Library – cathedral or intermediary?

Very seldom do we see libraries seemingly welcoming us with open arms
The exterior of a building will often tell even the most casual of observer whether it is a public building or not, or say a police station or a court of law. The power of governments is often reflected in buildings of a pompous nature. Schools purvey the industrial mental capability of public buildings and day nurseries often assume the appearance of barracks. Frequently, though not always, it is possible to gather what lies behind the facade of a public building. But, contents change, society changes as do the aims and activity of the public sector.

A prime example is that of our public libraries. Practically all municipalities in Sweden consider children and young people a priority group when declaring their objectives. So, is this fact reflected in a library building’s appearance? Hardly. Does the shape of a building tell us that other groups are given priority? No.What exactly do we see? We see public officialdom and streaks of monumentality.We see library buildings informing us of architecture, of its own stature and importance.We seldom see buildings conveying the feeling that they are there for children, young people or other priority groups. Very seldom do we see libraries seemingly welcoming us with open arms.

The fact that libraries carry such significance and are permitted to be seen, to cost and distinguish themselves amongst other buildings does nevertheless tell us something. That is, they can be of importance.

The Swedish Library Act states that everyone shall have access to public libraries. The Act also states that the physically impaired, minority groups, children and young people shall be given preferential treatment.

The truly decisive factors that constitute a library building’s nature are only revealed by those who view it from a disadvantageous position. Those who lack education, those who are not well versed in literature, children and the physically impaired should be the sole judges as to whether a library is accessible or not.

The library room is especially important to children. A feeling of homeliness must prevail in order to inspire quest and query. Ceiling height and light are of importance, as are warm colour schemes and materials. There should be zones where the eye is allowed to wander but also closed areas where conversations, group projects and thoughts can be pursued. I prefer libraries that look to different spatial solutions such as a café for meetings or a spacious book area where the soul may repose for a while. Smaller spaces should be partitioned using shelves or something similar, though not walls as many find comfort in what is happening on the other side. Places of information should be spread out and not solely restricted to the walled diminutive spaces of the lending desks. The encounter between visitor and librarian should be of a personal kind, enabling dialogues of a confidential nature.

Accessibility is a keyword. The absence of obstacles. Libraries should convey what is being inquired into. It is a hindrance if the user cannot find what they are looking for. It is also a hindrance if the signs in the library are incomprehensible or contain too many negative messages. It is a hindrance if the visitor does not feel the urge or not even dare enter the library premises. Never mind not even finding them.

To situate a library in a place of learning a mile from the town centre is a hindrance for those who are not enrolled there as students. Yet such public libraries are built. It is a hindrance if the library is situated in the midst of a school building. Yet such public libraries exist.Who wants to pass through a school silenced by the evening just to collect a book? How willing is someone who harbours bad memories from their school days to enter such buildings when adults?

When planning new libraries or refurnishing old ones there is a tendency to forget who the library is for.We tend to be dictated to by the present. Perhaps there is a vacant plot or a building that could be put to use, a co-operative venture with a school that needs emphasising or a limited financial reality. A library should be able to stand its ground for more than 50 years, meet and accommodate people from all walks of life, create ties to the past and blaze paths into the future. Before we build new and better libraries we need to reshape the ones we have, we need the courage to tear down old walls and barriers. All in order for us to see, think and act on behalf of those for whom public libraries are intended.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Uno Nilsson