Stop waiting!

This is not a painting – this is a library
Since the end of the eighties we have lived with the knowledge that information technology is going to change our everyday lives drastically. We have lived with the idea of the great change just around the corner and wondered that it did not become more apparent, for example in the library concept and library building.

Over the past few years, however, the technological development has to a great extent been implemented in the library service: Folkebibliotekernes Netguide, bibliotek.dk, BiblioteksVagten, BibHit, ForfatterNet, DOTBOT, as well as a number of other local, national and international web-based services. We are beginning to realise that running and developing digital services is increasingly going to become one of the libraries’ core areas. The expansion of the actual content of the library is really taking flight at the moment, and it is hardly to be wondered at when an important part of the function is related to the concept ’information’. As we know, information lends itself to digitisation: books, journals, CDs, CDROMs, DVD, local historical material, images, letters etc.

The development of the libraries is an integrated part of a major change in world society – there can be no doubt about it. There are many examples of this.

Kolding Station
On Good Friday the year before last I found myself on Kolding Station. Ten years ago the primary functions of the stations would be the sale of tickets and travel information. As an additional benefit, one could wait at the station, and it was possible from a kiosk to provide oneself with papers, fruit and chocolate for the journey. Today – and at seven o’clock in the evening during Easter there is no personal service – all primary functions are automated: tickets are bought from a machine that accepts cash as well as various cards, and travel information is currently being updated on a series of monitors. There is also access to the Internet so it is possible to find information on DSB’s (Danish Rails) homepage. The opening page offers you links to all kinds of information about Kolding municipality, altogether you can just about search for any kind of information you fancy. The primary functions are automated/digitised, while the secondary functions are very much alive: the kiosk has developed into a mini supermarket and is open until 10 p.m. Next to the kiosk is a DSB restaurant – also open until 10 p.m. And the waiting room? Yes, the waiting room is the same as ever: peopled by persons waiting and others who just want to pass the time, the waiting room represents the stable element at Kolding Station.

Stop waiting
For some time we have been waiting for a ‘new library’ to materialise as a result of the development on the content plane. I am sure the time has come for exchanging the waiting position for a more active role. As forward-looking people like Rolf Hapel in Denmark and Sven Nilsson in Sweden have already been aware for quite a number of years, the point is that the new library should to a much greater extent be synonymous with a dynamic process as opposed to a static building providing the frame for a collection of materials. If we accept this thesis, it will in itself mean a change of paradigm in the library architecture.We shall then begin to see libraries as an expression of what they really are – not as an image of what they once were. But this kind of realisation has to start with the library people themselves. After that, the dynamic library concept has to be mediated to politicians and architects. Far too many ‘modern’ libraries, with Malmø Stadsbibliotek as the most exaggerated example, only reflect the architect’s (and the politician’s) anachronistic childhood notion of a library.

At a recent library directors’ meeting in Denmark, there was a call for ideas for the development of a future library concept, following in the wake of the latest library act. This was a relevant and appropriate sentiment. To a certain extent, one may expect the future library concept to match what we are able to imagine – it will be an expression of the sum of our professional fantasy, combined with the ability to realise our ideals. In a structural/building context this will be rather more difficult. Partly because part of what we imagine about the future development of libraries is associated with digital development: the virtual library. Partly because another part of what we imagine has to do with the fact that we cannot imagine everything: we live with an awareness that all the time ‘the development’ may overtake us on the inside. A new – and unknown – situation has arisen, and we must act accordingly. One can and must prepare oneself in organisational terms. That is a different story. There must be flexibility in the building programme. This concept has to be unfolded in all its aspects, the cliché has to become real.

The library is a place
In the Danish UBIS-report (1997) it was established that ‘the library is a place’ and a definition consisting of the following four elements was offered:

  1. A physical place
  2. With access to internal and external knowledge resources, as well as access to
  3. Collections of other information media, and with the possibility of
  4. Guidance.

The definition is only indicated implicitly in the most recent library act which also in relation to the library concept and library building is a framework law. The act does not really conjure up many images. In the best post-modernist spirit, we are then left to work out the answers for ourselves.

One answer is that the physical library must reflect a process. I would like to suggest that the entire library-professional ambition is integrated in the venture; an ambition which in principle is based on the library act’s objects clause: “§ 1. The objective of the public libraries is to promote information, education and cultural activity by making available books, periodicals, talking books and other suitable material, such as recorded music and electronic information resources, including Internet and multimedia.”

The point of departure is fundamental, and we have the kind of education and profession which increasingly and together with other professions, institutions and authorities will have to make sure the idea is realised. It should be emphasised that the idea is obviously not the prerogative of library employees, it is above all a vibrant political ambition which since the 1920s has been expressed in ambitious library building. The library is an important public place in the local community; a framework for knowledge, debate, democracy, experience, information and learning. In this way the library manifests itself in a more powerful way than seems to be indicated by the four UBIS-elements. IT is a ‘tool’ which to a great extent has also become a ‘culture bearer’, but in the final analysis, digital services, the Internet etc. must be subjected to or constitute a subsidiary part of the political vision.What do we want with information? What do we want with knowledge? What is important? The amount of knowledge in the information society is enormous, immeasurable and forever growing. One of the elements in the library process is to find relevant information and make it available. Another equally important element is, based on the political vision, to contribute to creating some sort of coherence in the wealth of information and thus produce knowledge. This knowledge is the basis for the continued development of our society.

In terms of a library building context, the development can be concretised in a balanced prioritisation between i.a. the following four elements (Sven Nilsson):

  • The library as “The third place”
  • Information
  • Place of learning (knowledge organisation)
  • The library as enterprise.

