The role of the public library as a space for the future

Discussions concerning the changes in the role of conventional libraries began in the mid-1990s, when the Internet began to alter the world around us. The extreme issue of the discussions evolves around the question of whether we even need libraries anymore, since all information is now available on the Internet. Why would people come to a library when they can get the information they need, no matter where they are, from any computer with an Internet connection?Partakers in this discussion may sometimes also question the necessity of library space and buildings, especially when, at this same time, the use of libraries in many countries has begun to decline, as if foreshadowing the decline of the significance of public libraries. Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden are countries which have recently experienced a decline in borrowing. The use of libraries in Finland, on the other hand, has remained stable throughout the last decade, and, in fact, has even been on the increase.

Libraries have quickly defined a vision for themselves, however, as hybrid libraries, which are a combination of a conventional library and a new electronic network library. Libraries want to provide new services and as long as library operations revolve around lending material and preserving material for borrowing, libraries are not under any threat. In fact, there is a need for more diversity in library facilities. Work stations available to library patrons have brought about an increase in library personnel; the library is no longer a place for just reading, but also a place to work.

It is also interesting to note that at this very moment, many large towns are planning and building public libraries, which are important for the towns’ city centres. Most often, library projects are associated with the reconstruction of a town’s city centre, or with converting an industrial area or harbour for cultural use. Planners would like to complement these areas with public, cultural, library-type buildings open to everyone.

In this review, I will present some of these large library projects and discuss the situation in Helsinki. Using these examples, I will try to show how the library’s role and significance is experienced in many places as being important and enriching to a city’s area.

By presenting two recently completed examples of a future library, I will try to demonstrate how our changed role and our patrons’ new expectations influence the library facilities and its design. Rather than threats, I see great opportunities.

Buildings as symbols
As in the initial phases of their history, public libraries are becoming prominent and esteemed by virtue of their building structures. Nobody can deny that the magnificent Carnegie library buildings, built in the United States and England in the late 1800s, played an important role in elevating the esteem attributed to public libraries. Large, prominent libraries have a symbolic value, or serve as icons for the entire institution of the library and its status. It is a universally applicable statement, that if you are not seen, you don’t exist.

It is significant that library construction is now extending to countries in which the status of public libraries has not previously been very high. In April 2003, a new library was opened in Vienna, located on the Gürtel traffic route, which runs through the city centre. This is a very innovative location, because the local railway tracks, the highways on both sides of the tracks, as well as the metro routes transport a huge number of people through the area. The Burgasse metro station, located underneath the main library, is traversed daily by 30,000 people. A staircase connects the main library entrance level and two different levels of the underground.

The area of the building is 6,000 m2 and it only houses the library, although in addition to ample, quiet library halls, it also has an Internet gallery, video and audio centres, a café and roof terrace. The library’s lobby area and café are designed such that they can be open outside library hours.

A second interesting library project is under consideration in Torino, where plans are being made for construction of the first library building in Italy to look and feel like a public library, where, among other things, patrons will have free access to the collections, contrary to previous practices.

The industrial city of Torino is changing its appearance and the city’s old industrial centre is being revived with the addition of a university extension, high-tech businesses, business offices and new housing. The cultural centre, which is to be built in the area, will be located along the most important traffic routes next to the metro and railway stations.

In addition to a library, the cultural centre, with a total area of 27,000 m2, will house a theatre that seats 1,200 people, cultural institutes of different countries, restaurants and businesses. The roof of the building will feature an outdoor theatre, an Internet café and an observation terrace. The building will be a centre for culture and information, but also a pleasant place to be, which is easy for people of all ages to go to.

A library which is being planned in Amsterdam will be located right next to the railway station, the centre point of Amsterdam’s public transportation. There, also, considerations of a more extensive new building project are being debated; it entails recreating the city’s old harbour area for a new use. The new area shall accommodate an office building, business and culture buildings, in addition to apartments and hotels.

The total area of the library will be 30,000 m2, and the functions of the building are being planned so that they will support the role of the public library as a centre for information, education and culture. The library will have a large lobby area and café. There will also be an exhibition area and a 300-seat theatre in connection with the library. A large bookstore to be located in the same complex as the library building is also included in the plans. The library will be open seven days a week. It is estimated that 2.5 million patrons will visit there every year, and it is expected to become Amsterdam’s most frequented and largest meeting place.

The Borough of Tower Hamlets in London is designing new buildings, albeit in a slightly different way. The Borough wants to abandon the old Victorian library buildings and renew and change their image; this is proving to be difficult. The old buildings have been sold and the new facilities are no longer called libraries, but are now referred to as ‘idea stores’. “Idea is the name given to seven exciting, stateof- art centres planned for shopping areas around Tower Hamlets over the next five years – heralding a completely new approach combining lifelong learning and local libraries”.

Of the Scandinavian capitals, Reykjavik has already opened a new library in the city centre. Stockholm is searching for an operations model for the expansion of the main library, designed by Gunnar Asplund and completed in 1928. Plans for the construction of a new library in Copenhagen’s city centre are underway. Oslo has made the most progress; a decision has been made to build a new library right in the heart of the city, where the former station area used to be. The library in Oslo is also part of a broader plan to liven up the city centre.

