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Libraries Are 

While designing the Helsinki Central Library it has become abundantly clear how an easily accessible public space can improve the overall welfare, creativity and capacity of the city.

Tuula Haavisto
Library Director, Helsinki City Library

Tuula Haavisto, photograph by Pirjo Sallmén
ibrary is important in as much as it provides an environment in which new activities and city culture can be created. It is an environment which can exploit and utilize existing diverse stimuli, a place where people can meet friends and make new acquaintances as well as run into unexpected new phenomena. Similar inspirational spaces are being built in universities, colleges, business incubators, and other closed environments. As a genuinely open environment, library is a very good example of the everyman version of the said theme. An easy access invites people from all walks of life to participate in an atmosphere of inspiration and cooperation.

These phenomena can be recognised in big libraries which have already been built according to the new concept such as in Turku and Seinäjoki extended main libraries and in Espoo shopping centre libraries. Similar developments are taking place also in Denmark and Holland: in these countries libraries provide venues for civic as well as industrial and commercial activities. The number of freelancers and small-scale entrepreneurs working in the libraries has steadily increased over the last few years in Finland.

Library’s traditional role as a promoter of reading and literature enhances creativity in an immeasurable way. In the age of twitters and facebooks, we emphasise the importance of reading long narrative texts. A profound understanding of the world around us requires serious concentration which does not come about without reading books and well thought out and argued articles and publications. The constant flood of visual images has its advantages but it cannot provide the basis for the same analysis that a good text can do. This is why an entire floor in Helsinki Central Library, aptly named as Book Heaven, will be reserved for books and reading.

Helsinki Central Library is already a formidable generator in terms of library development in general. The slogan “Library is a verb” of the Urban Workshop, created by the library users, gives us a clue to the direction the expansion is heading: library users can experiment with their own ideas in the Urban Workshop. Working space and the use of vinyl cutter and various other gadgets provided by the Urban Workshop give and important advantage for small-scale entrepreneurs as well as for any other customer. ESF-funded Experiment point has visited numerous libraries in Southern Finland during the past three years. At the Experiment point customers can acquaint themselves with the products of the Finnish small-scale entrepreneurs such as the solar panel rucksack or the sleep monitoring smart bed as well as services provided by the web, e.g. a goods transportation carpool. The Experiment point is being launched as an international operations model under the name Labrary.

In addition, Helsinki Central Library has put into motion the mapping of library acoustics and audio landscapes as well as the soon to be opened quiet Suvanto (Stream pool) space. Also, the use of digital surfaces in the libraries are going to be experimented with and in this library users’ input as regards the design and content production play an important role. Other libraries are also interested in the design principles of these services. For example, constant content production and its maintenance have to be guaranteed. There is a danger that digital experiments remain isolated prototype stage undertakings without any thoroughly thought out connections with library’s overall activities or other web services. In Kontula branch library, screens that are fixed to the ceiling are being experimented with and are used, for example, during the fairy tale hours. These screens also have a calming effect in the children’s department where noise levels often tend to rise. All in all, the benefits of library space are being acknowledged and they are being utilised more extensively. In Helsinki, branch libraries are being bolstered as centers of civic activities and as beacons of city services alongside the Helsinki Central Library project.