The year is 630 BCE. Ashurbanipal, the last ruler of the mighty Neo-Assyrian Empire, spanning from Egypt to Babylonia and Persia, has garnered through conquest and systematic collection a royal library of a scale perhaps never witnessed before. Among this selection, consisting largely of divinations, rituals and incantations, are ten to thirty thousand clay tablets, including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh.
Return to 2019 CE. At the heart of Helsinki, Finland, opposite the Parliament House, rises a colossal wooden structure, its architecture resembling that of Noah’s Ark. If this Ark, however, surfs any waves, it is those of the information age. Behold Oodi, or Ode, the new Helsinki Central Library. Like Ashurbanipal’s library, Ode too houses a collection of tablets — although these digital devices are not made of clay and are, unlike Ashurbanipal’s, open to the public.
The history of libraries portrays a process of constant evolution. However, as is generally the case with evolutionary mechanisms, the evolution of the library does not seem to have a clear direction, nor does the library seem to have had any single function. From Ashurbanipal’s divinations to the scholarly philosophical collections of The Great Library of Alexandria and pious Middle Age monasteries, libraries have come a long way to facing the new challenges of the 21st century. But as more and more content is directly available online — even books are borrowed via mobile applications — many critics express concern that the library as an institution is nearing its end.
Next to Ode’s dozens of public tablets and computers, through which one can freely access the largest e-library in the Nordic countries, it includes an urban workshop with 3D printers, working and meeting facilities, music studios, a cinema and even gaming services. As it seems from a local’s perspective, the library has quickly gained immense popularity as not just a library, but a public and multicultural living room open for all.
From the critic’s point of view, however, Ode is a symptom of the imminent demise of the library. Despite its huge size, they argue, it shelters a meagre 100 000 books — less than many libraries a third of its size. The complaints continue: It is noisy. It has too many children running about. In the critic’s eye, libraries, the visible face of belief in education, are for quiet individual learning and reading, not for socialising or teaching.
Yet even if we admit to the partially fallacious assumption that the primary historical function of libraries has been an educative one, it remains unclear why quiet, individualistic learning should be the sole modus operandi of public educative institutions. Homo sapiens is, after all, the social animal. In fact, our sociality and capability to interact, learn and teach socially are perhaps the most prominent traits that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom — they are the Secret of Our Success.
Contrarily, if anything is in demise, it is not the library but our access to public space. As the final remnants of public space are commercialised, a process which has been dubbed ‘the public space crisis’, it remains uncertain where urban citizens can occupy themselves with our most precious skill, social interaction. Although public space has historically been vital to cities and their inhabitants, it seems evident that welcoming public space is, on both global and local scales, in decline.
Might the public library then emerge as a final bastion for non-commercial public meeting space? Could the future of the library be, like Ode, a social forum where one can engage in creative and serendipitous social encounters, interact with new cultures and persons of various ages, learn handcrafts from trusted strangers and facilitate the interaction with novel and emerging technologies? With Ode up and running with such hustle that its revolving doors already need replacing, and the new similarly multifunctional Deichman library in Oslo opening soon, the library, at least in the Nordic countries, is far from its demise and facing the information age head-on. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the world follows suit, or if this trend is just a brief local mutation in a long lineage of institutional evolution. From Ashurbanipal’s clay tablets to Ode’s digital ones, the library has always changed, but what’s next?