Public space for personal use

Jorge Luis Borges wrote about “the universe which others call the Library”, composed by an infinite number of hexagonal galleries. This “Library of Babel” seems to represent the ultimate systematic order even when duplicated by those dubious mirrors, but one can feel the threat in the air – it can all change into chaos any minute; “the vertical wilderness of books runs the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious God”. One can find some exciting architectonic visions of this mythological library on the web.

In the previous issue of SPLQ there were inspiring articles about library architecture, about planning physical environments for users, collections and services, offering, in the hybrid library era, also access and services virtually, far beyond the limits of these beautiful buildings. Today the word space is frequently mentioned in connection with libraries, they are public places offering people personal space. This implies freedom from demands of any kind in an environment filled with possibilities, distinguishing libraries from shopping malls or entertainment centres.

I had the opportunity of listening to Naomi Klein at the ALA/CLA Annual Conference in Toronto in June this year. Referring to those more or less concealed Gats-negotiations she strongly urged libraries to stay distinctly public. If we have libraries selling books and souvenirs and bookshops with story-telling hours for children and nice reading corners, people soon can’t tell the difference between public and commercial. Then one day we risk having a situation where booksellers sue libraries for unfair competition, for lending for free what they trade, and no one stands up to defend libraries because there really is no big difference.

But back to the vertical wilderness Borges mentions, affirming, denying and confusing, the universe which others call the Internet. Never has it been so easy to produce and distribute so much disinformation, so many unwanted messages, such devastating quantities of futile infotainment all over the world. On the other hand – never has it been so easy to inform and get informed, to keep in contact – vertically – with like-minded, to follow politics and science, to discover for oneself or participate in distance learning.

Libraries lay down hexagon after hexagon into this virtual space; meta search, portals, subject guides and catalogues. According to Finnish Library Strategy 2010 libraries should add value to information retrieval and management through services that are critical of media and sources. The right and ability to make use of information is a basic value of the information society, and libraries should be gateways also to electronic communication with the public administration. Libraries are creators and supporters of community spirit, they are open for everyone and strengthen democracy.

Paul Virilio says that McLuhan’s Global Village is nothing but a “World Ghetto” as, from his point of view, globalisation obscures people’s sense of national identity, rights and democracy. For a librarian and a civil servant working with implementing a library strategy for the future and annually reading through hundreds of innovative applications from Finnish libraries for producing user-friendly services and contents on the web, the importance of being distinctly public becomes very clear, as do the reasons why societies based on democratic principles and transparency should truly invest in their libraries.

A library utilisation rate of 80% of the Finnish population, meaning real visits in real library buildings besides the rapidly growing use of remote services, makes one feel very optimistic. Libraries are built to be social and cultural centres of the civilised information society.

Retired, former editor