A meeting place for the future

Visitor Pathways, Stockholm Public Library project development
For almost 75 years the incomparable building of Stockholm Public Library, designed by the prominent architect Gunnar Asplund, has catered to librarianship. Since 1928 the general public has visited the library to, among other things, seek information,attain knowledge, receive advice and guidance or simply to relax.

During the era when Gunnar Asplund was active, architecture hosted a desire to achieve simplicity and to re-connect with its original values. The building designed by Asplund exhibits distinct traces of neo-classicism and neo-antiquity. Nevertheless, the shaping of the library’s functional and utilitarian aspects looked towards the future and was in a number of respects innovative. Asplund’s importance to architecture has been thoroughly described elsewhere, whereas undeservedly forgotten are the then management of the Stockholm Public Library, Valfrid Palmgren and Fredrik Hjelmqvist.

Stockholm Public Library was Sweden’s first public library to apply the principle of open shelves, from which the visitor could choose a book without having to ask the staff for assistance. Asplund and the public librarian Fredrik Hjelmqvist were anxious to create what we today refer to as a target group adapted library. It became a library with specific children’s section in close proximity to the adult section, both of equally high standards, which proved to be something of a novelty in those bygone days of librarianship.

There is another aspect to the building that makes it interesting, namely Gunnar Asplund’s generally expressed aspiration to lead the way for the visitor into the Library. The experience commences already in the library’s environs. Leading up from one of Stockholm’s largest streets, Sveavägen, the visitor reaches the main entrance by ascending initially wide and low and finally tall and nar row steps, the design of which brings forth a peculiar rhythm to the person on foot. Once inside the dusky and confined entrance, stucco relief depicting scenes from the Occident’s first literary work put into writing, The Iliad, enfolds the visitor. Up in the library section itself the visitor is met by an almost overwhelming sense of space, openness and walls covered in books, books, books…

The Visitor Pathways Project
The world around us has changed in significant ways since the inauguration of the library. Technical developments have influenced user needs, the library and the service it provides. Some wish to evolve in a direction towards increased self-service, whilst others view the technical advancements as entailing a greater reliance upon the knowledge and service provided by the staff.

In the spring of 2000, Stockholm public librarian Inga Lundén initiated the project Visitor Pathways, with the intention of attaining a balance by uniting the needs of the visitor and the library staff ’s possibilities to meet these needs. The issue pertains in equal measures to the organisation reaching its targeted goals, as well as to the staff appreciating a work situation, which enriches and enhances their talents. The project encompasses Stockholm Public Library in its official capacity.

The number of employees within the public sector of Stockholm Public Library amounts to ca. 140 people. The average age among them is 50. In 2001 the library’s collections stood at slightly more than 795,000 volumes. The number of visitors during this same period was about 1,000,000. The same figure applies to the number of borrowed titles, which in 2000 reached 1,000,000.

Project goals
The aim of the project is to realise the vision of Stockholm Public Library as a modern and stimulating library and to become one of the more interesting of its kind in Europe, providing satisfactory accessibility to the denizens of Stockholm. Evolvement towards improved accessibility includes both physical and vir tual access to the library’s collections and its staff.

Visitor Pathways constitutes a project at Stockholm Public Library, which itself is part of a larger framework promoting high-quality service, with the purpose to increase modernisation and improve quality aspects within the organisation. Ultimately Visitor Pathways is part of politically initiated strategies and quality projects aimed at the public sectors within the City of Stockholm. The project takes into account the employee’s situation at work, with the intention of attaining a satisfactory balance uniting the visitor’s need for service and the staff ’s work situation. There is a need for physical as well as psychosocial alterations.

The project’s working method
The project is divided into separate phases: an initiating phase, a preferential phase and a realisation phase. The project will be concluded by December 2002. The various phases of the project aim to alternately shape notions about how the organisation can evolve and to realise and carry through these ideas. At the initial stage the project is subdivided into eight separate splinter projects. The group’s compositional nature is the result of a deliberate mixture of staff from various departments and professional categories with the aim of disseminating information and knowledge about the different parts of the organisation in an unaffected manner. The purpose is also an attempt to reduce differences on a departmental as well as on an individual level.

The eight splinter project groups all touched base on the general goal of accessibility, but from various perspectives.

