What universities can learn from excellent libraries about public space

Universities willing to invest heavily in opening themselves to the public may find long-term rewards

Most people interested in the role of universities in society would, I think, agree on the following:

  1. Society as a whole benefits from universities and the contribution they make to research, education and local development.
  2. Universities benefit when they work closely with diverse groups of people: communities, businesses, international visitors.
  3. Therefore it makes sense for universities to be as ‘open’ as possible and to exist as spaces and places that make (1) and (2) possible.

Why, then, are many universities pretty poor at putting (3) into practice? There are some that do this well: in the UK, a university in the north east that chose to build a five-a-side football pitch on a piece of prime campus real estate, rather than financially lucrative labs or incubator space, to encourage local youth to play and become comfortable on campus. Or the university shaping its campus to provide a new short-cut from the train station to the city centre, and showing off the work of students and the facilities of the university for all those walking through. Internationally, I’ve written previously about Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and Ryerson in Toronto.

But these are exceptions. Many university buildings – at least in the UK – are woefully under-utilised, and security concerns tend to trump openness and access. Tuition fees act as a wall, restricting access to university buildings to those who pay the fees. In contrast you can walk straight into and work within many of the excellent libraries in universities across Europe. Universities should be places for people to meet and ideas to flow, and they need to be open and welcoming environments. Fortunately there are models of excellence to learn from.

Helsinki’s Library Oodi


Last week I visited Helsinki’s new public library – a glistening 98m euro building near the Central Railway Station and spread over three floors. There were several thousand people within the building when I visited, but it didn’t feel crowded. The library’s website tells the story better than I could here, but there are some key points universities could learn from:

  • The library markets itself as a ‘living meeting place’ that is ‘open for all’, functioning as ‘a living room for residents’. It is truly open – no need to sign up, no turnstiles. As the Johns Hopkins example above showed, when you strip down the perimeter or facade you invite foot traffic and create a safer environment, but you also truly engage (signing up for a free membership may seem inclusive, but there are always parts of society who will be excluded by this).
  • As such, Oodi reimagines what a library should be for. There are still 100,000 books on the top floor, but the space has been designed from scratch to reflect today’s society. The second floor has an ‘urban workshop’ containing 3D printers, sewing machines, large format printers and computing equipment. There are also meeting and conference rooms, online gaming rooms – all available to the public. Anyone can pick a tablet up from the shelf. There’s a vast amount of comfortable seating – some in quiet zones, others resembling a co-working space. Freelancers, businesses, tourists, residents, students, families are all catered for. What would a university building that did this look like?
  • There’s a consultation area, where residents can look at models of city plans, view new developments with VR headsets, and provide feedback notes on a giant map of the city. And the building itself was designed with an emphasis on service design and user input.
  • The basics are all covered. There’s very fast internet (no login), long opening hours, a good restaurant and multiple coffee shops, and full accessibility. It’s big enough to never feel too busy.

 

One might argue that all this comes at a huge cost – and why give all this away for free (or why should universities provide such services, when state-run institutions such as libraries should do so). But there’s a real competitive advantage to be found from being the provider of such a space – the ideas that can be generated, connections made, and the long-term engagement with community that could help break down some of the barriers in society. It’s an investment in a place and people – a gift that pays interest in stronger relationships into the future.

There’s also a high degree of trust involved in completely opening doors to all (which I think the UK struggles with more than some of our European counterparts). What if crime skyrockets, or people decide they don’t want to pay for study when they can use facilities for free? Risks indeed, but my guess is the more people that flow through from all parts of society, the lower the crime. And the more people who see what such an institution can offer, the more they are willing to support it.

(Photos: Tuomas Uusheimo)