Library as room and space

The lack of development with regard to physical space is most conspicuous in the children’s departments
When people talk in a general fashion of libraries they often refer to its physical capacity. On the other hand professionals refer to it as meeting place in a figurative sense, as a point of departure for learning or as a place of relaxation and immediately they start discussing a library’s content such as databases, books etc.

The physical and architecturally shaped space of a library seldom holds the centre stage when library development issues are on the agenda. Instead, its shaping is a collaborative effort between architect and library staff and seldom seen as an actual tool for enhancing a library’s communicative and informative aspects.

Library space is a partially undeveloped potential. Most people mention the sanctity and silence of a library as something to be desired. True, the aspect of silence is often of their own imagining but this desire for calm and meditative places should nevertheless be taken seriously.

Anyone who steps into a library is confronted with and reacts to, its sense of space. Even those who hesitate when approaching the information counter and who rarely communicate with a library in any other way. Therefore a dialogue between the library and the visitor should be initiated with a spatial reference. Is it, for instance, possible to say “Hi and welcome, we have something here to interest you” with spatiality, furnishing and signs? To engage the surface is not to be mistaken for engaging superficiality. On the contrary, it implies insight into the visitor’s situation. The surface is also the first step into the depths – in this case the collections.

Giving shape to space is interesting from a number of topical aspects related to issues of library development. For those who are physically impaired the inaccessibility of a room is a most apparent problem. The libraries could, to a greater degree than at present, become focal points when integrating people with different cultural background. The question is how people from other cultures react to signs situated in a sparse ‘blonde’ designed milieu. The shape of a room is of particular importance for children and young people. The National Board for Youth Affairs has recently issued a publication emphasising young people’s need to influence and shape their own meeting places.

The old issue of how to place books on shelves and how they are exposed has once again attracted topical interest. Book spines facing outward imply an ‘internal’ order adapted for and by librarians and others privy to the system. Exposure entailing book covers and indicating an ‘external’ order are suited to those not familiar with the system. The question is: for how long can we sustain costs related to an ‘internal’ order? The staff involved in putting books on shelves serves an important function in the daily work on library premises. By systematically exposing books by their covers the library acts as a catalyst to impulsive measures by those who do not have a prepared query for the staff at the information counter. Consequently, acts of serendipity will take place. The majority of readers of fiction, including those who read a lot, often look to act upon a whim or be recommended a title. There is a rule of thumb in the book trade that states 50% spines and 50% covers. Supermarkets stay clear of spines and will only display with covers facing outward. A library should not strive to emulate the supermarkets but concentrate on width and depth. A library should be the place people venture to find out more. But dealing with the surface involves a library to take a step towards increased openness and communication with its visitors. The arrangement of space will inform on its underlying values.

Today information counters are designed to place library staff alongside the visitor enabling a unified effort when searching the catalogue. Previous to this, and still existent, the visitor and librarian would stand facing each other, nose to nose in frontal communication. The visitor would ask a question and the librarian would supply a ready-made answer. To stand alongside one another is better suited to today’s pedagogic learning processes, enabling the teacher/librarian to act as instructor and participant. The importance of the librarian’s decisiveness in supporting information competence among students is emphasised in Louise Limberg’s research report Informationssökning och lärande (Information searches and teaching, transl.) published by the Swedish Board of Education in 2002. This is of greater significance than access to the media and collaborative ventures with teaching staff. The question therefore is how we librarians view our work and how our ministrations are received. Do we work alongside the visitor and assist in formulating questions or do we answer them ourselves?

Working with websites has increased awareness as to how crucial interfacing is to enable people to orient themselves. A comparison can be made between library space and a webpage. Just like the web there should be distinct access points at all levels for people of varying ages and interests. The attained research to date as to how people navigate the Internet should be useful when designing libraries. For instance, it is apparent that people use symbols rather than text when orientating themselves. The idea of developing an image-based signs system is old and attempts have been made. It is extensive and demanding work preferably performed by a library-conscious illustrator in collaboration with the library staff. The images and symbols can then be used for the catalogues on the Internet when guiding the user to the book’s placing on the shelf. It should be userfriendly for children and those who experience reading disabilities. Such symbols are already in use in the United States.

The lack of development with regard to physical space is most conspicuous in the children’s departments.What effect has research on the importance of children’s playing had on library design? Developmental methodology by all means, but what other conclusions have been drawn? That the physical room is of great significance for children is a well known fact. Children live in the present and with all senses alert. Naturally, libraries desire to stimulate the imagination of children and their capability of insight, their ability to co-operate, their curiosity and will to learn. In accordance with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child the library aims to make them a part of its activities. In what way do the libraries aspire to this from a spatial perspective? Where is that place in which children can interact and work together with the aid of linguistically inspired images on walls? Where is the place in which they can give way to their own imaginative worlds, play library and explore the possibilities at hand for the library visitor? What aesthetic learning processes are developed in the libraries? Can museums assist libraries in making their collections and databases more visible? Is this an issue for the ALM (Archives, Libraries and Museums) collaboration?

“The room is the third pedagogue” state the pedagogues of Regio Emilia. They are of the opinion that physical environment, children and adults are three equal parties collaborating. Their approach to children is expressed architecturally and in terms of the physical environment. It is a school of thought to be inspired by when considering developmental library issues.

Reggio Emilia is a small provincial town in Northern Italy, known for its day-care institutions and pedagogic concept, initiated by Loris Malaguzzi.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.