Planifying and programming in changing times – Maija Berndtson

Maija Berndtson

Helsinki City Library celebrates the 150th anniversary of its operations in 2010. The library was initiated by active upper class ladies who wanted to offer lower classes alternative ways to spend their free time.
The first library building, Rikhardinkatu Library was opened in 1882. The plot and the building were donated by a private company. The building was the first building in the Nordic countries designed specifically as a public library. It functioned as the main library until 1986 and is still the most visited among the libraries in Helsinki.
After the voluntary period the city took over the library activities already 1876 and has run the public library system since that time. The name Helsinki City Library has been in use since 1910.
All this means that Helsinki City Library has been a long time a part of city´s infrastructure. Actually Helsinki City Library is among the oldest administrative units within city of Helsinki like schools.
During the years Helsinki City Library has kept pace with the development of the city. Today there are 580 000 inhabitants in Helsinki and 36 libraries of which three are children´s libraries. The network includes also one reading room, two bookmobiles, 10 hospital libraries and service for housebound readers. Helsinki City Library also has a task to work as nationwide multilingual library. The Ministry of Education and Culture supports this activity.
The use of the libraries is on the high level in Finland and so in Helsinki, too. There are 211 000 active library card users or about 36 percent of the population and according to surveys about two-third of the citizens have had a contact with the library at least once during the last twelve months. Counted per capita, every citizen in Helsinki visits the library 11 times and borrows 16 items a year.
The level of services can be analyzed in different ways. With 36 libraries and 580 000 inhabitants there is one library per 16 000 inhabitants when there in the sparsely populated Finland is one library per 6000 inhabitants. The total area of the libraries in Helsinki is around 36 000 m2 which means about 62 m2 per 1000 inhabitant. The Ministry of Education recommends 100 m2/ 1000 inhabitant. Helsinki is far away from that goal. On the other hand the politicians in Helsinki have decided that square meters per capita should not increase.
The historical perspective shows some trends in library planning. The boom of the library planning was in 1970´s and 1980´s when city of Helsinki grew very fast. The smaller libraries were very often constructed in the same buildings as schools (in Finland we do not have a school library system.) and some of the bigger libraries in cultural houses among other activities. Two of the libraries are situated next to a university library.
The newest libraries represent different special libraries. There are three children´s libraries, one reading room library and one library, Library 10, with music and information technology profile. One of our service points, meetingpoint@lasipalatsi do not have any books but is an information service point concentrated on helping people how to use net services and all kind of new technical devices.
The special matter with Helsinki City Library´s network is that there is not one big main or central library. There is a group of three quite big and busy libraries around the city centre but the new main library which was opened in 1986 and replaced the old main library, Rikhardinkatu library is situated outside the city center. It was planned to support the growing library network and only half of the total area of 7000 m2 is for public. The number of visitors, 300 000 a year, is half of the number Rikhardinkatu Library has.
At the moment the very city center of Helsinki is under development around the area which is called Töölönlahti Bay. The city library and the cultural and library committee which consists of politicians have during the last 10 years proposed that in the center of Helsinki should be a new central library.
The basic plan is now ready and has been published and it includes a proposal to have a new library with 10 000 m2. The question is if it will be realized. The city has economical problems and when even the branches have been threatened there is a movement against the central library. Whatever it will happen with the planned new library there are a lot needs to change the existing libraries and their way of working.
The new trends which are very clear seen in the plan of the new central library are:
– There should be more space for the people than for the books. The new central library does not include any administration or big book stacks. There is no need to bring these activities to the most expensive area of Helsinki.
– The starting point for the planning is the behavior of the customers. What do they want to do in the library. To borrow books is a small part of what people expect. So there should be areas for working, for studying, for meeting and for happenings. The traditional library activity should be a part of this new approach, of course. But we should study especially in what kind of surroundings people like to work or what kind of surroundings support learning. If we add to this the expectations of new generations and the changes with the materials libraries offer (e-books, digital material, images and so on) the change which is needed is quite tremendous.
– One of the questions is also which are our partners in running activities and how they should be involved in the planning process. Even the role of the users will change and in the way they will take over more and more a part of the tasks which librarians have done earlier. The physical space should reflect the way how people act in the digital world with social media.

These are some of the aspects which have been topic when we have discussed the new library. But these changes should be somehow visible also in the existing smaller libraries. This is a challenge because the premises are often quite small, between 200 and 3 500 m2.
The success of the existing centrally situated big libraries in different cities prove also that there is a need for public non-commercial spaces in city centers. This is in the smaller scale our own experience, too. The centrally situated libraries in Helsinki, Rikhardinkatu library and Library 10 are also the most visited in our system. Both of them have over half a million visitors and the opening of Library 10 in 2005 did not influence on the number of visitors in Rikhardinkatu Library. Actually we seem to have found totally new user groups like young men and immigrants.
Just now we are in the situation in which the new library is put against all the branch libraries. It should not be like that. We need libraries close to people in suburbs especially for children and elderly people but we cannot change the image and the way how libraries work if we do not have bigger premises in which we can expose the whole variety of modern library services.

Maija Berndtson
Library Director Helsinki City Library

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