Come together

The evolving social role of libraries

AS LIBRARY-­BASED complexes have evolved in recent decades to foster important community making, interculturalism and egalitarian learning, Australia and Finland have led the way with twenty-­first-­century design. Despite their geographical separation, the two countries share similarities that have motivated their strategic use of libraries to promote social engagement and gathering. Australia and Finland are both relatively young countries and strong democracies with advanced education systems. Given their small and dispersed populations, there is a particular value to civic centres and libraries, which play a key role in structuring and representing communities. With the long, cold Finnish winters and long, hot Australian summers, libraries represent the type of facilities where recreational time can be spent in a public and climatically controlled environment with free Wi-­Fi. Australian and Finnish societies are becoming increasingly multiethnic and mobile, and libraries offer activities and services that are pluralistic and multicultural. This has generated a significant shift in the design of the established typology of the library – a place that has served for centuries as the sanctuary of knowledge and repository of books.

Given these parallels, it is no surprise that an update of the Standards and Guidelines for Australian Public Libraries commissioned by the Australian Library and Information Association, Australian Public Library Alliance and National and State Libraries Australasia in January 2016 drew heavily on Finland’s ‘quality recommendations’ for public libraries. At the same time, Australian architects have looked to twentieth-­century Finnish library design as a source of inspiration, with at least two generations of Australian architects undertaking pilgrimages to Finland to visit the famous libraries designed by Alvar Aalto (1889–1976) – particularly those in Helsinki, Seinäjoki and Rovaniemi – as well as his exemplary Viipuri Library in what is now the Russian city of Vyborg.

The new generation of libraries built in Australia and Finland over the past two decades has embraced the concept of ‘public living rooms’, underpinned by the conviction that in order to become more attractive, libraries should be cosy and inclusive spaces with a wider offering of activities for different social groups. The focus has shifted from the ‘reader’ to the more generic ‘user’, who has a broader set of needs. To satisfy these, the principles of playfulness, flexibility and domesticity have been deployed, affecting both the programming and design of libraries and their wider social impact.


WHEN BOOKS WERE a rare and primary source of information, libraries were built to resemble monuments. Helsinki University’s Main Library, completed in the 1830s, is an excellent example of a monumental library and of the professional brilliance of the German-­born master architect Carl Ludwig Engel (1778–1840): it has one of the most beautiful and versatile interiors ever built in Finland. Today, newly renovated and still fulfilling its original use, it remains a functional temple of research, preservation and silence. When Alvar Aalto started designing the Vyborg Library in the 1930s, he made some rather un-­architectural drawings to depict a setting that resembled a landscape. His idea was to investigate how the library’s lending halls could be centrally controlled from one point; maintaining a peaceful atmosphere and calm order was considered of the utmost importance. This idea of centralised supervision became a functional starting point for all Aalto’s subsequent libraries.

As a result of Finland’s growing population and the digital revolution, the role of its libraries has changed considerably over the last decade. Their quiet reading rooms have turned into welcoming daily spaces for citizens. Built according to Aalto’s design, the library in the south-­western Finnish city of Seinäjoki was completed in 1960. At that time, the city had around 15,000 inhabitants and far fewer books than it does today. At the end of the twentieth century, Aalto’s library had reached the limit of its operational abilities. In 2008, Seinäjoki set up an architectural competition for the library’s new extension, won by the Helsinki-based firm JKMM – the result was a wonderful and functional library that reflects the ideals of the city centre (Seinäjoki now has 60,000 inhabitants). The main entrance offers a wide view of the book departments through the large windows to the Lakeuden Risti Church; the general feeling is of transparency. The building has a wide magazine area, a small café, and a special area for children and teenagers. The old library houses an art section and a special exhibition room for Aalto’s designed glassware, and the new extension features a wealth of integrated artworks.

In 2017, the Finnish Public Libraries Act entered into force, which gave the Helsinki City Library the task of developing Finland’s public libraries. The centre of Helsinki is characterised by its focus on cultural buildings, which made it the natural location for the new City Library (2018) – this is Helsinki’s newest public cultural attraction and is named OODI (which translates to ‘ode’). The building process started with another successful architectural competition. Amsterdam’s city library was used as one of the models for the brief, which incorporated a sense of openness and the idea of the library as a meeting point. The design program stretched far beyond the established activities of a conventional library.

