The room as mediator Interview with project manager

Why are you not satisfied with the way the children’s library functions today?———-

- We have a lot of books and rows and rows of bookshelves in the circulation area, but the book no longer plays such an important part in children’s lives. The consequence is that we are making room for the other media on an equal footing with the books, both in terms of purchasing, shelf metres and the mediation as such.We are certainly not dropping the book, but we create space for the introduction of other media so that they can interact with each other as well as with the book.

As to the book, we should like to mediate it in new ways, like reading clubs, national reading aloud competitions, kindergarten libraries, literature pages on the net etc. At the moment most of our books are arranged in long rows with their backs turned towards the public, and when we arrange them so that people can see the covers, loan figures rise by 50%.We have therefore concluded that the endless shelf metres are in effect a barrier to attracting children to books.

As researcher Lotte Nyboe from the University of Southern Denmark points out in her study of children’s use of the library, many children believe that they cannot ask for anything other than books at the circulation desk. And when you think of the massive wall of books they are faced with in the library, it is no wonder that it affects the way children ask and the way librarians think.We therefore want to get most of the books down into an open stack in the basement and use the circulation area for activities where together with the children we delve into the content of all the different forms of material and services that the library has to offer.

Why do you attach such importance to a radically new design of the physical space in the children’s library?—–

- We wish to let the room act a tool for mediating our materials and knowledge. Today the library’s physical space seems more like an opponent, because it doesn’t show what we are capable of at all – that we do in fact have the competences for promoting the media in equal measures, and that we can do so much more than just passing a book or a cassette over the counter. It is therefore important to us to turn the design into a co-player in the mediation process so that our competences, our activities and the way we design the room form a whole. In fact, we want to use the circulation department as a kind of showroom with different areas where the children can experience our materials and offers in different ways. And it is vital that the activities take place in the circulation area, because this signals very clearly to the children that the library is a place where you can have a dialogue about more than just being handed the materials.

In what way have you developed the new design for the library?———-

- During the spring we developed ideas for the design together with Ikea’s interior designers where our librarianship competences and their design competences were intertwined. And we have been talking about getting a display artist to help with our various displays of materials.We want to get away from the usual institutional furniture and display tables covered in velour.

How exactly are you going to mediate the content of your material through activities you participate actively in yourselves?————-

- Rather than just passing computer games over the counter we want to concentrate on the content together with the children the way they do it in for example reading clubs. Amongst other things we will arrange computer and PlayStation clubs where we sit down with the children and play computer games and set up tournaments and experience the universe of the games with the children. On their terms – with popcorn and cola etc.We also want to arrange learning activities like e.g. mini courses in photo shop so that you can edit photos for e.g. Arto (a danish chatroom for children).

What does this kind of material mediation via activities require from the librarian?———

- That we – in an interaction with the children – delve into the content. That is to say that we actively and with total commitment share with them the experiences inherent in our materials and thereby create the essential dialogue for getting the message across.

Why do you want to involve partners from outside in the mediation to the children?————–

- You often have a tendency to forget to draw on competences other than those you automatically meet in your daily work. We can for example use people from our IT department in workshops on picture editing or people from computer games shops like EB-games, who are superb at introducing games to the children. And we can put focus on the content of non-fiction books by inviting a policeman to come and tell us about his work, while at the same time we introduce the children to books about the police. Or a keeper from the Zoo, while introducing books on animals.

Lotte Nyboe’s study shows that the new media are not being mediated actively enough – is she right in saying that generally speaking librarians are not sufficiently equipped to promoting the new media?————

- Yes, I think so. The library’s task is to mediate and not just make material available and hand computer games over the counter. It is what is inside that is interesting to children. It is therefore important that as a librarian you get to know the new media and play the games together with children, show them how to use net services, arrange workshops where they find out that the librarian possesses knowledge which they can draw upon etc. This creates the dialogue with the children which is all-important in mediation, because this reveals what they think is cool and what is not.

How do you make sure that all librarians get the necessary technical knowhow?———–

- Most of us are quite familiar with new media – not all of us are crazy about computer games, but we have grown up with the new media. So we do know something about them, although everything develops rather rapidly. Our team is composed according to our different skills, so we have for example a super specialist on computer games etc. By teaching each other and exchanging new knowledge we make sure that we are all of us reasonably updated.

We have made an agreement that we all have to be able to run a gaming club, and we therefore hold tournaments for the staff in e.g. PlayStation 2.We will also arrange workshops on e.g. blogs, Arto etc. These ‘gaming days’ is time well spent, because you develop competences in relation to the new media when you get down to it and have a go yourself. It is an effective way to conquer any hesitation towards something unknown and to learn something about children’s own culture in relation to the new media – i.e. picking up the language and the concepts children use when they are gaming or chatting.

Have some librarians found it a bit difficult to change the daily practices so radically?————

- No.We have been discussing matters for such a long time that nobody feels that they have been pushed into it. Everyone in the team accepts that something radical has to happen if we want more children to use the library. You can’t keep going round and round in circles. But it is, of course, a challenge for all of us – everyday life won’t be the same again ever.

Do you have some advice for others who want to change the daily working routines as radically as you are doing – how do you get all members of staff ‘on board’?———-

- We spent a lot of time talking things through before writing the application. We all realised that the circulation area was totally out of date and not at all able to compete with the other offers children come across in their leisure time. And we agreed that something had to happen in the circulation department if we want children to go on visiting the library. While discussing what we could do differently, the idea for the project emerged. And because we discussed it for a long time before writing our project application to the Development Pool for Public and School libraries last autumn, everyone has had sufficient time to get used to the idea of change as a necessary condition chosen by ourselves – it is not something that we have been forced into. Everybody in the team being included 100% in the process all the way through makes for a positive and open attitude on behalf of all participants. And we have committed ourselves to each other with certain rules for how we should act in relation to the new demands and challenges we are going to face – that we have to be prepared to say yes to developments. At the same time we are well aware that it may be difficult to change our fixed habits in certain areas, and that we are undoubtedly not going to get it 100% right the first time round. But via the current evaluation which we have built into the project, we have the chance all along to correct and change.

How do you make sure that you keep up with the children’s changing needs?———-

- We are going to appoint a children’s council, where we use the children as experts in relation to what is in, and what is not right now. The council will i.a. consist of representatives from our gaming- and reading clubs, and via the schools we will invite children from e.g. the pupils’ council so as to include others apart from our core users in the council.

Monica C. Madsen
journalist, Bureauet

mail AT

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield