New roles – new spaces

Photo Mette MillingThe libraries’ new roles require us to rethink the design of the physical library space. The  objective of the project “Library space in Troms” is to develop change-oriented library premises which are adapted to the needs of local communities for their library as a knowledge, cultural and literary centre, a meeting-place and an arena for activities.

The project has received funding from the National Library and the county administration, and is conditional on the involvement of the municipalities. In 2012, we have focused on informationgathering, competence enhancement and trials of methodologies. The main focus in 2013 will be on physical development measures in five selected municipalities. We are approaching a method for how to work with library premises, and we would like to share it with others.

Physical dissemination of the libraries’ content and libraries’ role as a literary centre are key perspectives in the project. Cooperation and coordination with other actors and local adaptation is another.We do not focus on the amount of shelf space, but on the activities with which this room can be filled.

When speaking of the facilitation of the library premises for various activities we need to include physical as well as digital perspectives.We assume that social change will result in a need for other types of spaces. Other considerations emerge when the collection changes to an increasing amount of digital material.

In the future, we will need more space for people than for collections -– there will be no more fixed rows of bookshelves. We are changing the physical as well as the organizational preconditions, so that the libraries can fill their expected new role.

Knowledge-based development 

The development efforts are based on research and experience from other cities. This provides reassurance, new insights and change competence to all those involved. In our work with the library plan we used the Danish report Folkebibliotekerne i videnssamfunnet (Public libraries in the knowledge society) as inspiration. The report presents a new model that describes the library’s functions through an inspirational room, a learning room, a meeting room and a performance room. The model provides an illustrative image of four equivalent perspectives for the future. The project now uses the model as a structural tool, theoretically as well as practically, as well as in encounters with parties that are not intimately familiar with libraries.

“Interior design is a frame of mind”

We came across the Danish architect and designer Mette Milling. Her approach matched our ideas perfectly.We hired her as a guest lecturer at the University of Tromsø, and over time she has contributed to several of our development projects as a consultant.

A focus on the users and the activities that will fill the spaces, organization of the work and collaborative solutions provide a basis for designing the premises so that they function well for everybody. The interior design should be predictable, well-considered and flexible to free up time for development of the library services.

How can changes be achieved with limited resources? Through rethinking design, recycling, combining new, old and specially designed furniture, a better space can be created with even scant funds.

Workshop as method

We have used workshops as our method for designing two different public libraries. We started by recruiting broadly among the users, municipal employees and the library’s cooperation partners. All those involved have participated throughout the process, in order to provide everybody with a shared understanding of the project’s objectives.

We started the first day by pouring out all our ideas about the kind of furniture we wanted to have. It is essential not to start working by pondering on specific solutions, products or designer furniture.We had a brainstorming to identify all the things we could imagine that the various groups of users would want to do in the library, such as reading, being on Facebook, sending e-mails, working in a group, talking, singing, playing, dancing, playing games etc.

After this first session we were left with a number of possible activities, which in the next session were distributed over the four rooms.We asked ourselves what activities belonged in the inspirational room, the performance room, the learning room and the meeting room.

We also considered whether any activities would overlap, and attempted to describe the experience that being in the various rooms should provide, what ambience we wanted to achieve.

Should it be a dramatic atmosphere, or an airy, exhilarating, quiet, energetic or intimate feeling? Ms Milling is concerned with how we bring with us a sense of perception, meaning how we see and perceive the world around us. We should use our own bodies and sense it. How does this room ‘feel’ when we are sitting, standing, moving around or lying in a corner?

Body and mind

Sometimes, the appropriate solution may consist in furniture that supports multiple functions and activities. This flexibility is inherent in the piece of furniture itself, not in its portability. For example, a piece of furniture can be converted from a sofa where people slouch during the day to the scene for an interview with an author in the evening.

On other occasions, furniture with a single function may provide the most appropriate solution, such as display shelves for books, mounted on walls. The shelves are there permanently and there is no need to consider their placement, so that the attention can be focused on the content.

With this as our shared starting point, we were joined by Ms Milling to design a library on the second day of the workshop. For example, how could we facilitate the reading of fairy tales to children? Several solutions provide more options to choose from. From our discussions and collaboration the library premises emerged as a shared effort.

As will be clear, the workshop participants were able to use all their mental faculties during the two workshop days, in a positive and creative experience. This kind of workshop may also provide the basis for functional requirements that can be passed on to the architect or the builder.

A vibrant space for the community 

We have been at the forefront in addressing these issues, and we feel that we are well on the way to reaching our goal. More efforts must be devoted to this area! There is a need for functional library premises for the future, where local adaptation and focus on the users’ needs create additional value.

In the project, we are working with small library units – with other requirements for interaction than larger units will have. However, we have faith that the libraries can promote vibrant local communities, provided that the physical and financial preconditions are met.

Project Director "Library rooms in Troms" Troms County Linbrary