On libraries, librarians, and having a narrative brain. Oh, and making. (And ugly buildings.)

A few weeks ago Geoff Bowker was in Aalto ARTS lecturing in Lily Diaz‘s Spring School. Along the way he mentioned the contrast of database versus narrative (à lá Manovich), which lit up a few bulbs of insight and understanding in my head – including the way I myself seem to organize and convey certain types of information. If I tend towards narrative forms, it would explain why I’m having such a devilish time with a literature review I’m now writing: trouble with the categorizing, trouble with the order of presentation and hence trouble with the analysis-through-writing. Nevertheless I struggle on – as I do with all kinds of other database problems in my life. What tags and categories should I use for this blog? What tags and notebooks should I use in Evernote? What folders do I have in Zotero for my references and why do they differ from the ones I established earlier in my ‘Design Research’ folder in my laptop? Why did my logic and keywords change? (Is it merely the semantic shifts occurring in a rapidly developing research field or a deeper shift in how I understand the field and the ones surrounding it?) How should I best order all the other files and folders in my laptop? And what about my email folders? It’s never-ending.

So maybe it’s good I didn’t decide to become a librarian. My narrative-favouring brain cannot entirely grasp what all librarians do and what libraries do and can offer, but luckily I seem to live in one of the best cities in the world for public library innovation. This slide show from the Helsinki City Library Director in 2011 gives an indication of how far Helsinki public libraries are (and are heading) from the traditional notion of well-thumbed books and the Dewey decimal system. In Helsinki, “users can be suppliers too, ‘prosumers'”. This idea of increased peer production offers both opportunities and challenges. Check out slide 25 on the Central Library project: a building coming to Töölönlahti in the city centre in 2018. “New information search, participation and knowledge creation practices.” “Development of new information aggregation business models.” “Multiscientific and multicultural laboratory of change.” “Open learning living lab in the center of the metropolitan area.” Isn’t that exciting!? We live in exhilarating times.

Central Library project

Screenshot from library presentation. Copyright Helsinki City Library










Slides 26 and 27 are equally compelling:

Drivers of library development

Screenshot from library presentation: Drivers of library development. Copyright Helsinki City Library

Drivers of library development

Screenshot from library presentation: Drivers of library development. Copyright Helsinki City Library



















This column written by an American librarian sums up the traditional versus evolving library discussion from the librarian’s point of view. (Hmmm, maybe we need a new word for that profession.) She lists a few services her library offers including various types of courses and classes and – here it is – maker spaces.

Michel Bauwens of the peer-to-peer foundation says he used to be a librarian himself and gives a talk to librarians as audience here (video). If you know his work, have heard him lecture, and/or know p2p discourse then there’s probably nothing too new here, but if you *do* want to know more about peer-to-peer theory-building-in-action do watch his lectures online and explore the p2p foundation website. In this talk he gives the basics of peer production: peer property and copyright, peer governance versus command-and-control hierarchies, from open software to open design (at about 19:44), the relationship between open design and sustainability (from about 20:21), digital production and reproduction, where the money is, and the sharing economy (from 34:26).

At 37:05 he starts talking about making and personal fabrication, paralleling it with the earlier miniaturization and distribution of the personal computer – a significant development that put production back into our own hands and made us ‘craftsmen’ again. Now we are seeing the rise of “distributed material production” that he sees as key to solving the problems posed by the industrial mass production paradigm – built as it is upon a foundation of cheap oil.

And finally (at about 48:34) he gets to libraries’ role in constructing knowledge as opposed to just storing knowledge: a place to find not only support for this new knowledge creation and peer production but to actually provide the infrastructure and physical space for these cooperative activities. Pretty much what we see in the Helsinki library slides.

Well, if you’re in the library field or following maker culture this is old news. When looking for that Bauwens talk I came across this blog entry from the same year (2011) reporting on the first library to open a maker space. (Wow, 2012 just sped by, didn’t it?) Again, new types of literacy, new ways to support and serve communities. (For the narrative brains: similar stories. For the database brains: same keywords.)

So back to this new central library. Why Helsinki is all abuzz about #libraries is that the architectural competition has concluded and the winner has been chosen. Here it is in English and see also this short news piece on it.


