A Space for the Future – Library Buildings in the 21st Century

Library space is becoming more and more important when so many other activities and services are now offered in the virtual form  The birth of the virtual library brought predictions that physical library space would no longer be needed. In reality, the world is still building bigger and better libraries. Claims can be heard, however, that librarians and library architects are too conservative and that they need to break out of the mould and revitalise their thinking.

The above was the starting point, when Helsinki City Library organised A Space for the Future – Library Buildings in the 21st Century – conference. Many new library buildings have been built in Finland, at least 200 during the past few decades. Two separate study groups visited some of them after the conference.

However, the exhibition of Finnish libraries was not the primary purpose of this conference. Instead, we wanted to give a wide variety of samples of library buildings in different countries. In two days we toured 10 European countries and made a short visit to Singapore as well. The number of participants –170 people from 30 countries, even outside Europe – exceeded our expectations and proved that building new libraries is topical all over the world.

The conference confirmed our belief that the physical library, library space, will remain by the side of the virtual library. As a matter of fact, a public space such as library space is becoming more and more important when so many other activities and services are now offered in the vir tual form. Our real challenge as librarians is how we are able to change the image, the interior of the library according to the new activities and needs. How are the changes from collection to access and from preservation to communication reflected in the design of the library space?

Nordic library architecture was on prominent display due to its long and well-established tradition. During the Nordic tour, library projects of the Nordic capitals were presented, Oslo’s project being the most concrete example. A world-famous Dutch architect office O.M.A. (Office for Metropolitan architecture) headed by Rem Kolhaas won the recently concluded architect contest (see also SPLQ 2002:3). The Danes for their part presented design co-operation based on equal dialogue between an architect and a librarian, something that would seem quite obvious, yet does not always work in practice!

The keynote speaker was architect Francine M. J. Houben of the Dutch Mecanoo Architecten group. Ms Houben has designed Delft University Library. She approached library and its space from the different needs of the customers. A library is at once a school, a home, a workplace, a church, a theatre and many other things besides. The fundamental factor in this type of approach is that library space is examined from the point of view of its function and ambience. Customers are thus offered the best and the most beautiful places in the library space while the library materials are placed in the less important parts of the library.

That the library has social importance was also proven during the conference. This was most clearly demonstrated when Singapore presented their library system and library buildings. In Singapore the mission of the National Library Board is “To expand the learning capacity of the nation so as to enhance national competitiveness and to promote a gracious society”. Even in the digital age, developing physical libraries is still a key strategy. The same trend was evident during the sightseeing tour through Europe. The library and the new library premises are closely connected to supporting the development of the whole society. This was verified by examples from Turin in Italy, from Catalonia in Spain, from The Tower Hamlet Libraries in London, from Slovenia and from Vienna.

The exhibition of the conference Future library ‘lounge’ was planned by a number of young Finnish architects and architecture students. Young people are the most a ctive library users in Helsinki City Library so it is important to demonstrate what the new generation of architects is thinking about libraries. The exhibition featured an interesting selection of projects and concepts related to the idea of New Library with interactivity and mobility. See www.aula.cc/projects/futurelibrary/

As feedback from participants we have received e.g. following opinions:

  • One of the best I’ve been to in last years.
  • Very useful, new standpoints, new ideas.
  • Be more provocative perhaps, add debates among architects.
  • It was very well organised and I was grateful for the opportunity to attend.

Maija Berndtsonlibrary director, Helsinki City Library The conference A Space for the Future – Library Buildings in the 21st Century was organised by Helsinki City Library and was held at Hanasaari Cultural Centre 2-3 June, 2002. It was supported by the Nordic Cultural Fund.

Conference presentations are available atwww.lib.hel.fi/conf02/

Library Director in Helsinki, 1987-2013
The conference A Space for the Future – Library Buildings in the 21st Century was organised by Helsinki City Library and was held at Hanasaari Cultural Centre 2-3 June, 2002. It was supported by the Nordic Cultural Fund. Conference presentations are available at www.lib.hel.fi/conf02/