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The new Central Library will revolutionise the traditional idea of the library.

Mikko Vainio
Director of Library services, Vantaa

Mikko Vainio, photograph by Martti Vattulainen
he City of Helsinki will open new library in Töölönlahti area in 2017. The task of the Helsinki City Library is to create the foundation and contents for library services of the 2020’s. The digitisation of everyday life already affects libraries. Distribution is no longer our core mission. Instead, championing learning, collaboration and creativity will be become priority. There are brand new libraries in Finland that have not considered this development enough.

The idea of a library?
Library is an old and strong institution. The everyday assumption is that libraries have always been somewhat permanent and unchanged and that the main purpose of public library is to lend fiction. If the idea of a library has survived hundreds of years can it be changed?

What could be the idea in an era when information networks have taken over the core of the library work — encyclopedias and the business of answering simple questions? We all can guess the next most likely drop-out: is it the newspaper that occupies the Finnish breakfast table or is it the publisher occupying the gap between the writer and the reader? And, in the end, will it be the library?

Because of our small linguistic area Finnish public libraries have had some time to consider its options. In other countries the competition has been so intense that immediate reaction or downfall have been the only options. There are examples from England and the United States where libraries have been closed en mass and at the same time lending e-books for free has become an everyday practice. In other words in these countries the idea of library is still about lending fiction but in a digital mode. We have wasted our Finnish “time-out” on pining over the past and experimenting on lending e-readers without sensible content.

Central Library — pinnacle of madness?
The decision to build a library — central library as its working title — fit for the needs of the future, at the best location in Helsinki, has inspired many opinions. The project has been called the swan song for libraries or the travesty of true libraries. We see it as a wonderful opportunity to boost the viability of Helsinki amidst the profound changes of the post industrial information society.

Information is much more than letters. Most of our time we all process text, sound, image but other kinds of data, as well. The data might take its shape depending on context, perhaps after we add something to it. Post industrial society produces more information by modifying the existing data.

One of the original ideas of the public library was to offer something to read for the common people who had just learnt to read. This educational material provided reading skills for the masses, the latest example being the Pisa success. Depending on time period and situation literacy has acted as a way to strive for civilization, happiness, democracy, economical success or satisfying curiosity. All this is still relevant.

Information becomes all the more important ingredient in various situations: it multiplies when used and it must be learnt like reading skills. When the skills are reached, the ingredient is needed incessantly for the demands of creativity and production. Even though information is immaterial, we need space, tools, community and guidance to encourage its use. The tools and methods of the future library must come from the present time.¨

Well managed libraries already provide assembly space, fast networks, online resources and education in infor-mation and communication technology from scanners to studios. However, the operations have seldom been designed as meaningful and targeted entities. When library space is built on the conditions of bookshelves, new services cannot function professionally, productively, in large enough scale or in pursuit of the greatest impact. A good library is such an important institution in our information society that it deserves a central place.

What will it be like?
Central library will not primarily be a grand edifice at a great location filled with bookshelves. The core ideas of the central library plans have been participation, open learning environments and crowd sourcing. Users are invited to use presentation methods and technical equipment borrowed from museums and science centres. Central library can in fact be described as a multidisciplinary and multicultural change laboratory. In the learning environments the information can be processed in all its forms, the newest being the two and three-dimensional figures. This change is already happening because laser cutters and 3D printers are on the budget lists of many libraries. However, the most noteworthy aspects of the central library are the workshops, study groups and projects developing data by making use of the new equipment. These are the guidelines governing the design of the library space.

As working online becomes common the boundaries between work and spare time become indistinct and working hours become virtually redundant. Creative work often involves temporary jobs and limited resources. Central library will without a doubt become one of the constantly changing work places for many. The users may not able to articulate whether they are working or spending time while visiting library. Therefore, the space has to also function as an open-plan office for the citizens.

The distribution of space differs from the current libraries: the modifiable spaces for performances and assem-blies, exhibition space and the restaurant take a significant portion of the library. There is no room for book storage, so the logistics will be handled elsewhere as much as possible. The administration is also situated in another location. All services have been conceptualised. Books and other lending material will not predominant but equal with digital material.

The new library is also a virtual space where open public data is presented. There are also virtual tools provided to modify that data. The physical and virtual spaces of the central library are connected and they will create a kind of refinery or concentrator of information. All these elements are outlines of current library work but the virtual central library will bring the ideas, tools and learning experience more profoundly on display.

The planning of the central library does not only apply to one building — it applies to all library operations. That is why the strategy and agenda of the City Library have been modified and the organisation will be developed to meet the requirements of the new library. The ITC solutions and the need for fast-paced upgrading will take a larger proportion of the resources than in the previous years.

In order to enable continuing development and economical balance we need to create partnerships. The Helsinki City Library has already started to create and advance value networking. Even though we search for partners from all over the world, like Dibrary from South Korea, it is obvious that there are good partners nearby, too. As well as big companies the new library project offers small businesses a chance to develop their practices. Library staff will be required or have the chance to adapt to this new working environment as contributors. The library will need traditional library professionals but also tremendous amount of innovative pedagogic, technical, business and judicial expertise. The year 2017 is not that far away for us to wait. The work has truly begun.