‘Käännös’. Source of image: http://keskustakirjasto.fi/2013/06/14/kaannos-voitti-keskustakirjaston-arkkitehtuurikilpailun/

This library will also have a maker space and to that end a small pilot space having a couple of 3D printers is already up and running and collecting feedback (the link is in Finnish). A team of us were also asked to contribute to this knowledge building – about what making will be like when the library is ready. Five years forward in maker culture could see radical changes in practices and technologies, and it isn’t useful to plan a space based on technologies and trends prevalent in 2013. Professor Sampsa Hyysalo therefore planned a workshop partly based on ‘Lead User’ workshop tactics and partly on principles borrowed from Participatory Design – in order to most effectively collect ideas from a diverse community: those that are living that maker future already now, as well as those that are likely to be key users of the library maker space and facilities. This ensured varied views and expert opinions on everything from the practical and technical considerations to legal issues, community-related aspects, and ethico-philosophical concerns. Lead User research experts Pia Helminen and Samuli Mäkinen came in as facilitators and will contribute their perspective on the workshop as an information gathering tool in future analyses. The sustainability issues in 2020 maker culture were also crucial for a public actor, who must be seen as acting responsibly. Therefore also addressing sustainability in the workshop yielded double benefits: fruitful information for the library and data for my doctoral research.

One write-up after the workshop can be accessed here. The library people jumped into the data immediately and found relevant trends and solutions to keep in mind for their current pilot space now as well as that future maker space.

Finally, a few words on the Central Library competition winner. It’s a building that not only heralds a new era in our conception of public libraries, it’s one located in a contentious area of Helsinki, the Töölönlahti. Those of us who have been active in grassroots art and cultural activities in the area shed tears as we see the urban cultural diversity, biodiversity and architectural fabric desiccate, bled away in what we see as a worrying favouring of private development and corporate interests. Corruption in Finland takes on its own special aroma. [1]

Will the new Central Library enhance the Töölönlahti milieu and become the city’s living room, as promised, or contribute to the High Culture, High Government, High Capitalism monumentalism currently holding sway? The building trend and over-designed plan for Töölönlahti now completely weakens the spirit of the place – but it does not emasculate it, if this verb means to weaken; to the contrary, all that testosterone means too much masculus and not enough femininus in my view.

Some Facebook comments show mixed feelings (apologies for the bad translations):
“I think no central library should be built at all.”
“I think so too, but at least that wood thing could cover up those horrible office buildings.”

“Alvar Aalto spirit, but is that good or bad?”

“It’s very masculine. There’s no natural light coming in, except maybe to the upper floor from the ceiling, even though the wood itself is a great element – as in it’s great looking, as for the practicality I don’t know. … And it is nice that Töölönlahti will be something accessible to all.”

“I think this building could save the Töölönlahti environment. Now the buildings look like peripheral small-town airport terminals.”

“I think it is gorgeous. Although architecture is like a human being. A stunning exterior is nothing if it does not work.”

“I am now excited about this library! The great news is that the financing seems to be arranged. This is an excellent use of tax money. Culture is important, and the library is a facility that reaches a very large part of the population. Finland’s libraries’ perfect and unique functioning can now have a well-deserved figurehead. And I’m with Arhinmäki [Finland’s Culture Minister] regarding the fact that we need a non-commercial meeting space, comfortable, open, and free, in the city centre. And this will certainly serve this need just fine. Today’s best news!”

This newspaper survey reports its readers (i.e. the Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest daily) mainly think the library is ‘necessary’ and ‘beautiful’ as opposed to ‘unnecessary’ and ‘ugly’ (see all the dots in the top right corner). You can see the reader comments (in Finnish) by scrolling over the various dots. For example: “Not exactly ugly but too massive.”


Käänös. Source of image: http://www.hs.fi/kaupunki/Onko+keskustakirjasto+kaunis+vai+ruma+Arvioi+HSn+nelikentällä/a1305687271507

As you can tell, I’m quite impassioned about the Töölönlahti area, as well as the potential of the Central Library. But this becomes a whole other topic (one I will address in a separate project in my free time outside my doctoral research).

In the meantime, we have made the first steps into the maker 2020 workshop data analysis (and there’s a lot to consider) and the results will be both transmitted to the library and into journal articles to different academic audiences. Watch this space.

By the way, ‘Käännös’ – the library building name – means ‘Translation’. Sink your little analytical teeth into that one, database and narrative brains.


[1] That was so strongly worded I’d better put in an addendum. I DO not mean that there is corruption in the dealings between city officials and real estate developers/corporate head offices in Töölönlahti. There IS corruption in other areas of society where Finnish politicians and businessmen don’t understand responsible use of power, to the dismay and surprise of a trusting populace. In both cases the business sector and the role of money in measuring value have too strong an influence, but in the latter this has crossed the legal/illegal line (to the probable dismay and surprise of the politicians charged).