The Diesel Work Shop Library – A cool living room, or…?

The library at the Diesel Work Shop proposes to present something out of the ordinary by attracting children and young people to inviting premises and exciting media. The library exudes coolness but is apparently not cool enough to employ librarians?

Illustration: Ann Ahlbom-Sundvist

The Diesel Work Shop is a cultural community centre situated on the outskirts of Stockholm in the municipality of Nacka. The old industrial building also includes an art gallery, theatre and a library that has attracted much attention. The Diesel Work Shop library focuses its aim at children and young people. In the periodical Kulturen i Nacka (Nacka Kommun) the following statement declares that they want: “the kind of library not seen before, emphasising multimedia and IT. Aside from the traditional appointments of librarians, recruitment from other fields of professional experience has so far secured a film critic, role play organiser, rock musician and a web designer. The enterprise is intended to challenge the library concept, exchanging neverending rows of book shelves with space catering for activities and literary experiences for all senses.”

Living room
The interior design is especially chosen to appeal to young people. There is a neon-coloured group of furniture consisting of a sofa and armchairs moulded in plastic, a hammock and beanbag furniture. The interior has elements of SF and fantasy. High ceilings. Brutal concrete walls and floors. Shelves made of steel and fitted with wheels to facilitate changes. “The feel should be that of a living room and not of some fancy parlour” ventures Erik Jonsson, Public Relations Officer at the Diesel Work Shop: “We are prepared to re-structure our space for cinema showings or gigs. People often have respect for libraries, where silence prevails, the patrons are on their best behaviour and littering kept to a minimum. We aim to be more flexible.”

Four full-sized TV game screens make up the room’s centrepiece. There are icehockey games and a chessboard equipped with chessmen characters from the Star Wars films. Is the notion of a library functioning as a recreation centre for young people new? Not really. Numerous libraries have been known to more or less serve such a function. Nevertheless, there are only a few libraries who have consciously attempted to attract young people to stay that little bit longer at the library. Many welcome the silent readers and regard noisy teenagers as a nuisance. But what are the similarities between the library and that of a living room. The group of plastic furniture is an uncomfortable and a sweaty experience, not to mention the hammock. There is no comfortable seating arrangement in which to lean back and relax.

Meeting place
To attain a satisfying mix there are collaborative ventures spanning all activities at the culture centre and in particular collaboration with young people. “Gigs at the library are marketed and set up by the youngsters’ themselves”, says Erik. The information travels through the youngsters’ own grapevine, creating a feeling that this is their own place for gigs etc. To emphasise the fact that the library is an integral part of a cultural community centre it stays open on Sundays, but closes for Mondays. Oddly enough, the art gallery is closed on Sundays but open on Mondays.

New media
The library offers a selection of different media. Plans for an extensive selection of CDs and local demo recordings have been initiated as well as talking books for children on CD. Videos, DVDs, computer games and Xbox games are available to be played in a network environment. There are also computers for surfing the Internet. Specialist literature of interest to young people such as books about films etc. are on offer. Books in Swedish and English, including fiction, share the same shelves, though no other languages are represented. Books for young children are in a separate section and books for older children, adolescents and adults are batched together. Publishers can buy themselves space with a book twirler. Needless to say they must be congratulating themselves on such exceptional exposure at such low prices! Books by all means, it is after all a library, but the advantageous deals offered publishers on premises funded by tax revenue needs to be debated.

The talking book section in particular conveys the feeling of supplying a much needed alibi. There are few titles, mainly older titles for adults and these are on cassettes. There are four DAISY talk books. If they intended to be taken seriously with regard to new media they need to throw out the old analogue talk books and put their efforts into acquiring a larger selection of DAISY talk books for children and young people! Erik informs us that “We haven’t got round to the talk books yet, but it’s coming up” An inadequate line of defence. The library became operative a year ago and as the Library Act states that disabled people are a priority group, therefore an extensive and acceptable selection of talk books should have been made available from day one.

Knowledge attainment
The library employs six persons, of which three are librarians. The allocation of staff is no different from other libraries, the outlook however, is. The staff, whatever their qualifications, all title themselves ‘library co-workers’. Their rotating schedule requires two to be on duty.Which two of these work in the public part of the library is random. It can be two trained librarians or two with other professional background or a mixture. The reasoning behind these working conditions is that: “other areas of competence are also needed in a modern library” and “they all have extensive experience”.

The librarian Ann-Helen Johansson describes the other employees as two librarians, an expert on cultural matters, an ethnologist and a library assistant with much experience. The co-workers’ personal areas of knowledge are no doubt extensive nor do all staff at a library need to be qualified librarians. There are a number of smaller libraries where a professional librarian is never to be found during opening hours. The difference here is that librarians are available, though their skills are not put to use in a systematic way.

Is not a librarian clever enough to offer games instruction or design websites? An expert on cultural matters does not automatically qualify as a computer games expert, certainly no more so than a librarian. Despite major improvements in knowledge attainment during the past twenty years, the static image of the librarian as a bookworm still prevails. Librarians are different, have different interests and different areas of competence.

Does a librarian on the premises make that much of a difference? They are still part of the library’s other activities, influence the purchasing of media, signpost arrangements and displays. Of course, the visitor’s questions can at times be answered by someone else. But when you least expect it there are moments when a visitor needs an answer to his question requiring the kind of knowledge familiar with the search and evaluation of the information gained. Add to this the ability to appraise whether this information is on a par with the visitor’s previous knowledge.

One does not need to be a librarian in order to be polite and helpful and to a certain extent be able to instruct and retrieve information. But to become more than just competent in searching and evaluating information there is the need for a solid education alongside work experience. A ‘co-worker’, however long he has been at a library, has not learnt the systematic approach and has only a fragmentary experience.

The municipality of Nacka has a cultural policy statement in which they write about “professional cultural experts” and creating actual prerequisites enabling everyone to utilise the freedom of expression and the role of culture in a society of knowledge and that of lifelong learning. How can a professional library function without accessible librarians?

Translated by Jonathan Pearman

Consultant Spiralum Kommunikation.