-Marie Evers from Stockholm.

Halifax is a historic city. The key characteristic of the Halifax Central Library, opened in December 2014, is flexibility. “When people enter the library, the first thing they do is move the tables and chairs into the configuration they want,” say Chief Librarian Åsa Kachan and architect George Cotaras. “The facility changes when it is modified. Families may come to the library to spend a day together.” In Halifax, architects have designed the library together with the library services without an architectural competition.

The new central library in Vilnius has been modified into part of the landscape, whilst the old, artistic Stockholm Public Library is fighting ventilation problems. These two libraries form a juxtaposition of old and new.

However, humans form the key element of all change. New and old libraries alike are modified for human use and in accordance with the wishes of people. According to Knud Schulz, people want to create, participate, discover and experience, be inspired, learn, encounter and present things.


The architect and director of the central library opened in Halifax in December, George Cotaras and Åsa Kachan, respectively

Discussion on the changing roles of the library

The public also had the opportunity to share their thoughts and discuss the future job description of a library employee:

  • a library employee should manage a range of roles from psychiatric nurse to IT wizard
  • the employees can learn a lot from the customers’ skills
  • challenges can be encountered by working together with the customers
  • learning how to approach a customer is a key skill: the approach should not be intrusive, but not distant either
  • flexible, personal service: each customer needs a specific style
  • studying the relationship between different customer groups: what do young people need and seniors wish?
  • attitude: a positive approach to change, adaptability and fearlessness

Tuula Haavisto, George Cotaras, Katti Hoflin, Anne-Marie Evers, Åsa Kachan and Antti Nousjoki in discussion

Practical implementation

One question began to emerge more and more persistently towards the end of the conference: how to do all this? How to squeeze all these fine ideas, model examples from across the world and citizens’ wishes into a single library building?

The final panel addressed the topic of the Helsinki Central Library once more. The Central Library architect Antti Nousjoki voiced an important question: what if too many people come to the library – will the building continue to work? How can the facilities be tested for days of excessive traffic?

Helsinki residents have been key participants in brainstorming future activities. However, the final process is always unpleasant, Library Director Tuula Haavisto notes. Even some good ideas need to be discarded. According to Nousjoki, not focusing on absolutely everything is a good idea. “Introducing too many uses may not produce a serviceable outcome,” says Nousjoki. Åsa Kachan wonders how to choose the right partners and know when to say ‘no’ to some.

Finally, Reinert Mithassel amused everyone by saying: “No one’s mentioned books yet!” He reminded the attendees that the employees’ perspective is completely different from that of the people who will actually use the library in their lives. Moreover, all changes are slow – both internal and external – so we do not need to rush. “The process will not end, and that is a good thing. Flexibility increases flexibility. When we cooperate flexibly and are prepared to share, we will move from dreams to an awakening and engage in practical implementation.”


Project Manager Reinert Mithassel from Oslo summed up the themes of the conference

Text: Siru Valleala
Photos: Maisa Hopeakunnas

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