Reality chat The library as a meeting place

“One could chat in reality, meet and talk about books”
The phrase “the library as a meeting place” is common enough, yet it seldom refers to the library as a social meeting place. On the whole people visit libraries by themselves in search of something – yet done among a crowd of people doing the very same thing. In today’s dense information society it becomes increasingly important that there are milieus able to induce a sense of contemplation and reflection. But a library also has other functions, especially from the point of view of children and young people. The fact that a library also functions as a social meeting place is an exciting, novel and uncharted theme. It is not the most common of library goals to network and instigate relationships between people.

According to a recently published paper by Lisa Corneliuson on the International Library in Stockholm there is no contradiction in being a place of meditation and a social meeting place (what does the International Library as a socie-cultural spatiality say about discourses of belonging and integration in the Swedish society?). The main issue of contention in the paper was whether the International Library enforced integration or if the approach they had chosen actually aided segregation. The author reflects upon the issue that people do not actually visit the International Library in order to meet others. There is little conversation among visitors and those that do engage usually do so with others who speak the same language. The paper’s conclusion is, nevertheless, that the library has an integrational function. People enjoy a feeling of we-ness with the other visitors, even though their purposes are of an individual nature. The paper would like to see an increase in the space intended for direct communication, such as coffee shops.

The public library as an open forum in society, where anyone can go without having to do anything in particular, is an aspect seldom discussed. Libraries are often spoken about as an intermediary of knowledge and information or as a place where children are encouraged to read. In a paper Göran Greider makes the observation that there is a noticeable difference whether a society has a public space in the form of a library, even to those that never venture there. He goes on to say that it “marks the presence of the public in the social wilderness” (Bibliotek – mötesplats I tid och rum). He reasons about the role of the library and concludes that it should neither be a neoliberal customer service (give the customer what they want) or a reflection of a culturally conservative adult education. There must be a third option, says Göran Greider – to provide a foundation for democracy. Such accountability may encompass civic duties as well as taking care of the fiction section. Greider states that such an extensive concept is only conceivable if funded by public means.

Göran Greider has a point here. Libraries are the public space aimed at people in their capacity as citizens and part of a community, unlike most public space, which is devoted to commercial activities. Incidentally, the designing of public space aimed at all and sundry does not necessarily imply that the aesthetics of the architect should prevail. Spatiality can also be claimed to communicate with its visitors as citizens and members of a community, as a contrast to shopping malls.

Child Convention
The work of the Child Convention has changed the very foundation of library activities in Sweden aimed at children. Above all, this new point of view has been shaped within the context of the project ‘Terms and conditions of children and young people’ (Lena Lundgren: På barns och ungdomars villkor).

Current views on children are radically different from those prevalent 20 years ago. Today, children are seen as participating, communicative and interpretative citizens and are to be respected as such. Adult responsibility towards children can entail informing, providing guidance and sharing experiences. This new approach to children requires the library to increase its communication with them and allow for dialogues in time and space. New methods are required to extend the basis for dialogue with its users. Reference groups, focus groups and book clubs are examples of activities aimed in that direction. New methods require physical changes and new ways of structuring library space. Space reserved for book chats and study courses are often conceived and furnished to accommodate one-way communication.When comparing with schools, one notes that classrooms are designed from a high degree of differentiation with regard to teaching and the choice of starting points (Pia Björklid: Lärande och fysisk miljö). The question is, whether a library’s communicative space stands to learn from this?

In a knowledge overview with regard to the interplay between teaching and physical environment, Pia Björklid writes about the importance attributed corridors, staircases, halls, nooks and crannies through children. These are not meaningless stretches of transportation because children fill them with meaning when transporting themselves between more defined and purpose filled spaces. The undefined areas are equally as important as those areas possessing a higher degree of definition and need to be taken into consideration if libraries aim to increase social meetings and communication between children and young people (Lena Lungren: Biblioteken och barns kunskapande).

