Model Programme for Public Libraries

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The Library as a Meeting Space

The Danish Agency for Culture's survey from February 2013 on new design and new construction of libraries asks Danish library managers which functions they consider it most important for their libraries to support. “Possibilities of informal meetings and sociality for the library's many users” tops the Top Five List.

New Norwegian research has also shown that the profile of the group that uses the library for other things than borrowing is wider than the group that borrows. One key conclusion is that the library has a great potential for being a meeting place across ethnic, social and economic barriers, and for playing a part as a vital player in the local community.

The fact that all library users have the same status and access to the library's spaces helps give the library its special character. The library space is an integration arena, both ethnically and socially, and at the library, people can walk between different life spheres because the library is used in connection with different life roles and ages.

Meeting all users at eye level

All parts of the library should constitute settings for people's encounters. The library's entrance space and main space need to appear openly inviting. At the same time, there needs to be a certain span in the signals that are transmitted via interior design and material presentation, so that different user segments feel drawn and inspired to use the library and its offers. The challenge is to create spaces that are flexible and spacious enough to provide room both for quiet concentration and for discussing project groups, for book talks on a stage and boisterous play.

Library 10 in Helsinki is an exciting example of a library space that supports many different and informal encounters by virtue of its interior design with informal workplaces, conversation places and music events, including dance at the library. The DOK Library in Delft is another example of a library that attracts a great diversity of users due to its clearly differentiated zones. The Rentemestervej Library, a new Danish library, works systematically to create different spaces, each with their own signals, functions, colours and behaviour: from the classical book library with armchairs to the creative project space that can be used flexibly and changed as needed.

The library as the third place

The idea about the third place (Oldenburg, Ray (1991). The Great Good Place. New York: Marlowe & Company) has inspired many libraries increasingly to see the library as a meeting place with a clear social point. It is not private or ‘at home’, and nor is it ‘work’. This third place needs to be open and yet have a good atmosphere. It should have many different offers so that all visitors experience that there is something suitable for them.

The typology, layout and design of the meeting space

As a consequence of the wide use of the library, it is essential to work with a wide spectre of meeting spaces. The library's meeting spaces need to cover three important dimensions. One dimension stretches between the intimate, almost private space and the completely public, open square. The second dimension covers meeting spaces that can contain both organised teaching and more unorganised, spontaneous meetings. The third dimension is about scaling – there should be room for both small and large meetings.

The hall

The classical library typically has a hall that can be used for a variety of meetings, from debates and talks to cultural activities, and typically, it also has meeting rooms that can be borrowed or used by study groups etc. The challenge is to develop meeting spaces that are more flexible, e.g. as at Malmö City Library where the bookcases in the Calendar of Light are on wheels and can be wheeled out to make room for six hundred people. The same approach is applied on a smaller scale at the Rotunda at Tårnby Library where chairs can be set up for 130 people.

The Rotunda at Tårnby Library. Photo: Tårnby Main Library

The Rotunda is located at the centre of the library, and events are held here while the library is open for other use at the same time. The Rotunda is open to the surrounding library, but by virtue of different flooring and a glass dome, it clearly has its own character as an independent space. A third example is the first floor at Ørestad Library, which can be changed in an instant, because of its very light and movable furniture, from being a classroom into a room for cultural or performative meetings. A Swedish university library makes a large open space available to students. The space is equipped with large, practically empty bookcases on wheels and some movable partition walls so that the students can continually and flexibly define their space within the larger space.

Space for organised meetings

Organised meetings in the form of study circles, IT courses, health cafes, homework cafes or creative workshops require correspondingly organised settings. These are typically classrooms equipped with PCs, or workshops for creative activities. The trend, following years of experience, is that IT courses and similar educational activities work best in closed spaces, such as the Learning Space at Tårnby Library, where there are glass walls between the Learning Space and the adult library.

‘The Learning Space’ at Tårnby Library. Photo: Tårnby Main Library

The stage

A third meeting framework is ‘the stage’ – a place within the library that regularly features shows, events or debates. The stage is characterised by being an open space within the space, which is smaller in scale than the spaces that have the character of ‘halls’, whether these are permanent or flexible ‘halls’. At Aalborg Main Library, a number of cultural events thus take place at one end of the open square, which has flexible furniture. These are typically events where people come and go, e.g. debate meetings, readings or book talks, while other types of meetings take place in the library's hall. Finally, something happens every day on ‘the stage’, which is a niche in the library equipped with a few rows of cinema seats. This area is used for film showings, music and debate.

