A Library for the patron

Today’s library looks like a self-service warehouse; the key to the collections being the decimal classification system. There is no natural path from everyday life into the world of knowledge and culture. A library that operates on the terms of the patrons would be very different.

An ‘elastic’ library

Imagine standing in the middle of the floor in a large public library. Close your eyes and take yourself back in time. The grand, austere chambers have merged into bright family libraries, changed into cosy living rooms with low ceilings, sofas and weeping fig plants. Wall-to-wall carpets grow like mould under your feet.

Then a green light illuminates the borrowing counter and the optical wand begins to beep. The chambers grow in height as libraries become information centres. First a few patron terminals appear, and soon a whole column of Internet terminals march in. Instead of circling around the borrowing counter, patrons now flutter around the automatic borrowing and returning machines. But the massive rows of shelves, rigid with the decimal classification system, still govern the library hall. You can see the service counter from the door; it divides the space into the realm of professionals and amateurs.

The decimal classification system symbolizes everything unchanged. The counter emphasizes the staff ’s status as gate-keepers.

Clear roles

When a patron visits the library, (s)he has a reason for doing so. Perhaps (s)he is looking for a particular work or certain information. Perhaps (s)he merely wants to know what types of exciting things are offered there. Sometimes (s)he wants to study for an exam. At the same time, (s)he can sense the presence of others and feel a sense of belonging.

When patrons know what they are looking for, they can ask and be active. When they are merely browsing aimlessly, they have no questions to ask. This is the time when the library needs to take on an active role, offer something.

A path from the everyday to the world of knowledge?

The traditional library looks like a selfservice warehouse where there is a service counter for difficult situations. The collections are arranged according to the decimal classification system, which has been designed for professionals. For the patron, it is a maze through which they only have basic skills to find their way. The traditional hall of shelves is not at all appropriate for browsing. It represents the hierarchy of knowledge to which there is no path from the everyday concepts and lives of people.

The traditional library encounters its patrons as part of the masses or as an individual, seldom as the representative of a particular group. Patrons are left rather alone. There is a service counter, but we all know that patrons use it only when they are in extreme distress.

Browsing and encounters

There are many types of libraries of the future; here is one of them: Different activities are arranged in different zones – a zone for browsing, making searches, receiving service, a zone to absorb oneself in knowledge, and a place to meet others. In this way, the roles are always clear; people are active when they want to be.

The first zone a patron encounters in the library of the future is the browsing zone. This would be a place where the library specialists have put interesting works, based on a particular theme, on display. The works face the patrons; they do not have their backs to them. The themes are not permanent; some of them may change on a daily basis. They may pertain to hobbies, family life, professions or the daily news topics. They do not reflect the hierarchy of knowledge; rather, they represent the changing life of everyday people. Each theme would have a title, picture or symbol, which, like a flag, sparks the senses of those interested. Here, visitors can wander around not knowing what they are looking for and still find something suitable. In this zone, the library is active. For this reason, the staff must be capable of differentiating between various target groups among their patrons. Furthermore, the staff must be capable of singling out that which is most interesting at a given time, much like the work of a journalist.

The staff of even a large library is not capable of being knowledgeable in all of the areas of information that the patrons represent. For this reason, libraries would establish specialist groups that would compile catalogues, exhibitions of various works, and tips for acquisitions to be distributed among all libraries.

The browsing zone would be the missing link between the hierarchy of knowledge and everyday life. There, the patron is not alone or just a part of the masses; rather, (s)he is approached as the member of a group.

A place where library patrons and the surrounding community could present their creations, achievements and interests in the form of displays, presentations, and lectures, etc. would be located somewhere near the browsing zone. The surrounding community would be present in the library making it a natural part of the community.

The meeting zone would provide the library staff with an opportunity to interact with those target groups the library wishes to serve. It would be the number-one place to get to know each other. Here, the patron groups have the floor. Here, they are the active organ, like in Library 2.0.

Search and service

The search zone would have sections according to the type of information needed, such as fiction, science, or health, as in the Malmö and Turku libraries. Here, the material would be organized strictly according to the decimal classification system, with works with the same topics in the same place; magazines, books, discs or databases. The sections would be easy to recognize and differentiate from other sections.

Patrons would come to the search zone because they would basically know what they are looking for; here they would take an active role. Each area of information would have a smaller, clearly marked service area where the staff and the tools they need to search for and find information would be located. The staff would wear brightly coloured vests; ‘ask me’! Every artifice would be utilized: clear signs, colour codes, RFID stickers for locating works, shelf maps, intuitive search engines, etc.

The end product of library services displayed

The study zone would be located in the middle of the library behind glass windows. The zone would have a large reading room and various work stations where patrons could search for information, read, write, play instruments, record, mix, do group work, research and create. It would be beneficial if there was a view out to the other places in the library from the study zone.What would be better publicity for the importance of absorbing information than a figure intensively hunched over a book? The study zone would keep the library’s end products on display: learning, regeneration and creativity.

There would be no service counter in the entire library. The staff and patrons are equal in status and stand or sit next to consoles or desks in the customerservice situation. Display panels would be dazzling at the end of the shelves like magic mirrors to a wondrous land, facilitating access to the services in the virtual section as well.

The library of the future should be communicative of creativity, interaction and community. It would still be a warehouse of knowledge, but on a secondary level. As the standard of living rises and there are more opportunities available, people are able to acquire an abundance of information from places other than the library. The focus of the library has to shift from storing knowledge to recommending and finding it.

Seppo Verho
Chief Editor
Kirjasto magazine

Email: verho AT

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös

Managing Editor, Kirjasto-lehti