Children and learning
A knowledge society insists that people study and improve themselves. Our economy is reliant upon a high level of education, which increases the importance of formal teaching. Yet, studies show that teaching is also dependent upon a socio-cultural context – learning evolves from the interplay between people and their environment. Public libraries play an important role in the act of informal learning. However it is important to remember that the informal and formal are in alliance with one another. If children fail to learn to read and write in school, they will also fail to profit by what public libraries have to offer – on the other hand if they are not given the opportunity to explore by themselves they will not be given the required possibilities to develop as individuals in a democratic society. A survey done by Lena Lundgren shows that 50% of the questions children ask public libraries are their own and not those of school assignments, which proves that the driving force to explore the world in an individual manner is powerful.

Perhaps libraries should take yet another step to actively strive to create social environments and networking that contribute to informal learning. In reality it would mean that libraries need to take the initiative and invite various groups to explore a specific subject. This is how it already is to an extent in children’s departments, to which first time parents are invited. Libraries could also offer groups, which meet on a regular basis, to use library premises in order to support each respective group’s social network. Activities could be jointly planned with social authorities, educational associations, sports associations etc.

At a seminar about children’s libraries in the future, Kim Rasmussen spoke about how children experience libraries in spatial terms (Kim Rasmussen: Rumlige kvaliteter ved börnebibliotek). Among other things, he said that children’s experience of spatiality is reflected by its social experience acquired within it. It was of importance if a child visiting a library experienced a positive atmosphere, such as a helpful adult or having fun with friends. In the light of the latter statement, the physical shape of space is of less importance to a child than to an adult. The main thing is that the room is safe and comforting, offering numerous possibilities to communicate with persons of their own age.

Children in the media landscape
Lecturer Ulrika Sjöberg at Halmstad University, Department of Media and Communication, gives an account of how the use of media by children and young people is of importance to their sense of identity, the creating and maintenance of social relationships (Ulrika Sjöberg: Barns möte med elektronisk text i Barns smak – om barn och estetik). She calls attention to the following: “that from being interested in the specific effects of media, today’s researchers emphasize the importance of context and the individual’s definition of meaning and interpretation based on their own personal and cultural frames of reference”. This implies that libraries need to be considered in a wider media context and that the traditional library media, the book, must be seen in its relationship to other media. But, the rich variation of digital meeting places cannot replace actual physical meetings and all it carries with it in the form of sensuous experiences. Of course there are a number of transactions and much exchange of information that might just as well take place on the Internet, but there is still an attraction and a need to meet in reality, not least for children and young people.

At a focus group meeting consisting of teenagers at the Stockholm Public Library in 2002, a fourteen-year-old boy came upon a thought he obviously felt to be nothing short of brilliant and needed to be shared: “One could chat in reality, meet and talk about books”, he said, looking as though he had said something that would easily award him something along the lines of a Nobel Prize. Surely this must mean that chatting does not necessarily replace physical meetings, but actually stirs the desire to have real meetings.

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Corneliuson, Lisa
What does the International Library as a soceo-cultural spatiality say about discourses of belonging and integration in the Swedish society. Dissertation BA media studies. University of Westminister. London 2005. Handledare Tarik Sabri
Greider, Göran
Bibliotek – mötesplats i tid och rum. En bok om demokrati. Btj 2000
Lena Lundgren
På barns och ungdomars villkor. Barns rätt till kultur. Centrum för barnkulturforskning, nr 37, Stockholms universitet 2005. Artikeln är en kort presentation av projektet
Pia Björklid
Lärande och fysisk miljö. Forskning i Fokus, nr 25, Myndigheten för skolutveckling, 2005
Lundgren, Lena
Biblioteken och barns kunskapande: en undersökning av referensarbete på två barn- och ungdomsavdelningar. Borås: bibliotekhögskolan. Magisteruppsats; 1997:24
Rasmussen, Kim
Rumlige kvaliteter ved börnebibliotek. Dokumentation av föreläsning vid Danmarks Biblioteksskole 2003
Sjöberg Ulrika
Barns möte med elektronisk text i Barns smak – om barn och estetik. Centrum för barnkulturforskning nr 36, Stockholms universitet 2004

Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.