At the centre of the lending area at Åby Library by Aarhus, a small stage has been erected, which is built together with exhibition shelves. Events held here include ‘Literature Happens’, an active and outgoing communication of Danish literature in particular, organised in collaboration with, among others, Aarhus University, and which has become quite a crowd-puller. The events combine well with the exhibitions that are created around the stage.

At the DOK Library in Delft, the Netherlands, a stage with light and microphones has been installed in one of the library's central zones, which is normally laid out as a lounge area in extension of a cafe with armchairs and tables. However, the zone can quickly be changed into an open performance area. At OBA in Amsterdam, currently Europe's largest public library, they have worked systematically with meeting spaces. The library contains halls for actual performances, music, theatre and talks. The interior design also includes more or less closed rooms for groups. Finally, there is a ‘stage’ on each floor, which is simply a flexible area for events. This is used for e.g. interviews that are transmitted via the local radio channel run by the library.

Read more about the stage as a design principle here.

Space for informal meetings

The greatest spectrum is found in relation to unorganised or citizen-organised meetings. One end of the spectrum can be a cafe, while at the other end, it can be a couple of armchairs placed, for instance, in a shielded corner, encouraging people to sit down and chat. It can be the furniture in a newspaper reading area that is organised so that it is easy to talk to other readers, e.g. by means of armchairs placed around a low, round table, as seen at Copenhagen Main Library.

Many users choose to position themselves near the library's cafe where they can work with laptops, read books or newspapers, and quickly fetch coffee or a snack. Photo: Copenhagen Main Library

Cafe concepts

The spectrum for cafe activities ranges from the large, enormously popular cafe on the top floor of OBA in Amsterdam to a self-service coffee vending machine. Many libraries are working on creating a cafe that can serve as a meeting place. At the Rentemestervej Library in Copenhagen, the cafe is quite simply the library's newspaper and journal reading place. In Kolding, there is access from the library to a cafe that is run by the hotel in the same building, but where the library makes newspapers available. At the Boekenberg Bibliotheek in Spijkenisse, the Netherlands, the cafe is located on top of the book mountain, while at Aalborg Main Library, it faces the pedestrian street so that it is clearly visible from outside. Libraries often struggle to run a cafe cost-effectively. One concept that has gained ground in recent years is a cafe served by people with learning disabilities.

Read more about the cafe as a design principle in library spaces here.

Space for meetings organised by citizens

Citizens who organise meetings at libraries can be groups of students who use the library for group work, or associations who borrow rooms. The types of settings in demand vary. At one end of the spectrum, the requirement can be a corner where people can sit around a table to talk, at the other end, a closed room may be required. In Aalborg, a long, detached bookcase serves as a room partition, so that the area between windows and the bookcase is suitable for group work.

The low-intensity meeting can take place anywhere – in the open square over a box of books, at the event where people sit together, in the quiet reading corner, or by the computer tables where you might ask the neighbour a question. The prerequisite for this to happen is that the library manages to create an open, friendly atmosphere that makes it all seem natural.

The DOK Library in Delft, where chairs are placed between bookcases, encourages low-intensity meetings. Photo: Signal Architects

Meeting spaces for children

Meeting spaces for children are a special category. Many libraries aim to be family libraries, in which it is a basic challenge to create smooth transitions between the children's space and the adult space, or to incorporate adult meeting places into the spaces where children meet and play at the library. At the Rentemestervej Library , the ‘Grotten’ (the Grotto) section for young children is found on the ground floor, immediately opposite the cafe. This enables parents of slightly older toddlers to keep watch on their children's activities while enjoying a cup of coffee. As a result of the noise-reducing material that has been chosen, guests at the cafe do not experience any noise from the children in the grotto. In Hjørring, a VIP corner for Very Important Parents is located in connection with the young children's area, with a sofa and information material for parents.

A classical space for children is the fairytale space, which is traditionally an intimate, cosy space with benches or cushions in a circle, where stories are read aloud to children. More recent meeting spaces for children are related to social games, for instance a Wii zone at the library or a ‘Gamer Street’ with games consoles. The open library at Vejgaard in Aalborg has a playroom with games options, which has made the library a popular excursion and meeting place for families with children, particularly during weekends.

At Aalborg Main Library, the children's section is divided into different zones. Photo: Peter Søholm Simonsen

Balagan is Malmö City Library's special place for 9-12-year-olds. It was designed with a view to shielding children against behaviour regulation from other users of the library. It is laid out close to the heart of the library with access from the central traffic area, but at the same time, it constitutes an independent spatiality.

Make your own contribution via the Facebook group

If you have examples or ideas of how to develop and strengthen the library's function as a meeting place, or if you have comments to this article, please feel free to contribute via the Facebook group.

07. Jul 2017 at. 10:26

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