Editorial: The library space – a constant challenge

A way of trend spotting in the international library community is to examine which topics the organisers of the annual IFLA conference have estimated for small, medium or large scale premises. This year there was apparently a much bigger interest in the physical library, library buildings and interior design than expected. Some of the speakers talked about the renaissance of the library building after a number of years with a clear focus on development of web services. They may well be right.

The physical library has been on the agenda for as long as we have had public libraries, but the new agenda is much more radical than previously. For instance it is about weeding far more books than before.

We have been working on the hybrid library concept since the mid-nineties based on the idea that the change of behaviour of library customers towards less use of printed material and growing use of web based services would lead to a need for changes in the interior design of public libraries. But did libraries change in that period? Certainly some did. And a number of newer library buildings have been setting a new standard. The Seattle Public Library is one, but there are many others. Visiting older libraries are however very often a ‘déjà vu’ of something from your childhood: endless overloaded bookshelves where customers often don’t dare to take out a book – because the space it leaves disappears in a second from the pressure and you cannot squeeze the book back on the overloaded shelf.

If there is a breakthrough for the understanding of the necessity to establish a ‘new library’ it implicates that a significantly bigger number of library directors realise they have got to change their interior design even if they are not going to build a new library. A title from a recent library report reveals the change needed in one punch line: From book container to community centre. The Danish strategy for library development is titled From information to knowledge and some of our developers talk about a change in library activities ‘from transaction to relation’. It is all about the fact that even if book lending is still at the very heart of our activities there is a growing need for services that are not related to lending. One trend is that the bigger the library the more users leave the library without borrowing anything. They come to use a PC, ask for help with a search, attend a lesson or a cultural event, read newspapers and journals, see an exhibition, meet somebody, work.

Many libraries have been designed to meet these needs for years, many more have not. One of the difficulties has been to form a clear identity of the new library. If collection management is no longer the most important activity, if housing of the well-managed collection is no longer the overall purpose – then what is? The point is that the library space in the knowledge society is simply just a part of the library, one of the offers. The library is still access to content in whatever form you will find it. The library should be present where people are: on the web, in the kindergarten, in schools, at work, in the football club and as always add value to people’s lives. But as that function is becoming less dependent on the library space as the only place for that, it leaves us with a freedom to do something else with the space. I believe that the concept of community centre’ or ‘the third place’ is a good answer. It should still be related to knowledge and culture, but the main task is to create good frames for learning and inspiration.

‘Community centre’ is of course a very wide and not particularly defining identity. If the library is to succeed, it is important to give it a strong identity with a local profile and content. You should probably mix different styles, create an inviting and open atmosphere mirroring the values: free access, citizenship, dialogue, development, inspiration and reflection. The library space should be flexible and readable as for instance airports are. Interaction and partnership with other activities like café, cinema, bookstore, gallery, swimming pool seem to be adding value wherever they are established.

But first and foremost the library staff should be service-minded and supportive, be truly user-oriented and less collection-oriented. Good staff can create a good atmosphere even if the premises are not optimal. The opposite: unengaged staff in better premises cannot, but there is no excuse not to try to make the best of both.

Jens Thorhauge
Director General
Danish Agency for Libraries and Media

jth AT bs.dk

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor