Desirable Tomorrow of Public Libraries: Interview with Estonian Designer Mikk Lemberg

This material first appeared on the Library Portal on March 16, 2023, in Latvian. I interviewed Mikk Lemberg as an editor of the media, which is run by the Library Development Centre at the National Library of Latvia. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s website.

Mikk Lemberg is an Estonian designer who graduated in 2021 from the Interactive Design program of the Design Faculty of the Estonian Academy of Arts with a master’s thesis dedicated to public libraries “Shaping the Future of Public Libraries”. The work is available online in English and impresses with its clarity of thought, concise language and conclusions drawn. Although the study is dedicated to Estonian public libraries, the problem situation is similar in Latvia, so we heartily recommend reading the work.

“Public libraries in Estonia are facing a lack of funding and resources caused by a lack of shared understanding of what is expected of library services in the 21st century,” writes the author in the abstract of his study. “Despite the existential crisis in the context of digitization and urbanization, public libraries provide unique value to the surrounding communities. Therefore, this study aims to discover the design approach to transform public libraries into inspiring service providers.”

In the introduction to the master’s thesis, the author states that, although in recent years there have been examples of architecture with landmark library buildings in the world, in his opinion, the modernization of libraries and their services does not require such ambitious changes. Moreover, what is built will remain unchanged for decades, but it is important for libraries to be able to adapt to the challenges of the times.

The author also emphasizes that the acquisition of new technologies alone does not immediately turn a library into a 21st-century library. First, there is a need for a unified and inspiring vision of what a modern public library is, and only then – and in accordance with it – can services be improved.

The author is fascinated by the fact that public libraries are one of the last bastions where no one is trying to sell you anything. In today’s world, such a non-commercial public space is a unique rarity and such value must be taken into account when crystallizing the role of libraries.

Finally, the author hopes that his research could provoke a conversation to rethink the role of public libraries in Estonia, taking into account that the Estonian Ministry of Culture at the time rewrote the outdated Public Libraries Act, the draft of which was ready in 2021, and the National Library of Estonia started ambitious renovation works, which are planned to be completed in 2025.

It is worth adding that the Ministry of Culture of Estonia declares every year the year of a specific field, and the last year, 2022, was dedicated to libraries.

In order to learn more about the designer’s motivation to focus on public libraries, as well as the desired vision of a 21st-century library, we contacted Mikk Lemberg. He was surprised that the work written a couple of years ago has found readers in Latvia and was happy to answer the questions of the Library Portal.

Mikk Lember. Photo from the private archive

As a designer, why were you interested in dedicating your thesis to libraries?

I was drawn to the idea of dedicating my thesis to libraries for several reasons, although it wasn’t a straightforward decision. To give some background, I believe that one of the jobs of a designer is to show the way to a desirable tomorrow.

When it came time to think about my thesis project, I had a few ideas in mind, but none of them were a classic digital design or a new app. Ultimately, I proposed two ideas to my supervisors that could have a meaningful impact on society.

One was about creating better governing laws for platform work for worker protection and the second was about thinking of the future of the public library. My supervisors at school weren’t supportive of law change as an outcome, so I opted for a public library topic.

One of your inspirations is the Scandinavian model. Can you outline how Scandinavian libraries differ from libraries in other countries and why you took them as a model?

As a designer, I’m always looking to learn from others and find inspiration in innovative projects that can serve as models for my own work.

When I started to explore the topic of libraries, I was particularly drawn to the Oodi in Helsinki and other excellent initiatives with public libraries across Finland, Sweden, and Denmark.

What I found particularly compelling about Scandinavian libraries is that they prioritize community connection and tailor their services to meet the needs of local residents. By recognizing that knowledge is not limited to books and reading, these libraries are able to provide a truly inclusive and accessible resource for their communities.

In your research, you emphasize that Estonia lacks a unified vision of what a modern library should be. Why do you think there is no such vision? Please also outline the vision you came up with as a result of your research.

While my research and understanding may be limited, I have identified a few key factors that I believe have contributed to this issue. These include

  • the lack of resources available to libraries,
  • the misunderstanding of the value of libraries by decision-makers, and
  • a lack of leadership and representation when discussing what the libraries could be.

Through my research and workshops, I have identified five guiding values that I believe should be reflected in modern libraries: community-led, person-centered, and aspirational, creation-first, conversational programming, and dialogue-based learning. These values are important because they can help libraries better serve their communities and adapt to changing needs and interests.

Based on these values, my vision for the library of tomorrow is one that

  • accelerates positive change within the community,
  • helps people become creators of culture and knowledge, and
  • serves as a link between the government and citizens.

Libraries tend to be considered temples of books, however, more and more examples of libraries of things, with rooms for experiments (sewing, 3D printers) are appearing. Also in the study, you show this necessary move towards a new role for libraries in the community, which would in a sense dispel concerns that the role of libraries as a face–to–face space would disappear. Can you tell us more about this?