  • User studies
  • Library entrance and guiding fixtures, such as outlining signboards in the library and view various alternatives to increase staff visibility and visitors’ accessibility
  • Logistics concerning people and media in the library
  • An investigation of internal library work processes
  • Logistics related to visitor’s queries – where are which questions asked etc.
  • Customer support/help desk for photocopies, PC-support et al. for visitors
  • Virtual library accessibility
  • Marketing library services, externally and internally.

The eight splinter groups completed their assignments during the spring of 2001. The suggestions put forward by these groups were evaluated and placed in order of precedence seen from degrees of priority. This led to a concentration of three areas from which new projects evolved.

The Education Project
The aim of the Education Project is that all employees should obtain similar levels of fundamental knowledge regarding the collections and services offered by Stockholm Public Library as well as being informed about the organisation’s other areas of engagements. Irrespective of which member of staff a visitor encounters at Stockholm Public Library, that person should be able to supply the visitor with adequate information. The aim is to create an organisation whose responsibility is to instruct its staff and visitors on a frequently recurring basis.

Self-service/logistics project
The aim of the Self-service Project is to develop prerequisites and opportunities that invite the visitor, to a greater extent than previously, to act independently of library staff. Increased automation regarding matters of routine procedure will consequently release staff to engage in more qualified service. The purpose is to offer full and/or semi-automated solutions for those services comprising loans and the returning of borrowed media.

The Virtual Library Project
The aim of the Virtual Library Project is to find a form and structure enabling virtual service in an easy and accessible way. The aim is to create a user-friendly and distinct interface, taking into consideration the graphics, technique, logic and communication between the various components that make up the library’s physical and electronic services. The intention is to create a platform for the handling of Stockholm Public Library’s virtual services and to create and develop the current ones.

The factors that mainly indicate the requirements for Visitor Pathways are the organisational structure,the building’s potential and limitations, library staff, collections and technique.

When an organisational idea is divided into smaller units there is always the risk of mental and emotional distance appearing between the constituent parts. The functions of Stockholm Public Library are situated in two buildings. The different departments look after their own assignments most of the time and consequently detachments evolve between the employees of these departments.Within some departments there is also a par titioning of various professional categories. The awareness of only being a separate part, and not part of a whole, affects staff interaction with visitors. At times there is a lack of mutual understanding concerning each party’s area of competence and responsibility, both on departmental and individual level. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the organisational idea and the mutual goals are well established within all departments and their staff. Although we may rate the accessibility of the collections highly, it is the accessibility of the library staff ’s knowledge that should rate higher. This necessitates an understanding between visitor’s requirements and the prevailing conditions for the staff. New work strategies must be attained to release more time in striving for increased efficient and qualified public service. Consequently, the Education Project was given top priority. All the staff has participated in “Knowledge Days”, the main purpose being to create a mutual foundation from which further developmental work can be implemented. Staff has received a personal folder Welcome to Stockholm Public Library along with nameplates. To enable the staff to familiarise themselves with their dist rict, guided tours have been introduced.

The library buildings
Access to the media is today available to everyone though restrictively so for certain groups. An aim is to cater better for the needs of those that are physically challenged and unused to reading. Even though media are physically available in the library for most visitors, it is a known fact that many cannot always find what they are looking for. Stockholm Public Library is an old building with several floor-levels, not always so easily accessed. Elevators reach most floor-levels but there are spaces that can only be reached by stairs.

The collections of Stockholm Public Library are extensive.Most visitors are still restricted to personal service when borrowing or returning media. Spring 2002 saw the recommended Self-service/ logistics Project come into being. Information counters have been replaced and purpose-built. Service functions are improved and easily available via the telephone and not least via the virtual library.

The implementation of a new computer system will offer the visitor considerably improved access to the library’s electronic services, together with increased possibilities for self-service. As of yet the library’s offering of virtual service is very limited. In that particular area there still remains a lot to be done, like improving facilities in the long run for user groups such as the physically challenged. This is why the Virtual Library Project has priority.

Visitor Pathways and the future
Stockholm Public Library is not alone in having been affected by changes in the world. There are numerous libraries with similar projects resembling that of Visitor Pathways. The project will be evaluated during the autumn 2002. The ambition is to see a work strategy presented in Visitor Pathways, and for it to become a regular feature and an ongoing process in developing services to better correspond to the needs and expectations of our visitors.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Librarian, Kulturförvaltningen.
Librarian, Stockholms, Stadsbibliotek.