Welcome to words

How do the library’s programme activities interact with how visitors use the library’s other functions? This is the basic question for the research project being managed by Plattan Library in Stockholm’s House of Culture and the Stockholm University Li-brary.

“A place that makes use of the mood of the streets and the possibilities of the workshop.”
Peter Celsing, architect of the House of Culture in Stockholm

It’s autumn in Stockholm; the trees are showering their show of colours over the wet streets. We’re clearly forgotten how to read. The Swedish literature study just completed wants to confront the drastic downward curve with the help of libraries. The new Library Act that’s on the way clearly formulates the right of every person to a library. If you set foot within Sweden’s borders, you should make use of that right immediately. Let’s say it’s the right to look for and find literature, music, and film; and the right to meet someone who can provide it.

Reading as medicine

Many libraries have expanded their programme activities. Their collections are livened up through visits from authors and exhibitions, readings and workshops. The question that Välkommen till orden (“Welcome to Words”) asks itself is: Does this activity have any significance for how visitors use the library? Does the programme activity make people borrow more, or borrow in another way? Does it provide new inroads into reading and deeper knowledge? And what requirements do the activities in forming the collection impose on the individual employees who will carry it out?

Plattan back to the ground floor

On a sunny August day in 2010, the Plattan library opened right in the centre of Stockholm, which during the 1960s had been dramatically reshaped from an old working-class quarter to a modernistic landmark. It’s the third incarnation of the House of Culture library, which was the first on the scene back in 1971, three years before the rest of the building opened; it took up the entire ground floor with soft hollows to listen to stories in, places to listen to records and great numbers of books. In 1990, the library moved to the Läsesalongen on the second floor, taking 800,000 visitors annually with it.

When Plattan opened again, it was tasked with being a profile library for fiction and art. The goals of the operations were formulated jointly by the staff groups.

Plattan consists of two rooms that differ radically from each other: a large room that faces out towards the other entrances to the building and which houses the fiction collection; and a smaller room with its own entrance that houses the literature on art.

Prior to the opening in 2010, a new common system was introduced for Plattan and Serieteket, the comics library; the catalogue items were named after themes, genres, or trend, for example “Funny”, “Fantasy”, “Cult”, and so on.

Meanwhile, out at the university…

“I am trying to base my work on the rhythm of seasons and life in the North, which I find so captivating, and I’m forming a society that will embrace all this wealth of experiences.”

Ralph Erskine, architect of several buildings at Stockholm University, including the library

In 1971, at the same time the library opens in what will be a new House of Culture, Stockholm University assembled all its many libraries into a com-mon building on the university campus. Barely ten years later, the main library is inaugurated, and a collection with roots going back over a hundred years gets a home in the low, soft building that leans towards the greenery outside. This will become Sweden’s largest research library, with 1.8 million visitors a year.

It’s interesting to note that Peter Celsing created a House of Culture in Stockholm City, where street life streams through all the building’s activities, and we in the library notice he was successful at it. Ralph Erskine, on the other hand, wanted to create a library for the University which inter-acted with what he perceived as an organic naturalness; despite its impressive size this library is, therefore, se-date, light, and filled with the presence of greenery.

Contact with the public in various forms

During its first nine months, Plattan carried out over eighty programs with a program budget of SEK 30,000. We put in an enormous amount of work in seeking out collaboration and to make ourselves active through readings, pre-sentation and many other things. We initiated an investigative project where, with support from the Swedish Arts Council, we studied how literature formation could be developed, which resulted in things like a programme at Strand Bar in Hornstull and a major collaboration with Bookslam from London.

The Stockholm University Library has collaborated for many years with the various school institutions to form topical themes through conversations, author visits, and lectures. One question that both operations asked themselves was whether it was possible to work more methodically with pro-grammes, and how we would be able to get greater clarity in what our target groups needed and thought.

Follow-up evaluation

In the autumn of 2011, Plattan carried out a survey among all visitors to our programmes which showed that, in general, they didn’t visit our library. It seemed as if we’d built up parallel operations. How could we use the one to the advantage of the other? Or should we rethink things completely?

Together, Plattan and Stockholm University Library applied for development support from the National Libra-ry to investigate this more closely.

The Välkommen till Orden (Welcome to Words) project will last for a year; a final report will come out in 2013. The project wants to be clearly dialogue-based and function as a baton in the dialogue of what the library can provide. We’ve arranged a number of seminars, the latest of which is Smittsam, en dag om förmedling (“Contagious: a day on intermediation”) at the House of Culture. We hired writing coach and author Malin Isaksson, who conducted in-depth interviews with visitors at the respective libraries.

We’ve also carried out analyses of and dialogues around the respective spatial conditions of our libraries.

The impression that Plattan’s exploratory survey provided has lasted this far into the project. Our visitors want in-volvement more than they want programmes. At the same time, we feel that the opportunities for the staff of many libraries in those areas that deal with intermediation are given low priority. There are few, if any, opportunities to read or study in literature during working hours; there is neither time nor resources for analysing the environment or staff development in intermediation. Even basic skills such as speech training or the like aren’t something a library staff group gets. Many then fall into the paradoxical situation where they can act as producers (and not infrequently promoters and technicians) for a programme activity that falls alongside, but is not interlinked with, the library’s operations.

A close meeting between the stacks

On paper, it may perhaps seem simpler or more desirable to set up arrangements with guests coming in from the outside. At the same time, visitors seem rather to demand attentive, creative, and informed staff in the close meetings between the stacks. “Välkommen till orden” is now putting together a test group of staff from the respective libraries in order, with guidance for some time to come, to try new ways of working in the small intermediary environment. A development of the role of the librarian with more forward, nerdy, surprising intermediaries in the library’s rooms is perhaps a more exciting development than turning the libraries into a literary stage. Then, maybe, Sweden will learn to read again.

Coordinator for the Plattan Library in the Stockholm Cultural House