Two new cultural capitals Two new libraries

The European capitals of culture for 2014 are Riga and Umeå. For both cities, the investments in libraries are likely the most important element – the one that will above all remain and long be associated with the EU’s award.
The new public library in Umeå in the culture centre Kulturväven. Illustration: White View arkitectsSince 1985, the European Union has annually designated one or more cities in Europe as responsible for the title European Capital of Culture. This year, the Latvian capital of Riga will be carrying out a number of functions as part of its hosting duties.

The motto is “Force majeure”. Umeå’s theme for the year is “Northern space” (Det nordliga rummet) – quite naturally, as the city lies 600 kilometers north of Stockholm, in the Västerbotten region. Sami culture plays an important role. The most important efforts in both cities, however, concern libraries.

Spectacular libraries

The new National Library of Latvia in Riga, called the Castle of Light Photo: Bernt Rostad/Flickr CCUmeå Municipality is opening a new city library this fall. In Riga, a new national library will be inaugurated. Naturally, these investments have long been planned and the work has been in progress for a number of years, but both of these spectacular libraries are related to the year as a capital of culture both in the application for the title and in activities for 2014. There is no doubt that the two new libraries are exceptional, and will play an important role for the future.

Previous capitals of culture in the Nordic and Baltic regions were Copenhagen in 1996; Stockholm in 1998; Helsinki, Bergen, and Reykjavik in 2000; Stavanger in 2008; Vilnius in 2009; and Åbo and Tallinn in 2011. Aarhus will take over the title in 2017. This city also has a new library as an obvious asset in the application, and an important attraction during its year as capital. The award originally came to be on the initiative of the Greek minister of culture Melina Mercouri.

Stimulating efforts

For the library, and its instigators and employees, it is of course very exhilarating that major investments in these institutions in particular were given such a significant role in the efforts towards being the capital of culture.

“The nomination is very positive for the public libraries in Riga as well. Prior to this year we equipped 25 of our branch li braries, and only four remain,” says Dzidra Smita, library director for Riga Central Library, the public library of the city. “The main library is also expanding its area and is developing its media collection. But these efforts are being carried out within the regular budget. No extra money will be paid out during the year.”

In Riga, there are hopes for strengthened collaboration around literature and reading. A literature festival for authors, publishers, and librarians could be an important joint project for eight Baltic and Nordic countries.

Ms Smita, library director in Riga, and Janis Oga, director of the Latvian Litera ture Centre and a publisher as well, would very much like to discuss this proposal further with interested colleagues in the countries concerned.

“It is, and should be, a clear responsibility for librarians to strengthen their expert roles in the issue of literature,” Ms Smita sums up.

Nor has Umeå City Library been assigned extra activity money for the year as capital of culture. The regular budget applies. On the other hand, Umeå’s literature festival has received extra resources; during the year it conducted a series of programmes that attracted much attention.

New cultural arena

Ingegerd Frankki is new library director in Umeå. She is greatly pleased with the municipality’s library investments.

“The public library, in its new context in an all-round community centre called Väven, has great opportunities to develop further and to reach new groups. Väven means a great lift for Umeå,” she emphasizes.

Close neighbours include such things as film, music, a digital workshop, images and form, a stage for spontaneous events, an art hall, a café, a museum of women’s history, and hotels and restaurants. Väven will be an entirely new cultural arena that crosses borders; its name signifies that here, culture and experiences will weave together people and ideas.

“The establishment of a Folkets Bio in Väven has aroused great enthusiasm among many. The women’s history museum has every prospect of attracting attention from all around; it is unique in the  country,” states Mr Frankki, and continues, “hotels and restaurants have already opened and we note immediately that this means a lot for the community centre, and for the entire complex.

In addition, we have the pleasure of instituting seven new services in our new library. The public library will be the largest municipal operation in Väven in terms of area, divided into three floors. We’re looking forward to the opening in November, when we can present a new library concept,” Mr. Frankki sums up.

Landmarks on the river

As a building, the National Library in Riga can be considered controversial. Undoubtedly, no resident or visitor to the city can miss the towering, pyramid-shaped building on the river Daugava. The interior, which still can be experienced only by a small number of visitors, has been rated by many judges as both impressive and fascinating through its generous, high and brightly lit central rooms. Even the view of the Daugava and the Old Town have earned praise.

“Not a day without an event or programme” is the motto for Andris Vilks, director of the National Library. During the spring, for example, he was able to arrange the prize ceremony for an international children’s book competition: Best Illustration.

The City of Birches

The university town of Umeå is also investing in a landmark building. The view over the Ume River and the city centre is magnificent. The black-and-white colours of the facade naturally calls Umeå, the City of Birches, to mind. The main library is moving several hundred metres from one ideal central location to another ideal central location.

There is still some discussion about the exact placement, likely to be a quickly passing local phenomenon limited in time. A new city library in collaboration with a range of cultural activities, on the other hand, has met with a more unequivocal positive opinion. The residents of Umeå have great hopes for Väven, the new complex.

Rented out to the EU

In Latvia and Riga, all major investments are naturally discussed. The country’s economy has been subjected to significant trials, but as a nation Latvia wants to mark its independence and its connection to Western Europe as well. In 2004, Latvia became a member of the EU and NATO; in 2014 it changed its currency from the Lats to the Euro.

The Lats epoch (1992-2013) is otherwise honoured in the choice of colours for the national library. Important culturalhistorical buildings in the capital are being fitted out, and this multi-million-Euro investment in the national library also constitutes a reminder of Latvia as a nation with its own traditions and pride.

The new national library, to be inaugurated on August 29, will be rented out for a number of months in 2015 to the EU, when Latvia is the chairmanship country.

This, perhaps, is why it is extra important now that this parade building be of the highest quality. Next year, the European heads of state and government, and a succession of ministers and experts will meet here. For the library, this means an extra boost in its launch and its status.

In Umeå, the inauguration of Väven will take place on November 21 – a day that ushers in the eighth season the Sami call “autumnwinter”. Sami culture plays an important role in the annual programme of Umeå, the capital of culture.

Library Director in Helsinki, 1987-2013
Cultural Director in Sandviken and Gävle, 1986-2011
  • Number of residents: 120,000
  • Name: Väven/The Web
  • Area: 5,000 m2 (entire building: 24.000 m2
  • Cost: 80 million €
  • Architect: Snöhetta, Oslo and White, Architects
  • Number of residents: 700,000
  • Name: The Castle of Light
  • Area: 40,000 m2
  • Cost: 163 million €
  • Architect: Gunnar Birkerts