The key to future libraries for children and young people

The daily lives and media consumption habits of children and young people are subject to rapid and continual change. Their overall use of the library has diminished and the way they use the library has changed. How then can libraries in the future present themselves as an attractive option for this user group? This was the question asked by three county libraries (Jönköping, Skåne , Västra Götaland) in the project ‘2020 Mars Express’. The daily lives and media consumption habits of children and young people are subject to rapid and continual change. Their overall use of the library has diminished and the way they use the library has changed. How then can libraries in the future present themselves as an attractive option for this user group? This was the question asked by three county libraries (Jönköping, Skåne , Västra Götaland) in the project ‘2020 Mars Express’.

More than three years of intensive work, hundreds of participating children and young people, study visits, conferences, workshops, focus groups and field work have all contributed to the insights and experience that has become something that we have come to call ‘The Mars Express Concept’.

Listening to children and young people before we initiate changes has become a fundamental aspect. Familiarity with children’s and young people’s world view, their needs and their living conditions is essential.

If we want to create positive and lasting relations with this group then we must understand how they communicate, and learn to communicate with them. It is essential that library staff are well disposed towards children and young people and ‘see them’ when they visit the library.

2020 Mars Express started in autumn 2005 and ended in February 2008. Around 15 children’s librarians have participated, and during the last year, library directors and library IT-staff joined each municipality’s project team.

The project was divided into two phases. The First Stage was developing and testing methods to get children and young people actively engaged in the design and purpose of the library’s physical spaces. In the Second Stage we wanted to find out how new technologies could help make the library more exciting as well as stimulating reading and learning – experimentally to begin with, but with an increasingly tangible presence in the libraries.

The natural starting point has been children and young people’s own suggestions, ideas and wishes. Several libraries in the project had previously worked with focus groups, interviews and various types of questionnaires but we wanted to penetrate a little deeper and, together with children and young people, test other methods. Another exciting point of departure has been Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences. If the library is really going to be an attractive meeting place for everyone then the physical space and the activities there have to reflect the way children express themselves. Study visits together with groups of children or young people and observations made with and by children and young people have also provided interesting results.

We feel as though the most challenging and useful results have been reached when we have worked together with other professions. Using workshops has been very productive:We have conducted workshops with cultural and educational pedagogues and social workers, with architects and architectural consultants, with designers and artists, with scene and stage designers. Collaboration with other professions provides a useful perspective on one’s own profession as well as enhancing and increasing personal competence.

Ubiquitous computing

During the information gathering stage we came across the terms ‘ubiquitous computing’ and ‘interaction design’. This felt like something that was relevant for libraries so we contacted universities specializing in these research areas.

We started to collaborate with teachers and students at, among others, The Department for Lighting Design at the University of Jönköping, Chalmers University in Gothenburg and the Computer Science Department at Malmo University’s School of Technology.

Technology in libraries is not just computers. Nevertheless new technologies can help to develop an environment conducive to creativity, learning, play and fantasy. Collaboration with science centres and museums can provide unlimited opportunities. It is possible for a library to be much more than that with which we usually associate the term without losing its special identity. The connection with universities and other institutions of higher learning generates a number of positive effects for further development and spreads the idea of public libraries as exciting arenas for new ways of thinking.

University students have worked with several of the project libraries to produce lightning designs and prototypes for technical solutions which can contribute to interaction between patron and the library’s physical space, in turn, stimulating the desire to read.

Now what?

What will happen now? Will things just go back to the way they were before? No – with Mars Express it is obvious that a process has started. In several cases at least one of the project goals has been attained, namely that libraries in project municipalities start thinking in new ways as regards children’s and young people’s libraries. Changes have happened in all of the participating municipalities – either in the physical library space or in staff attitudes. Three examples of concrete changes/processes are:

• The Municipality of Molndal is building a new cultural centre to be inaugurated in 2010. Lessons learned in the Mars Express project have had a broad influence on planning and thinking. Even the Molndal City Planning Office now knows what Mars Express is all about. Children’s librarians active in the project have participated in working groups and been able to influence architects and interior designers. A digital workshop with a studio for digital media production is planned and a student of interaction design is building an interactive gaming room as part of his Master’s thesis.

• The Gislaved Library has been completely renovated including new surface materials, specially created ‘considerate design’ furniture, RFID implementation, etc. A windowless room features a workshop with a black box; here a student from the Department for Lighting Design at the University of Jonkoping has suggestions for lighting installations to render the room more flexible and exciting. Sound domes have been installed. The project group has taken courses in storytelling and film editing with the idea of producing, for example, digital book tips together with children.

• The children’s and young people’s department of the new Ostra Goinges library is going to feature a natural science perspective with a special focus on astronomy. Here, there will be a two-level space rocket constructed by interaction designers with areas for reading and interaction. The library catalogue will make it easy to find books on outer space and astronomy which will then be simple to locate thanks to special diode lighting on the bookshelves. Media packages for borrowing will be placed at the rocket. Library staff have completed courses in storytelling so as to be able to work with natural science stories. These courses have been complemented with mime training in an effort to find more ways of communicating with young patrons.

“It is stimulating to be made to think in new ways with 2020 Mars Express. External impressions, our own efforts and the things we have seen with our own eyes all contribute to creating new processes for every one of us that participated in the project.” Per Karlsson, children’s librarian, Nassjo City Library

“These days I see almost everything with Mars Express eyes. This means that I ascertain what children and young kids think before initiating any changes that affect them.” Lena Jonsson, children’s librarian, Molndal

Many other libraries have already been inspired by what has been done in the various project municipalities, as well as the lecture tours, conferences, etc. which have been arranged. A documentation of the project can be found at www.barnensbibliotek.se/2020marsexpress.

2020 Mars Express was presented at the 74. IFLA Conference in Québec, Canada 2008 where the theme was: Setting Sails for New Horizons. 2020 Mars Express has pointed us in the right direction. Now it is time for takeoff.

Lo Claesson
Library consultant Regional Library of Jonkoping,

lo.claesson AT jonkoping.se

Translated by Eric Deverill

Library consultant Regional Library of Jonkoping, Sweden