Skip to:

A Building is the Image of Its Function

Tuula Haavisto

In Finland, the idea of function is realised in very different ways in libraries and museum buildings. Libraries have often been designed specifically for use as libraries. By contrast, museums are often housed in existing buildings, and understandably so. This is a significant difference in terms of the design and functionality of the buildings.

For decades now, Finnish library buildings have embodied in concrete the library concept of whatever decade they were built in. These concepts vary in how much space is allocated to the various functions of a library, whether space is open-plan or divided, and whether the interests of workflow have been taken into account in such features as the movement of material. Silence is an example of a feature that was considered to be of great importance in the older library buildings. However, in the 1970s, silence was replaced by the idea of an open library for the whole family. As noise levels rise, silence is once again becoming sought after.

Museums have been accommodated in existing buildings more on the terms of the buildings themselves. In museums the present is not a dominant aspect, as is the case with most libraries today. Sometimes, this results in reduced functionality, as the technology that museum collections demand is not easy to fit in with an old building.

Then again, there are times when an old building is the perfect fit for a museum. The atmosphere in the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool is made all the more intense by the museum’s location in a refurbished harbour and dockside area. This was once the biggest slave port in Europe, a stopover when slaves were exported from Africa to the Americas.

From the perspective of the audience, either approach might work and get the approval of the users. The strata of history that are in evidence in an old museum building can please the audience and even move it. One good example of this is the Museum Centre Vapriikki in Tampere, which is housed in the old Tampella engineering works. At the other end of the spectrum, a new library building can be a perfect embodiment of the spirit of the times and meet contemporary needs. As an example, the people of Turku have flooded into the new building that was added to their main public library.

Food for the soul and food for the brain

Good libraries and museums both represent how much society values ordinary people and their endeavours to educate themselves, find refreshing new insights, learn new things and find answers. A library is home, above all, to intellectual capital, while a museum is the home of our collective memory. The boundaries between these two may admittedly be rather obscure.

The knowledge society brings us even more challenges. In order to qualify as democratic, the new society has to offer a system that enables citizens to find answers to their individual need for knowledge, in short: libraries. The need for spiritual refreshment and renewal is also paramount, and both museums and libraries cater to this, too.

This perspective makes it completely logical to discuss turning the new planned central library for Helsinki into a national project to celebrate the centenary of Finland’s independence in 2017. I have been following the appearance of libraries on the social and political agenda in Finland and elsewhere for a couple of decades now. In our conditions, the suggestion in question is a major step towards this. The aspect of the proposal that has drawn the most criticism is specifically its physical limitation: the centenary library can only be in one place, even if it would celebrate the independence of the entire country in its full extent. Personally, I feel that the symbolic value of this project, and its recognition of the value of libraries, is far more important than the fact that the project centres on Helsinki.

What about the future?

When I was a student in the 1970s, the keyword in the lectures on library architecture was flexibility. In terms of how the space is planned, I still consider this a good guideline. The new forms that the operations will take are impossible to foresee, so it is best to prepare for change by building spaces that can be altered. Considering the basic differences between library and museum buildings mentioned above, I think that the same approach can be applied to both museums and libraries.

And it is possible to predict something of the future. What will people do in the public arts buildings of the future?

At the very least, they will be needed as a place to spend time. Paradoxically, the emergence of the Internet has given new importance to ordered and pleasant indoor spaces. Libraries, in particular, are important as a non-commercial and safe space offering many kinds of interesting things to do. They are also places where you can simply spend time. Schoolchildren, for instance, spend a great deal of time in libraries after school.

In the future there will be more and more happening in libraries. They are good forums to counteract disassociation and loneliness and to support communities.

The library space has a number of interesting aspects. The growing demand for silence was already mentioned above. The lecture halls and other similar spaces in libraries are in active use, and there are discussions, author visits, storytelling and book clubs. The meeting spaces and exhibition rooms give the people of the surrounding community a home base and an opportunity to exhibit their work. In the public libraries of the City of Espoo, people may book meeting rooms even outside library opening hours.

The libraries are actively involved in teaching and applying information society skills. The most extreme version of this in Finland is probably the Tietotori ( ‘Net Squares’) concept in some public libraries in the City of Tampere: spaces equipped specifically for teaching information society skills. Here, courses are arranged on everything to do with the Internet and digital information, and advice is given to members of the public. The concept originated with a local ‘Internet bus’, a mobile teaching unit which proved a success. Both of these facilities are successful in reaching those who are not able to improve their information society skills through work or education. Other libraries too will have workstations at the very least, often computer classes, too, and they generally supply instruction and advice on these facilities.

Reading rooms and other reading places have lost none of their significance at libraries, although the demand for them is seasonal in part. They and the rooms for group work have a permanent social need to fill, and people will convene in the library café if there is no other space available. Other rooms that serve people’s individual learning needs include soundproofed music rooms, where you can play the library piano or an instrument of your own.