The common denominator for all of these projects, is that people want libraries to be in their midst. The new libraries are not independent buildings, like they used to be, rather they are parts of bigger entities. They enrich the city milieu and are placed in a context with other functions. Libraries are no longer merely a place where books are kept, borrowed and read in reading areas, rather they have become centres with a social function; they are centres for communication, learning and culture.

Helsinki’s new Central Library
Discussions have also been on-going in Helsinki since 1998 concerning a new, large library to be built in the heart of Helsinki, the new central library. This issue is topical and important right now, because like many other cities, Helsinki is also reconstructing the city centre.

Kamppi, an area which is to be reconstructed in the Töölönlahti area, is situated just a few hundred metres from Lasipalatsi, which houses the Cable Book Library, specialising in information technology. The area is a junction for traffic, where tens of thousands of people pass by each day. The objective is to add considerably to commercial services by building a new, large department store in the Kamppi area.

However, the area has also developed into a concentration of cultural services, which is strongly represented by music and visual arts. In addition to the former cultural buildings, buildings in the area include the modern art museum Kiasma (completed in 1998), Lasipalatsi film and media centre, Tennispalatsi, containing the city art museum, the Museum of Cultures and a thriving film theatre centre. A music hall of approximately 28,000 m2 is also underway.

The need for the central library cannot be understood without knowing the structure of Helsinki’s library network. Public libraries have a long tradition in Helsinki. Helsinki’s former main city library, Rikhardinkatu Library, completed in 1881, was the first building in Scandinavia to be designed as a public library.

When the Rikhardinkatu Library, slightly over 2000 m2, became too cramped over the years, a new library was opened in 1986 on the outskirts of downtown Helsinki in Itä-Pasila, which was to become like a second city centre for Helsinki, with all its different cultural buildings. However, the other cultural buildings were never built and instead of a culture centre, Itä-Pasila became an office centre.

In 2000, when Helsinki was one of Europe’s eight cultural cities, Helsinki’s board of culture and libraries approved the preliminary plans for the central library, which outlined the need for the library and described the activities of the future library. A new element in the proposal was also the notion that this was not a question of transferring the administrative duties of the main library to the city centre, but rather of the establishment of a library which focuses on client service. The central library was seen as part of the cultural services being developed in the Kamppi- Töölönlahti area. The year 2009 was presented as the year of its inauguration.

On the political level, the project for the central library has not progressed further than the board’s approval of the plan. The central library has attracted much public interest and primarily positive responses in the media and in various discussions.

Architects and designers have also taken an interest in the central library. For example, in the competitive bidding design competition for the Kamppi area, three of the four proposals presented included suggestions for the location of the central library in Kamppi, even though the library was not in the competition programme. The central library has established its position in the discussions concerning Helsinki’s city planning. The central library is a robust vision. There is an excellent example of this in the dissertation by architecture student Antti Lassila, Helsinki’s new central library, which accompanies this review. Lassila’s design corresponds well to the future library which was the goal of the plans drawn up by the city library. Lassila’s dissertation illustrates the thoughts presented in the project plans and develops them further.

Antti Lassila places the library he designed in the Töölönlahti area, next to the Sanomatalo building, built by the largest daily newspaper in the country, Helsingin Sanomat, but he also considered other locations for the building. He saw Lasipalatsi and the so-called Turku barracks, which functions as a coach station, and the covered courtyard between them as one option for a location.When coach service is moved from the Lasipalatsi square in 2005, the barracks building there will be vacant for a new use.

A more precise plan is, in fact, being finalised from this thought: “Information building and cultural square – barracks,” the designers for which are the architecture and design firm Talli and a work team consisting of representatives from the city library. The ideas relating to the plans for the library are particularly based on special work done by the manager of the Cable Book Library, Kari Lämsä, during his management training: The Dynamic Library: trends and visions of the library of the future.

The vision for the central library is very much alive, developing, taking shape and seeking out the right course for decision-making.

But why is it so important to have a library in Helsinki’s city centre? Why do so many cities want to have a library to complete the cultural services of their centres?

One perspective is that a library extends cultural services by providing everyone with an open area which serves as a venue for civil activity and creative ability. Libraries, which deviate from other cultural establishments, cover all fields of art and convey both information and experiences. Libraries do not present limits, rather they expand and unite different issues.

This concept was confirmed in 2000 when I went to Hanover Expo 2000. It was the first world exhibition which focused on the distribution of information and experience instead of industrial products.While I was there, it occurred to me that libraries are ongoing world expositions, in which people can continually (not merely during the time of the exposition) obtain information and experiences about all areas of life. In fact, we could market libraries as world exhibitions which have no time limit. Expo Mondiale sans Frontières!

Thus, we need large libraries to be in the midst of the people. Therefore, we must plan the library of the future.

Translation by Turun Täyskäännös Oy

Library Director in Helsinki, 1987-2013