Visiting the libraries in Finland really makes you question your perception of what a library is, and I think I’m not alone among the participants in last week’s Global Libraries peer learning meeting in thinking about this issue.
On Tuesday, we visited the Sello library, part of the Espoo City Library system. Located adjacent to a big shopping mall, the library is a giant architectural wonder, a huge modern building with open spaces, comfortable stylish furniture, and numerous sections devoted to different purposes, from quiet spaces to computer use to thematic presentations and art exhibitions.
The library is full of books, but there are also many other options for visitors. While we were there, there was a Chinese calligrapher giving a demonstration in the central space of the library. A librarian was reading from a romance book as part of a monthly program aimed at raising the respectability of the normally-maligned genre. A group of young men was playing video soccer on a super-HD screen.
But there were also other things going on – some pretty far from my normal perceptions of what a library does. There were a series of sound studios where visitors could use advanced equipment for sound recording and mixing – while were there, a young rapper was assembling a recording. A woman was practicing piano in an adjacent studio. In another part of the library, there was a “salt room” – a small space for relaxation – with mood lighting, a couch, and chunks of salt throughout to help one relax.
The librarians told us that these parts of the library were included in response to customer request. They were also very confidently unsure of whether they were all necessary, their motto was proudly “While others are still planning, we have already failed.” But witnessing these things made me wonder – how do we even define what a library is? Should librarians respond to *all* types of user demand?
The Global Libraries programs encourage our participating librarians and communities to think in new ways about how libraries can respond to local needs. But how far should that go? At what point do libraries lose their defining characteristics? Where do librarians draw the line? Is a library’s central role to strengthen community education and access to information, or is it simply a community center for in the broadest sense? (Do libraries even need to have books? A library visited by others participating in this meeting didn’t – loaning other items instead.)
Wandering through the libraries we’ve seen in Finland, I wonder how librarians from Romania and Ukraine would perceive them. Would they be filled with new ideas? Or would they think Finnish libraries are pointed in the wrong direction? Coming out of this visit, I’ve definitely had to question my own assumptions.