The competition was won by the Finnish architectural firm ALA. On the library’s ground floor are exhibition halls, an auditorium, a cinema theatre (for Finland’s National Audiovisual Archive), a cafeteria, a children’s play area, lending and return areas, a city information stand and a desk that offers information on various activities. The top floor is one large open space serving as the library’s ‘normal’ reading and lending area for adults, children and families, along with magazine/newspaper areas, a place to collect reservations from other libraries, and a small café with a terrace that sits on top of the library’s entrance canopy and overlooks Parliament House. The middle floor is multi-­functional: it houses a photography and video studio, training rooms for music bands, group workspaces, meeting rooms, 3D printers, laser cutters, labelling machines, thermal pressing facilities, sewing machines and a rentable group kitchen. OODI enjoys strong local visitation from the people of Helsinki, and its versatility is especially attractive to younger users.


THE 2006 REFURBISHMENT and extension of the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane – undertaken by the Australian firms Donovan Hill and Peddle Thorp – incorporated a series of formal elements from the domestic environment to soften the institutional character of the original library, designed by Robin Gibson in 1982. The overall project is informed by an anti-­monumental design approach. The representative space of the building is the central court, and its communal character is celebrated by a five-­storey void. The court is public and accessible at any time to anyone, the linchpin of the whole project and the urban area surrounding it. By contrast, elements that are more traditionally associated with libraries are intentionally underplayed. The facades are quite humble; access to the actual reading area is asymmetrical and deliberately nondirectional; the reading room – traditionally a library’s most impressive space – is a sequence of low-­ceiling informal areas, with scattered sofas and armchairs. The austerity and rigour of the long timber desks found in ancient libraries, where the focus was on the books, has given way to the centrality of the users, who nowadays enter a library for many activities aside from reading – listening to music, video calling, meeting with friends, taking lessons and having a nap. To contain the noises provoked by all these activities, the State Library of Queensland’s walls, floors and ceilings are clad with phono-­absorbent materials.

The library also has an unusually big terrace, the walls of which are organised to resemble the shelves of an English cupboard, playfully displaying colourful china. On the fourth floor are intimate cabins for people to hold confidential conversations or one-­on-­one lessons, or to make the most of a solitary space away from the crowd. Currently, the State Library of Queensland is the only public space in Brisbane – apart from parks – where it is possible to find and occupy an individual space for free.

With work for the 2016 Woollahra Library by BVN and the 2018 Green Square Library by Stewart Hollenstein and Stewart Architecture, Sydney has further extended the idea of public libraries as collective lounges that work to enhance the city’s liveability by placing them in the heart of residential communities. In Woollahra Library, a shaped void with a hanging garden at the entrance welcomes users into the main space, where a wide timber staircase also operates as a seating area for reading, resting or watching a movie on a retractable screen. In the junior area, where children can play, learn and read, the use of timber combines the feeling of home with a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. The library is clustered alongside a medical centre, grocery shops and cafés, providing a family-­centred community point.

Community-­making similarly informs the Green Square Library in Sydney. Green Square is one of Australia’s largest urban renewal areas – it’s expected to have 30,500 total residential dwellings and 61,000 people by 2030. The library occupies the centre of a large plaza that is the visual and physical nucleus of the whole area. With its underground reading room and bookshelves and on-­ground café and multifunctional tower, the project operates as a gathering and activity centre by day and an urban beacon by night.

The Exchange (2019) is Sydney’s newest library and is centrally located in Darling Square, on the edge of the city’s Darling Harbour precinct. The library has been integrated into a community hub that is open to locals as well as visitors; reading areas are combined with other functions, including a childcare centre, a makerspace for creative and technology start-­ups, and a rooftop bar and restaurant. The Exchange is a mixed-­use building with a transparent skin screened by spiralling timber threads, allowing passers-­by to glimpse inside. The design of this civic centre’s exterior is distinct, resembling a giant nest; it was designed by the Japanese Kengo Kuma & Associates, while BVN developed the interiors. The Exchange is already an urban landmark, and one of Sydney’s most Instagrammable buildings.


