The Library as an Urban Developer
In recent years, the public library has been a strategic factor in urban development. Both internationally and in Denmark, new public library buildings thus form part of the endeavours to improve cities' visibility, image and identity. Often, the ambition is that the iconic library will contribute to reinforcing the city's brand as an attractive future-orientated and experience-orientated city. Whereas classical city libraries have often been placed in city centres, where people already go for other reasons, many new public libraries are instead located with a view to creating vibrant new urban spaces and meeting places in run-down urban districts, old industrial areas and similar.
The most striking example of this way of thinking is the Openbare Bibliotheek in Amsterdam (OBA), which is also the largest library so far, covering 28,000 m2. The library, which was inaugurated in 2007, was to pave the way for other partners in changing the former industrial harbour area into a vibrant urban environment with a hotel, housing, shops and cultural institutions. The strategy has been successful, and OBA now attracts more than 7,000 visitors per day due to its opening hours from 10 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week, its exhibitions, stages for events and, not least, the good restaurant at the top of the building.
In Denmark, the Rentemestervej Library in the NorthWest district of Copenhagen with its offset stack of golden books is a good example of a library of iconic quality, which gives the run-down city district a new identity. Dokk1 in Aarhus is also “an icon for Aarhus as a knowledge city with a pulse and roots".
Map practice and analyse needs: From the moment a political decision is made to construct a new public library to the day the library opens its doors to its public, quite a long time may pass. Often, several different locations can be in play. Quite far into the process, it might still be uncertain whether the library is to be housed under the same roof as other cultural institutions, and in such cases, some of the players that are to move into the new building might still be missing. However, even if it can be difficult to make concrete plans with such significant uncertainties, planners can usually presume that the new library or multi-purpose culture centre is highly unlikely to be the only cultural institution in the town/city, the municipality or the immediate locality.
If a new library is to be constructed, it will typically have to either interact with or replace existing libraries. It is therefore a good idea to create a precise overview of where and how the existing libraries deliver added cultural value. Who are their most dedicated and faithful core users? What efficient partnerships have they established with other institutions, associations and similar? What user groups do they not have particularly strong relations to?
If a multi-purpose culture centre is to be established that will gather several different cultural institutions under one roof, it is also a good idea to carry out a mapping – with a special view to gathering cultural institutions that can reach a wider public together.
Profile library, all-encompassing library or both? When a new library is to be constructed, the political ambition will often be to create a ‘culture centre’ that will appeal to a multitude of diverse users through a variety of offers. It is therefore strategically important to determine whether the idea with the new library is to create an all-encompassing library that can do most things for most people, or a profile library that addresses a narrower target group, but which is in turn extremely capable on this more limited platform. Pursuing the latter ambition, some libraries choose to cultivate a sharper profile, as for instance the new Ørestad Library, which is particularly a library for children and young people. Others may opt for a thematic delimitation of their material collection and activities, as for instance Library 10 in Helsinki. Other libraries, especially large metropolitan libraries such as Malmö City Library with its children's department, Balagan, have successfully integrated a specialised section with an edge under the roof of the all-encompassing library.
Iconic or at eye level? Many of the new libraries that are currently being constructed in Denmark and abroad share the intention of being able to attract positive attention as spectacular and different buildings, thus achieving great appeal. Quite often, they succeed, as seen in the many cases that are described in this Model Programme. You can read more about different cases here. However, the price can be that the new iconic libraries end up appearing elitist, lofty and inaccessible. Another challenge can be that ‘the neighbour is doing the same thing’. In many Danish market towns, new libraries and multi-purpose culture centres are currently being planned and constructed. The iconic market town libraries can quickly find themselves competing for the same hinterland customers, and this implies a risk of the ‘iconic’ becoming an everyday occurrence for users who are spoilt for choice. Before construction is initiated, it is therefore worth taking a critical and objective look at not only the desired user basis, but also the user basis that can be expected.
What should the library be able to do? Most clients will probably share a vision for the new library to be a building dedicated to knowledge acquisition and learning. For this purpose, the library should contain an abundant and updated material collection as well as places to sit down, where people can acquire new knowledge and immerse themselves in the materials – both analogue and digital. As a supplement to this classical function, many also have a vision of creating an active culture centre with lively cultural events, concerts and people giving talks. In addition, many want a building that can contribute to local democracy development by offering attractive settings for meeting activity, debate evenings and a variety of local interest groups. Finally, planners often want a building that can form the background for the users' own active culture production.
Here, you can read more about the different types of activities and functions that can unfold within the four general focus areas, and which requirements they pose on the library's spaces and settings: The Library as a Learning Space, The Library as an Inspiration Space, The Library as a Meeting Space and The Library as a Performative Space.
Think in terms of activities, functions and users before flexibility: Buildings, spaces and interior design that promote optimum flexibility and adaptability are very popular with clients when they are about to build a library. The challenge is, of course, that it should preferably be possible for the many different activities to take place in settings that support the given activities in the best possible way. And as space and resources are not unlimited, maybe the best space/function interplay can be created by thinking less about flexibility and more about activity, behaviour and users. Read more about the library's users here. And then to move on to which functional areas or zones the library should offer in order for the many different activities to take place in settings that support the given activities in the best possible way. You can read more about the library's zones here.
The good process: When a new library is to be constructed, it is important very early in the process to involve management and personnel from the established libraries in the municipality in the effort to describe strengths and challenges in the existing library facilities, map different user groups' behaviour and needs, and clarify the vision for the new library that is to be built. It is therefore important in connection with the project organisation to consider whether the primary project management is to be technical or based on library expertise. You can read more about how to work your way successfully through the process from political decision to occupancy of the new building: ‘The good process’.
Make your own contribution via the Facebook group
If you have examples or ideas about how libraries can contribute to creating life in cities and as ‘city brands’, or if you have comments to this article, please feel free to contribute via the Facebook group.10. Oct 2016 at. 09:18