Library interiors

Libraries present an interior architecture with counters, strict systematic rows of bookshelves and furniture of an institutional character planned to last for decades. This does not tell the users about the services. It does not tell the story about the library as a workshop, a learning place, a meeting place and a place of adventure.

Libraries are making great efforts to stay relevant in a rapidly changing society. Impressive and ambitious developing work is taking place in many libraries to adjust and improve services and to move ahead in development of the library’s environment.

Libraries are invading internet communities, presenting their services outside the libraries, working with partners and allies, arranging events and creating new services on the net.

Still the library community is far from satisfied with the image of libraries or with their impact. Too often we are confronted by comments such as: “The various services in libraries are hidden treasures”. In library conferences librarians keep moaning: “We should be more visible!”

My belief is that the most powerful tool is in fact the visible part of the library, the physical conditions, the library interiors.

New services in old wrappings

It should be evident to everyone that the visual impression in and from most libraries works against their image of themselves and the terminology used by library staff in the recent years about the role of libraries as meeting places, public spaces for everyone, learning centres, spaces for democracy and so on.

We need to wipe out the mental maps in people’s minds when they think of libraries. And this must start with the librarians’ own ideas about library space.

To develop services is necessary. To install new services in the old wrappings may, however, have little effect when they are fitted into the massive library interiors associated with the lending and reading room services.

Visual communication and physical structures are all telling you that the library is a place where you walk along the shelves, pick up your book, go to the counter, get the librarian to register your loan and then leave the building.

Thus the design of library premises contributes to strengthening the myths about libraries and works against their modernisation.

A new typology for the library space

In Deichmanske bibliotek, the Oslo public library, we have worked on the theoretical approach to this problem for several years. For almost two decades our ideas about the new main library have included the vision of making a new typology for the library space.

We see the need for a shift of focus. In planning library buildings or rooms, the focus must be on the conditions to ensure the best possible environments for learning, for human relations and interaction, and for literature and reading.

We will look for:

New typology A shift from collection orientation to user-behaviour orientation. Parameters for planning are the facilities for inspiration, production, teamwork, social interaction and support. The collection is here classified as support.

New visual communication The library as an attraction and a sensation, with visual aids to guide the user around. Key words here are landscapes, atmosphere, scenography, sound, light and design.

New efficiency and rationalisation Intelligent and thorough use of new technology. Self service, self-instructive, self-describing and self-evident interiors combined with a simple and elegant interface to computer services.

New functions and services The library will facilitate and organise various new forms of services, support and promote learning, support working and meeting activities concerned with printed, digital and multimedia materials. 24 hour services, cafés and shops as part of the library concept.

New organisation Rapid changes in methods, functions and services, according to future changes in media production, ICT, etc, and the integration of functions such as cafés, museums and shops will demand flexibility in the building and new organisational structures within the library.

Oslo City Library

Since the launching in 1991 of the idea of the new library in an infamous 200 m. long shopping mall, which would indeed have represented a remarkable change of typology, the focus has been on finding the final site.

A new architectural design competition will be arranged this autumn. So at the moment there are no results to show on a grand scale.

In the existing main library we have tried to make some changes according to the ideas above. During the last year we have concentrated on three branch libraries. Recently the Røa branch reopened in enlarged and total reorganised shape. Even enlarged, however, this library is not big enough to offer a great variety of places and spaces. Serendipity as a ‘system’ will very easily be a mess if introduced in small premises. The renovated branch has, however, succeeded in creating distinct spaces, attractive colours, light and a welcoming atmosphere. The counter has been banished!

The Bjørnholt and Lambertseter branches are in the planning stage, which means that this article cannot refer to results. The planning process is, however, of great importance. If the library staff are not conscious enough about the importance of the interior planning, have no ideas about what atmosphere they want to communicate to the users, have no clear visions about what user activities they want to facilitate in the library room, then the architect’s ideas will be predominant in shaping the library. Or even worse, the suppliers of library furniture will take over that role.

These two branch libraries are now running processes with staff participation in interior planning, involving the experiences gained from both the Røa branch and from the pilot work in the main library. By this we hope to develop in our system a strong base with competence in interior planning.

Liv Sæteren
Chief librarian
Deichmanske bibliotek/Oslo Public Library

liv.sateren AT

Translated by Eric Deverill

Chief librarian Deichmanske bibliotek/Oslo Public Library