LIBRARY ACTIVITES HAVE changed profoundly in the last few decades and continue to shift in both Finland and Australia. In the past, Finnish and Australian local libraries had strict age limits, with more ‘advanced’ books shelved in a separate area and only available to borrowers aged fifteen or older. Contemporary libraries are more of a shared living space for users, and children enjoy running among and accessing all of the bookshelves – something that once seemed unimaginable. As digital games and social media progressively replace reading time, the digitalisation of our environment has diminished children’s and young people’s interest in literature, a trend reported both in Australia and Finland. This is why contemporary libraries pay special attention to what children and young people want and need, and why different strategies have been deployed to attract their enthusiasm for reading.

The city of Riihimäki in South Finland has only 30,000 inhabitants, yet in 2019, children and young people borrowed fiction and books from its library over 200,000 times – a high figure in the local and national context. In the wake of this success, other Finnish libraries have been investigating what Riihimäki has done right. The library offers its visitors fairytale lessons, embroidery, reading diplomas, book packages, class library packages and guidance on using the library. It sends books to early childhood education groups, kindergarten groups, primary schools and high schools so that everyone can access plenty of reading material. The Riihimäki schools were inspired by the prospect of a class ‘reading diploma’, where a class gets awarded a diploma for reading a certain number of books, and this has clearly increased the number of loans. The library also offers a special educational package for schoolteachers.

One of the most fun new elements that demonstrates the changing nature of libraries in Finland is the introduction of the ‘reading dog’. Children or adults can read books to the dog inside the library. The dog neither evaluates nor criticises the readers’ skills, and this supports literacy training. The first reading dogs in Finland were employed by the city library in Kaarina in 2011 and, since then, the idea has spread across Finland.

On the other side of the world, and as part of a large and successful movement focused on encouraging literacy and community, Australian street libraries have become another effective way of bringing books and people together. This is a positive response to the increased invisibility of children in many neighbourhoods, as they spend a lot of time indoors and often travel by car. Established by private individuals, street libraries are small, kerbside collections of books that are freely available to anyone who passes.

One street library installed by architect Jonathan Goh is a tiny yet powerful intervention that encourages small-­scale knowledge-­sharing in the inner-­city suburb of Brisbane’s West End. Built on the footpath in front of Goh’s house, this small library has been conceived as an accessible public facility where people can find or leave books. But it is also an ambiguous space of convergence between the Goh household, home to two little girls, and the street. This generates a new layer of complexity to the established Australian division between public space and private property.


THE NEW LIBRARIES discussed here have all been designed around the idea of community engagement. They have been conceived with two aims: to store and preserve books to be shared as a collective resource; and to act as places for people to meet, interact and experience a sense of belonging. The idea of libraries as ‘places for people’ has been very successful in both Australia and Finland. Yet this ‘library renaissance’ came to a sudden stop in March 2020 with the COVID-­19 pandemic and its attendant social distancing restrictions. This will inevitably lead to reconsideration of the planning, design and use of all kinds of public spaces and facilities.

When the pandemic struck, Australia, and Finland soon after it, implemented emergency measures, including closing public libraries and obvious spaces for the virus’s spread. With public libraries closed, street libraries have become even more popular in Australia, and are often the only place where people can find a book for free. Some street libraries have been equipped with hand sanitiser to respect the new hygiene expectations and make people feel more comfortable.

But the shutdown of public libraries triggers a new set of challenges for our democracies. While knowledge-­sharing can be supported by digitising books and online teaching, and while social interaction is now pursued virtually through social media, video conferences and other online activities, it is not clear that these things will compensate for a lack of physical connection in the longer run. In a post-­pandemic scenario, libraries – like many other public facilities – might not quickly resume their role as ‘spaces for people’. Perhaps this will never fully happen – in future, the design and use of libraries may be dictated more by safety measures than by social needs.

The pandemic may permanently change our concept of democratic public space. This has already happened in authoritarian states such as China, and in some sense – and in smaller, perhaps temporary ways – in Finland and Australia. In this case, we will have to deeply reconsider the way we design and use the built environment, including public libraries. Will this see a return to the more controlled and restricted structures of yesterday?

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