Think activity

Annette Johansson. Photo: Annika HjerpeThe City of Stockholm is currently planning to renovate a number of suburban libraries. The plan is not merely a series of building betterment projects with the architectural premises in focus, but rather consists of improvement projects focusing on projected user activity. Supported by the physical structure, the library visions and goals will be made more easily attainable.

“When libraries are renovated, it often tends to become a matter of construction rather than a matter of activity, you think of the premises first and the activities that go on inside second. This way, in theory, the building may become a limiting, physical restraint. The City of Stockholm network of libraries is determined to avoid this common error. Instead, we will plan as you would for the construction of an entirely new building,” says Annette Johansson, coordinator for the renovation project.

All in all, nine libraries will be renovated. Not only the physical appearance will be improved, but new internal working methods will also be implemented. The libraries will develop and launch new activity plans used in the planning and execution of the renovated space.

A library in movement

Feasibility studies have been conducted, looking at demography, population trends and other changes in their vicinity. In putting together an activity plan based on what their current visitors expect, what non-visitors want and how they can be attracted to the library, the libraries posed a number of questions about what they want to accomplish, which user groups they want to entice into the library, and what is needed to achieve these goals. At the same time, they must stick to existing central visions and library policy already in place.

The vision for the City of Stockholm libraries is a library in movement, a library constantly changing, an important facility in the community, accessible and efficient. In addition to this, the City of Stockholm library network aims to be an everyday partner for learning, reading and reflection.

“There will be no revolutionary changes to the libraries. The concept of what a library is can often be quite set in peoples’ minds and it may be a little scary to challenge that concept in our collective library soul. It can be difficult to imagine how the library can be different, how it can function and look in new, different ways,” says Annette Johansson.

In 2011, when the current library plans were set, a structural study was also conducted. The study had its basis in the Stockholm City Plan (a key governing document), as well as a water and land use plan for the municipality. Based on this cross-referencing of plans for the area, and studying how the city grows in relation to the status and location of the city’s libraries, the network determined which nine suburban libraries were most in need of an update.

Design for the right purpose

Together with architect Birgitta Bååth Ardow, Annette Johansson will implement an overall plan for the renovation of these libraries.

“As coordinators for the nine projects, our job is to constantly remind library management and staff to think beyond colour and furniture when they write their activity plans, and instead think of what activities the premises are going to be used for, what sort of media is needed, and so on.When the activity plans have been articulated, architects will take over, and the better and more detailed the plans are, the more successfully the architects will be in designing for each specific purpose,” Annette Johansson says.

The feasibility studies conducted by the libraries have shown that people who use their libraries request additional space for reading or study, areas for exhibitions and designated areas appropriate for parents and children to spend time together after school. More areas for quiet study are also in high demand. A common request is for the library to be more accessible with prolonged opening hours.

“The challenge will be to find a balance between what current library users say, and how much we dare to challenge the collective view of what a library is today.”

Not only physical renovation

In Tensta, a culturally diverse suburb to Stockholm, writing the activity plan has made the library staff reflect on how they display books in their library. Upon entering the library in Tensta, the visitor encounters books solely in the Swedish language.

The staff are currently examining new ways of presenting the library using the visitors’ languages as a starting point and, for example, by displaying literature in different languages together, rather than as today, dividing them up in different languages.

“This is a good example of how we do not just renovate the physical space, but shake up the whole activity plan from the ground up,” says Annette Johansson, and mentions as another example how today’s digital shift may be reflected in the use of digital signage.

“Today we have great possibilities in guiding library visitors using digital signs that easily can change language and thereby, much quicker, help people to find what they need.”

Libraries are progressive

She can see a lot of possibilities in the digital shift. For example some libraries could be specialized as digital libraries.

“They could increase their collections of e-media and less physical media, thereby rationalizing space for the benefit of a broader programme of activities. But emedia is complicated because of the commercial side of it. The libraries are very progressive when it comes to e-media, but publishers are cautiously resistant. It is difficult to find solutions. The libraries can have visions and intentions, but today the possibilities are limited,” she says.

More women than men

In 2011, the City of Stockholm library also made a Customer Satisfaction Index survey among the visitors to the main branch and its 39 district libraries. 8,812 library visitors answered the questionnaire, 61 percent of them men. Annette Johansson says that the library users consist mostly of older people, students and families with children.

“It is interesting that in the Customer Satisfaction Index survey made in 2011, the majority of visitors that answered were men. One generalization is that it is mostly women who use libraries and this is true when it comes to borrowing, but men make visits more to read the daily newspapers, magazines and use the computers. And today, many fathers with small children use the library. I am not sure how or if the high response-rate among men correlates to the fact that mostly women work in the libraries,” she says.

In 2012, of the 417 people employed by the City of Stockholm library network, 98 of them  were men.

Editor-in-chief National Library of Sweden