by Hans Pul
Libraries have been considered as central places of public life. They are filled with people of all ages and with all sorts of backgrounds. And with books, of course. In the last decade or so, public libraries have seen some sort of revival, partly in reaction to the claim that libraries had become irrelevant in the digital age. Cities around the world have built new public libraries on prominent locations. This theme was touched upon on the City of Flows conference in Potsdam, Germany, which I recently visited. I was inspired by a presentation by Knud Schulz, who has worked in the public library of Aarhus, Denmark, for over 20 years.
One can easily criticize cities for focussing on landmarks as boosterism of place branding and urban development. The name of the new Aarhus library (“Urban Mediascape”) can make one sceptical. However, there’s some real good content behind the fancy name and the library’s landmark characteristics, as I’ll sketch in this post.
Of course, there are many examples of urban development projects where the prestige element was the major incentive. However, it wouldn’t be fair to do of all landmark development project as such. This is the case with the public library in Aarhus. With many examples from the last decades, Schulz presented the work that the library had been doing before the planning of the new public library. The new library building is the result of years of experimenting with new library concepts, rather than just transposing book shelves to a shiny new landmark building.
Schulz gave many examples of such new library concepts that were tested in the last decade. I’ll mention three. First, the library has achieved to become a platform of all sorts of public life in the city, including youth theater, local debates, music events etc. The library facilitates these events, for example by making accessible the city’s archive during a local debate. Second, in 2004 the Aarhus library developed the iFloor, an interactive device for subject browsing. Developed in cooperation with local students, this carpet screen enables library users to browse the library collection with their feet. In Schulz experience this increased the interaction between library users, which is not easily achieved with normal computers. Also, it led people to explore subjects they would not get in contact with normally, for example because they would not browse specific parts of the physical library. Third, the library organizes computer workshops for eldery, enabling them to get access to more information (which of course is one of the traditional tasks of libraries).
The starting point for all these concepts is the user, not the books, as Schulz states. This is not just a fancy claim. It really become clear when one watches Schulz’ presentation. It’s all about the experience of the user, about social interactions, about workshop content, etc. There are books on only a few of his slides. It’s all about creating places where people feel comfortable, places that people will actually use. In times where everybody has access to information via the internet, this bodily experience and the social aspect of the library become ever more important.
These considerations were valuable input for the development of the new library building. Schulz put forward that they considered the library as a place, as a space and as a relation. The library as a place within the city, as a landmark and as a catalysator of urban development. Second, the library as a space: a space social interaction, as an important hub of the public domain and as an experience space. Third, the library as a relation, with other (cultural) institutions and creative entrepreneurs. The new building was designed to facilitate these new roles for the library.
I think this story can be a lesson for the place branding professional. The Aarhus library story emphasizes to get your ‘content’ right first, to get your concept right. After that, think about the architecture, about the campaign or the branding activities you might want to start. This should fit your content, the place that is actually there. Not the other way around.
Schulz’ great presentation on SlideShare.