One of the new dimensions in libraries is that they are used for the users' own information production and that they also support this activity. The latter often requires space to be allocated in a new way, as for example in Kirjasto 10 in central Helsinki. Here, library users have access to a recording studio and workstations with versatile software that allows the production of high-quality digital content. Kirjasto 10 even has a radio studio of its own. In terms of library policy, it is interesting to note that the majority of users in such libraries tend to be young men. Exceptional services allow libraries to reach new user groups and cater for a need that clearly exists. However, the boundary between this and professional activity is clearly defined: the library has agreed with professional studios on the standard of recording equipment that the library can have.

I believe that libraries will need to allocate even more space in future for just spending time and for supporting the community. Cafés must not be forgotten either: it is hard to imagine a good library without a café.

Spending time in museums?

When it comes to museums, I examine them more in the capacity of an average visitor, for whom the museum, and its associated phenomena, is often an oasis in a strange place in Finland or abroad. On the whole, visits to museums tend to be more planned than visits to libraries. A museum visitor has come to see a collection or an exhibition. However, museum shops and cafés are also important places, as many people like to ‘reward’ themselves after a museum visit. An interest in spending time in pleasant surroundings and in finding new experiences is becoming something that people seek in museums, too.

Finnish people are known to focus on the present and the future. However, I have a feeling that the trend may be changing and people’s relationship with the past is growing stronger. The explanation for this may lie in the emerging urban culture and in the rising education level. Memorial exhibitions for the civil war in 1918 are an example of an expanding interface. There is real demand for new interpretations of the past.

The collection is an amoeba

Library collections are at an interesting stage from the perspective of space. They have long since spread beyond the walls of one library. The collection was once the heart and soul of a library, in a physical sense. At the time, users only had access to the material that could be fitted into one building. The information on all the library’s own material was in a card index, but it was difficult to obtain any information on any other material that might be available elsewhere. Libraries were built with this situation in mind. The Metso library in Tampere, designed by the Pietiläs, was constructed as a self-contained universe of knowledge sheltered by an impressive roof structure, as recently as 1986. Shortly after its inauguration, information technology entered the libraries. This put a new emphasis on interactive information and this is a trend that still continues.

Electronic library catalogues, now available online, a growing volume of material and an increased variation in the type of material along with increased mobility among library users have changed the image of libraries completely. The Internet is the crowning touch to this new situation, as it is a huge repository of knowledge in addition to all the other qualities it possesses.

In public libraries, digitalisation presents the biggest challenge in the reference and music sections. The reference section was once the most sacrosanct part of any library, but now it is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The Internet is taking over from printed reference works, leaving chiefly periodicals and maps. The information service provided by reference libraries is merging with other information services. The future of music recordings in libraries is an open question in the entire library sector. Sheet music, music books and periodicals and the information service on music will all continue, but in what form will sound exist in the libraries of the future?

There is already one firmly established model for adapting traditional library operations to the digital age. Libraries acquire user rights to expensive material that individual people cannot afford to get. There is already an extensive selection available. Examples include the Naxos music material and PressDisplay, an international press database, both very popular. These types of material can generally only be used in the library, so workstations are needed for this purpose.

However, despite the Internet, the amount of physical material is also on the increase. At the same time, the floor space of libraries has been at a maximum level for a good while. This conflict is forcing libraries to apply a stricter than ever policy to expanding their collections and to be extremely selective about their materials. This situation has also brought about a change in the concept of libraries. Collections have come to be viewed in a profoundly networked way, in the sense that a library need not have all material in its own collection. Material now moves across municipal borders between clusters of public libraries, quite extensively if needed. The National Repository Library in Kuopio is an extension to the collections of every library.

Online library catalogues have considerably strengthened the long tail of the libraries, as they bring library collections within the reach of users in their full chronological extent and full content. Searches in online catalogues have boosted the use of material in storage and other little-used material in a hitherto unseen way.

From the perspective of individual libraries, the combined effect of the above factors on the library’s need for space is clear: as the material moves around more than before, more space is needed for logistics.

Another thing that has been left behind by now is closely spaced and tightly packed rows of shelving. Libraries today must have a spacious feel, with lots of space to showcase material and talk about it. There must be display surfaces where interesting and topical material can be exhibited.

Many different roles

In the future, libraries, museums and other culture buildings may adopt many new roles, especially in cities. Bilbao in Spain is building a new image and a new tourist attraction around one of its museums. In Vienna and Rotterdam, main libraries have helped improve the social status of poor urban districts. The café in the Amuri museum of worker housing in Tampere has become an important meeting place, especially for older people.

In another sense, the virtual world and physical buildings are entwining, because libraries today are just as much online as in an actual building. Virtual exhibitions are expanding museums, too, beyond their physical walls.

People who are educated and take an interest in culture need public spaces where content is more important than commercialism. Libraries and museums are good examples of that.

This article was originally written for the Store and Share. Museums and Libraries in Finland, published in 2008 by the Finnish Museum of Architecture, ed. by Maija Kasvio. ISBN 978-952-5195-31-6. Published with the permission of the Finnish Museum of Architecture
Translation AAC Noodi Oy

For more information, see