Metamorphosis: multi-purpose library – afternoon session

Well, I can recommend the tapas at Instituto Cervantes…

Marie-Françoise Bisbrouck took the first afternoon slot, speaking on “The evolution of library buildings in France from the 60s to the present”. Interestingly as part of the context to her talk, Bisbrouck described the HE landscape in France particularly the rapid growth from 16 universities in 1960 to 57 (1970) increasing to 92 (2000) and then down to 80 universities 2011 spread through 480 towns (!); the decrease being down to the Shanghai rankings revealing the disparate, dispersed and comparatively weak nature of research and the cull which followed.

Funding for libraries is currently split between the Government and the localities, and the buildings constructed over the last 20 years have been evaluated in 2 surveys covering the period 1991-2007. The recent trend has been for academic libraries to merge on the basis of their academic disciplines. On the public library side, Bisbrouck described France’s transformation to a more welcoming and open environment but with limits – seats, not sofas, no video games or board games, or cultural activities other than those proposed by the staff. By way of illustration she compared the French approach with that of the rest of northern Europe through a pictorial survey of chairs – I especially liked Helsinki’s massage chair, Rotterdam’s magic carpet (shown above), Delft’s breakfast club. And would like to check out Library 10 Helsinki (music) Although Bisbrouck described other countries as being more radical with their furniture and also their attitudes towards their users, Bisbrouck describes a quiet revolution taking place slowly in France – for example, making progress in accepting (some) noise in libraries. She finished with a reflection on the different points of view of the staff and users about the services and spaces – and some of the issues for staff management and training in these big changes to the library: what about the “seriousness” of the librarian? – should an appetite for fun become one of the selection criteria for staff working in these new libraries?

Ana Bela Pereira Martins then spoke on “public libraries: knowledge, culture & citizenship” – a timely reminder of the changes to “traditional” services forced by the networked society which offers huge opportunities & challenges for libraries as a result of the “new access to information/entertainment/social interaction [which] induces other perceptions/reception of reality in virtual space”. The future is (predominantly) digital but apart from that is…uncertain. Martins urged a strategic approach to the changes, focussing new networks, creativity, dialogue, service innovation. Her talk covered a lot of ground, and I hope to revisit the slides when they are available on the Eurolis site. She finished with some reflections on public library issues in Portugal, starting in the 1980s when the country had high levels of illiteracy and poor reading habits, with little library use (outside the national libraries there were no local libraries as we might recognise them until the revolution). Happily the picture has improved since then, and Martins talked about 5 municipal examples (2 in urban and 3 in rural areas), some of which have educational and cultural clusters associated with them including artists’ studios and art specialisations – depending on the needs of the particular local area. Some inspiring programmes were described working with vulnerable groups, made possible by very wide-ranging municipal networks involving a range of partners, both public and private sector, schools, cultural organisations, health and other bodies. Positive partnerships between local councils and schools, in particular, have transformed reading, access to information, literacy, community cohesion and a range of other areas. Proof that comparatively small buildings can have a bigger impact than their physical size might suggest!

The day closed with a final panel sessions involving all the speakers plus the deputy head of the idea store, Tower Hamlets’ library service. Unfortunately the time ran on a little and I couldn’t stay to the end.

Reflections for archive buildings, and for the Heritage@Huddersfield project in particular:

  • balance between collections and users still tends towards the collections because of the long-term preservation needs.  Will this change over the coming decades with the increase in digitisation?
  • food and drink….?!
  • are we still a bit “French” in our attitude to chairs, children, noise and having fun?  can we relax here?
  • not articulated during the day, but very visible in pictures and description, is the “layered” approach to users – from the ‘just dropping in for the free wifi’ to the ‘serious researcher staying all day’ implicit in these buildings.  To what extent can/should we cater for this wide range in an archives building??

Finally, I was proud that a lot of the things being described during the day are being done in the University of Huddersfield Library – and a lot more besides…


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