“To be the best, learn from the best” – Darren le Croix

A constellation of library stars was shining brightly at the recent webinar hosted by the IFLA Public Libraries Section. Chaired by Sander Van Kempen, the webinar spotlighted seven award winning and shortlisted libraries from the popular IFLA/ Systematic Public Library of the Year Award (PLOTY). Attendees marvelled at the impressive architecture and unique features of some of the world’s most impressive new public library buildings. But better still, we got to “pick the brains” of the libraries’ representatives to find out what nuggets of wisdom they had to offer their fellow librarians about innovation, success, and pitfalls.

First up was Pernille Claessen from Forum Groningen (The Netherlands) who explained the impressive features of the Forum library complex including a movie theatre, exhibition hall and workshop space. Pernille outlined the familiar challenge of enticing visitors to the more hidden parts of the library building to explore areas apart from the popular routes that are known to many.

We went “Down Under” next to hear from Caroline McLeod from Marrickville Library (Australia) who spoke about the extensive community involvement in the design of the library building and services. The priorities identified through consultation included that that the building would be kind to the planet, that it would have natural ventilation, be light and airy, be a fun place to be and that it was flexible. Sound advice indeed!!

Community consultation was also a key issue for Roel Van Den Bril from Het Predikheren (Belgium) who told us about the three stages of consultation during pre-design, during the actual build and at the opening stage. An interesting idea Het Predikheren had was that a year before official opening, the work was paused for three weeks and the community was invited in to engage with cultural activities and exhibitions on the library site.

Anna-Maria Soininvaara from Oodi (Finland) told of the phenomenal interest in the Oodi library, Helsinki when it opened in 2018. There were more than three million visits in the first year of opening. Anna-Maria, when looking back, would perhaps have designed more children’s services areas — including areas for the proliferation of prams and pushchairs for babies and children in the library. A very practical tip for family centred design!

Knut Skansen from Deichman Bjørvika (Norway), 2021’s IFLA/Systematic Public Library of the Year winner, gave us a flavour of the high level of recognition and interest that the new library has gained from citizens, public representatives and international audiences since it opened in 2020. With newly relaxed COVID restrictions, the library has become the central hub of the city recording 11,000 visits on a recent Saturday. The recognition of the importance of the public library in tackling social challenges in Norway has also led to further commitments to investment in public library buildings.

Sander posed a question to Xu Yibo from Ningbo New Library (China) about any cultural issues encountered with the design process of the library. A Danish architectural firm was engaged to design this 2021 shortlisted library building. Xu told us about the differences in Chinese and Western cultures that affected all aspects of the design process but said that these differences were overcome through communication, mutual learning, and respect. The library in Ningbo is designed horizontally and in a symmetrical manner in the local style and encompasses a central atrium with excellent daylight and natural ventilation. Given the population size in China, the library must accommodate vast numbers of readers and needs to be shared by adults and children. The design overcame the issue of noise by adding glass doors at the entrance of each functional area on each floor, while still maximizing daylight.

Finally, we went back to school, School 7 to be precise, with Jacinta Krimp from the impressive — School 7 library in the Netherlands winner of the 2018 PLOTY award. Jacinta told us how, after some initial uncertainty, the public embraced the idea or re-purposing a landmark school into an award-winning public library building. Jacinta spoke inspiringly about how School 7 has become an accessible third place, a living room for anyone in the city and beyond, and a place where the activities are socially relevant and contribute to people’s development. That is surely something we can all learn from!!

Having heard from each of the library representatives, there was time for questions from the audience. One question inevitably on everyone’s lips was “how have these libraries responded to COVID19?”. Knut Skansen explained how during this winter in Oslo everything was closed except for libraries, pharmacies, and food stores. The library provided a vital lifeline especially for young people. Roel Van Den Bril echoed this sentiment telling how libraries were one of the first things that the government declared as basic services that opened in Belgium. Caroline McLeod painted a more complex picture from Australia where libraries designation varied between districts but hoped that restrictions would lift in the coming weeks. Meanwhile in Ningbo China, strict COVID19 control measures are in place including the novel idea of using sanitizing robots to sanitize the library regularly.

A final roundtable posed the question: “what was the most popular space in the new library?” Who would of thought that two of the salubrious libraries would answer “the toilets”?!  Marrickville Library and School7 both repurposed old toilets into cosy reading spaces that are a big draw for library users.

The final words of encouragement for libraries around the world to apply for the IFLA Systematic Public Library of the Year Award 2022 came from Jacinta Krimp. Jacinta encouraged every new public library to be proud of what they have, not only the building, but also the activities and the employees.

So what is “star quality?”  Based on this webinar, star quality is pride in the achievement of a world class new public library and the desire to share that library’s success with people from around the globe.  Please feel free to watch the recording here.

IFLA Public Libraries Section