Towards a new library

Interview with Igal Voronel, project manager new main library, Deichman Library
Several more years must pass before the population of Oslo will be able to take into use their new library. Preparations, however, are well under way and Igal Voronel, the project manager, has set his sights high.

The new library will have an excellent location on the site of the old Oslo West railway station in an attractive part of the city centre. The plan is for the library to share premises with the Stenersen Museum, one of the Oslo municipality’s finest art collections. The earliest possible completion date is 2007 but construction is likely to take much longer, probably until 2011. No formal resolution to build has yet been passed, but the result of an architectural competition has been announced. The winning entry was submitted by OMA, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, from the Netherlands. OMA is also responsible for the new public library now under construction in Seattle.

Igal Voronel is well satisfied with the result of the architectural competition. “OMA has the ability to think along new lines and we find the prospect of co-operation very exciting. Situated alongside a museum and a cinema, the library will be a central element on the Oslo West site. Constructed on just a few levels, the building will be light and airy and offer easy access to the public. By reason of its situation, the library will serve to connect three central city areas; the Aker Brygge harbour development, the City Hall Square and the Vika shopping area. Consequently, a large number of people will pass the library throughout the day. Unfortunately it is far too early in the planning process to offer any details of the building.”

These visions represent a huge leap when compared to Oslo’s main public library of the present day. The Deichman Library is housed in a venerable but rundown and impractical building from 1933. Its situation in Hammersborg, a part of the city that attracts few people apart from those who work there, is also a disadvantage. Seated in a cramped office in this somewhat inaccessible building, Igal Voronel works on the plans for the new library. A social anthropologist by profession, he has specialised in organisational learning. He has also worked as an IT-consultant in the advertising business. Coming initially to the Deichman Library in connection with a project to develop a model for school libraries, he was later asked to take over the project for the new Oslo library.

“It is easier for me as an outsider to ask questions.Within all professional environments shared knowledge is often taken for granted, whereas I can ask questions about things which members of staff accept without thinking. This seems to me important in the process towards a new library,” explains Igal Voronel. He uses words and expressions not typical of the library sector.

“We carry out a kind of business management practice also in libraries, when we create a set of connected services. I feel that all the various components which go to make up a library must be organised into a system and that we should think more in the form of concepts rather than specific professional areas.We must consider the library in the light of what is happening elsewhere in society. If a new school reform takes place, this will have an effect on library services. If unemployment rises, the library sector will need to think along new lines.”

Visions
The public library is an institution with long traditions. Is the desire for change perhaps not always so great?

“We must start by asking for a definition of the library of today. Many people will answer that a library is a large space with books, computers and access to the Internet. In that case we must ask ourselves if such a description corresponds to our view of the role of the library. If the answer is yes, then our aim should be to build an even larger space with room for ten times as many books and computers – a sort of free Amazon.com.

However, that is not our aim. A new library should concern itself with all those aspects offering stimulation and new experiences.We should make available the tools that make it possible for people to meet, to work together and to share a common activity. Our starting point should not be the information itself, but those people who will be making use of the information. A library should not function like a telephone directory with numbers and letters waiting to be looked up. Numbers and letters as such are not knowledge. They need to be processed in order to become knowledge. The aim of libraries must be to give their users the ability to navigate their way through the information jungle. We must stimulate users to make their own connections, to find their own path to knowledge.”

Igal Voronel regards the library as a social arena rather than a place for the individual.

“We like to say that reading is an individual experience, but it is the discussion of literature which makes it part of a culture. Libraries provide a natural arena for the exchange of literary views and impressions. The new library should be a meeting place, a workplace, an arena of learning and a centre for cultural activities.Within these areas there will be a wide variety of services but in order to provide some fixed points, I should like to concentrate on four characteristics or measurements of effect.”

Secular or sacred?
Libraries have often been regarded as rather exalted institutions and this is clearly apparent in the Deichman Library building at Hammersborg. It stands there like a temple, securely placed between two churches. Igal Voronel’s description of the future new library offers a completely different starting point.