Libraries are indeed much more than temples of books. While books have always been the cornerstone of libraries, they have always served as spaces for learning, exploration, and connection.

The essential function of a library is to provide access to knowledge, experiences, and people. In the past, books were the primary means of acquiring knowledge, but as technology changes and our world evolves, libraries must adapt to provide equal opportunities and access to all.

Though my thesis project had space limitations that prevented me from exploring the personal relationships and sense of community within libraries in-depth, I believe that libraries can play a crucial role in addressing some of the social problems we face as a society.

To build on the work of Robert Putnam, Ezio Manzini, and Dan Hill*, many of the problems we face as a society can be linked to the privatization of public space. Because people don’t have a neutral third place to build weak ties (acquaintances), it creates distrust and undermines democracy. Libraries could fill this gap by actively creating a space where people from different backgrounds can meet, share the same experiences, and even have healthy debates.

In short, while libraries may change in their offerings and services, they will always serve as a critical resource for the community. By providing access to technology, resources, and opportunities for dialogue and connection, libraries can continue to play a vital role in our society.

Images used in the thesis: an overview of the role of libraries after workshops that were done together with librarians from Estonia

In Latvia – similar to what you write about Estonia in your study – the question of the value of libraries in society most often escalates when a library is about to be closed. While the role of the library is more or less clear to the community, at the municipal level, there’s a funding issue. How to formulate the value of the library in numbers?

That’s a million-dollar question. 😅

But to be honest, I’m not sure everything needs to be valued in numbers. This premise may be the problem with why there is a lack of vision for public libraries if we think back a few questions.
Libraries provide a space for learning, exploration, and personal growth. They offer access to information, technology, and diverse perspectives that are crucial for building an informed and engaged citizenry.

Instead of focusing solely on the financial aspect, decision-makers should also consider the social, cultural, and educational value of public libraries. This can be measured by looking at the impact libraries have on individuals and communities. But it is definitely much harder to measure compared to budget lines in Excel.

The issue of salaries is also relevant. The salaries of librarians in the Baltic States are very low. Therefore, librarians are most often people who are enthusiasts of their field. But in the study, you say that basing the industry on the librarian’s sense of mission alone is not sustainable. Can you talk more about this and how to address it?

The formula for solving this problem is simple. We need to raise the salary of librarians and elevate their role. But that can only happen if we agree that we need public libraries, that we know what they bring to society, and what investments are necessary to achieve those goals.

In addition to the direct duties, a librarian is also an informative and educational mediator between the citizen and the state. Her responsibilities change and grow. The librarian also plays an important and perhaps underappreciated role in the community. You refer to librarians as guardians of the community. However, how do you see the role of the librarian’s classic skills, will they disappear?

I ain’t an expert on this topic. From my conversations, interviews, and library visits, I can say that all librarians are the nicest people in the world. From the interviews and visiting libraries, I’ve seen that librarians play a critical role in their community. And I heard and saw that in smaller places, people go to the library to do their taxes, get help with banking, etc. What that means for the traditional skills of librarians, I don’t know– I’m sure there will be room and need for that in the future. But I think libraries also need people who are generalists in their skills but are just good people’s people.

Why did you choose a website prototipe as the format of the project result?

I must admit that I’m not too proud of the website. So let’s tackle two topics.

Firstly, why the website. As I needed to illustrate the vision of the library, a website displaying the library services and programs was the most suitable, considering cost and timing restraints.

Secondly, why I’m not proud of the end result. The more I worked on the project, the more I noticed that the main challenge was the lack of a shared vision and agreement on the purpose of public libraries. Thus, proposing a vision and role that would suit all the public libraries felt awkward. Therefore I’m happy with the realization and the framework for a workshop to create this cohesive understanding of the public library’s role within a specific community.

Mikk Lember. Photo from the private archive

The research was done two years ago. Have there been any significant changes in the Estonian library field during these two years?

I haven’t had too much close contact with libraries after the thesis. Yet the new plans for the National Library of Estonia at the center of Tallinn look fantastic. Cannot wait to see the completion at some point in 2025.

I have seen public libraries open more community gardens and launch services unrelated to books, so exciting initiatives are happening on a small scale. At the same time, there is news of the closing of more and more public libraries, so unfortunately, the underlying problem still needs to be addressed.

*Books by mentioned authors:

  • Hill, Dan. Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary. First edition. Moscow: Strelka Press, 2012.
  • Manzini, Ezio. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Design Thinking, Design Theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2015.
  • Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. 1. touchstone ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

The illustration above is done by Latvian artist Daina Jurķe. Find her work on Instagram @daina.jurke

Interviewed by:
Anna Iltnere
Editor of Library Portal
Library Development Centre
The National Library of Latvia

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