This is a library – it is not a painting
At Hinnerup Library and Culture Centre (established in 1993) the painter and sculpturer, professor Stig Brøgger is responsible for the artistic design on the balustrade in the circulation area, which bears the text “This is a library – it is not a painting”. The text is done in a mirror image, which makes it not immediately legible. But according to the artist, this does not necessarily matter. You may, if you want, just perceive the individual letters as beautiful, ancient, graphical signs. Look at them in the way you would look at Chinese characters, hieroglyphs or runes; these characters have an extraordinary impact. This impact is immediately apparent, quite apart from the actual meaning of each individual character, but upon further reflection the meaning contributes to the experience whether the meaning is known or not. The significant character is a reference to the very foundation of the library, not to mention the development of our civilisation: it is a question of a conscious attitude to the value of information and communication. The perspective is historical as well as pointing to the future. The definition – the painting – thus encompasses both ancient papyrus rolls and present day and future electronic publications. The painting expresses the culture-bearing function as well as the information society of today.

Although the text does not necessarily have to mean something, it does contain quite a number of different references. For the most part, these references are veiled or symbolic. One reference, however, is quite explicit: the reference to René Magritte’s painting “This is not a pipe – it is a picture of a pipe”. Magritte has created a painting. Stig Brøgger suggests that he (Brøgger!) has not created anything at all, only expressed the purpose of the place; this is a library, it is not a painting. Or as I see it – this is content, it is not form.

Another element in Stig Brøgger’s work is two large rectangular panels. One red, the other one yellow. It is quite obvious that these panels have a completely different effect from that of the characters. The panels are colour canons which in principle paint the entire lofty room which by the way consists predominantly of large white wall spaces. The work of art exists in contrast to the white spaces and interact with a large angled ultramarine wall space, “blue” which in the symbolism of Goethe means “intellect”. Because of the reverberations of the colour you carry the red and the yellow dimension with you wherever you are in the circulation area. Even when looking at the library from outside, these intensive colours immediately hit you through the windows. The colours are instantly attractive. But they also contain a symbolism, a psychological dimension that strikes into the heart. “Red is thrilling, eccentric, exciting, fires the will to conquer. Red is potency, both sexually and in terms of power. Red is movement, sport, fight, production, will-power, desire for experience. Fire, alarm, fanaticism, activity, warmth, the immediate present. Red is dynamically aggressive, full of life. Red/orange enfolds people. Yellow is joy, happiness and hope of liberation. Yellow points to the future and is the epitome of things to come and change. In Goethe yellow is synonymous with reason. Yellow is spiritually stimulating, encouraging dialogue. With its warm brightness, yellow indicates lightness. Yellow is liberating and stimulating” (Verner Panton in Lidt om farver, 1997).

A third element of the work is a painting within the painting; a picture of Ping, the recurrent cartoon figure of the Danish artist Storm P, is standing on some square boxes, blindfolded. The painting with the Ping figure is placed above the entrance to the children’s department, thereby revealing that Stig Brøgger has been very conscious of the fact that the library is for children too. But why is Ping blindfolded? Some great wit once said that “in the library we are all blindfolded”. The point – which is ambiguous – could be said to apply generally: the need for innovation, information and knowledge is great everywhere in society. The happy ending in the cartoon strip in this case, is that Ping who symbolises all children and you and me, he just goes ahead and jumps – blindfolded – in a library! After all not the worst place, all said and done.

A fourth element in the work is the fact that you can walk up unto the first floor and look at the balustrade from behind. Here the non-inverted answer says “This is not a painting – this is a library”. If you look around a bit in the library, search, dig deeper into the essential, strip the veil from your eyes, then you may find an answer. Stig Brøgger’s work consists of many layers and invites you to immediate reaction as well as further contemplation – it is probably a never-ending process.

His minimalistic work of art is dynamic in the sense that it relates to the information concept and that it only exists in an interplay with the observer. In two, five and ten years, time and development will have added new dimensions to the experience.

Stig Brøgger has integrated his work in relation to the idea and function of the house: This is a library. In the same way the painting is symbiotic with the architecture of the house; the fragmentary structure, pauses, actions and surprises, functionality and simplicity. Paradoxically, his work has on the basis of just this humble “attitude of co-operation” turned into a unique enhancement of the library, without which it would not have been the same.

Stig Brøgger’s design is a vivid visualisation of the library process as well as an underlining of the dualism peculiar to the library: the suspense between the logical and the emotional, between information processing and experience and the battle between form and colour. Brøgger certainly understands what libraries are all about.When challenged to try to explain his work, he answers with a quotation: “… I don’t feel it is illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who consider it finite postulate that in far away places, corridors, stairs and hexagons may inexplicably cease to exist – which is absurd. Those who imagine it as being without limits, forget that the number of possible books is limited. I venture to suggest the following solution to the ageold problem: The library is unlimited and periodic” (Jorge Luis Borges: The library in Babel in Fictions, 1999). In simplistic and perhaps slightly solemn terms one might say that Stig Brøgger was able to grasp the very idea of the library and saw this vision as something more important than himself – and that was the very reason for his work turning into such great and powerful art.

We could easily draw a parallel to library architecture – and architecture as a 7 SPLQ:3 2003 whole really. Art as an ego-trip is not very interesting or even necessary. Good library architecture has to be based on the vision of the library as a dynamic cultural phenomenon/a political necessity, as well as seeing it as representing a number of successive processes of a technological and societal character.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield This article was first published in Danish in Biblioteksårbog 2000.
(Revised 2003)

Deputy city librarian, The Regional Library of Northern Jutland.