“The library should be as secular as possible and in close contact with everyday life. It should reflect society and function on society’s terms. Since we live in a technological age, the library also must be a child of technology,” claims the project leader.

However, the library is not granted this position by right. It must market itself in the same way as any other player in society.

“If we wish the library to retain an exalted position as a kind of temple, then there is no need for marketing, since everybody knows where the temple is. If on the other hand we prefer to see the library as an active part of so-ciety, then it becomes simply one alternative among many and we must shout in order to be heard. In today’s information society it is extremely important to be visible.

Therefore we intend to pay a great deal of attention to marketing strategies. We must define the image we wish to present and build further on this. If you were to ask each individual librarian in Norway to name the five most important elements in creating a good image, very few would be able to give an immediate answer.We have commenced an internal process here with a view to finding precisely that answer.”

The new library will come to play a role different to that of today.What about the librarians? Will they also need to make changes?

“There is no doubt whatsoever that the new library will require a change in the role of its librarians. IT-skills will become even more important, since most activities will be computer-supported in some way or other. Keeping up-todate in this field will therefore be a significant part of the job. In addition librarians will assume a wider pedagogic role in offering guidance and in adapting themselves to meet the various needs of users. They will not engage in teaching but will aim to stimulate users to study for themselves. This is a demanding role, placing the librarian in the limelight all the time.

In a dynamic library the functions of librarians will be in constant change and this opens the way for other professions to enter the library sector. Today we have members of staff here known as ‘library executives’. Their common characteristic is that they are not trained librarians but are qualified in other academic fields such as languages or the history of literature. It is precisely the interdisciplinary element they represent which is exciting and which brings a new dynamic to library staff.”

Is it easy to obtain support for the new library among those members of staff who have worked at the Deichman Library for many years.

“I have the impression that the majority are very enthusiastic and are looking forward to moving into the new building. A large number of the present staff are between 50 and 60 years old, which means that many will be retiring during the course of the next few years. We can therefore expect to see a new generation of younger librarians already attuned to rapid change. Nowadays very few people regard their place of work as permanent for life and we should be able to attract staff looking for a new working environment.”

Voronel also hopes that the public will be able to have some influence on the kind of library they would like to see, but so far little progress has been made in this direction.

“Identifying the needs of users by means of questionnaires and surveys represents a dilemma.When asked what they want, they often show a preference for more of what they know, simply because they find it difficult to imagine anything not already in existence. They ask for yet more books and yet more personal computers.We therefore intend to wait until we are further ahead in our plans before approaching the public on a wider scale.”

Considering the rapid changes in today’s society, is there a risk that the library you are planning now will already be out-of-date by 2011?

“That is precisely why it is so important to think more about infrastructure and systems than about the contents of the library.We must create a basis for services, but always retain the possibility of reassessment. A five-year plan is out of the question. Like any other business, we must be able to adapt rapidly. We are a service organisation and being able to respond to the market is vital. The principles of ‘free libraries’ and ‘democratisation’ have long been gospel in the library sector, whereas ‘marketing’ has been considered a dirty word. It is easy to forget that people who use libraries are in fact customers. There is no such thing as free library services, since all users are tax-payers and have a right to get something in return for their money. The relationship between a library and those who use its services is no more than a normal customer/supplier situation, which is why libraries should pay greater attention to the customer experience.”

Will the new library concentrate on special target groups?

“Differentiating between types of users goes against the principle that libraries are for everybody. A library should be available to everyone but we cannot do everything for everybody. We are obliged to differentiate between target groups and services in relation to use and we must consider where we should like to see changes. The fact that 50 per cent of the population makes use of the public library system is regarded as positive. In reality, however, this is a low figure, indicating only that the remaining 50 per cent prefer some other supplier. We cannot be satisfied with that.” Translated by Eric Deverill

Journalist for the periodical Bok og Samfunn.