C6 – Belgium visiting Sweden

Var Lokal and Art Lab Gnesta 

’It is not about yourself. It’s not about making a name, about becoming a big shot or being in the spotlights. The essence is to look around, profoundly. To watch and learn. To observe where and how you can bring change, how you can be meaningful for your environment. That is exactly what Signe Johannesen did. She is an artist with a dream. She watched and learned. She looked around and noticed things: a dragonfly for example. Dragonflies make their own, very unique nests with materials they find on the spot. They make an optimal use of the environment and from all materials available to make a unique creation. Art is nothing but a method, a tool to build a better society.

Signe noticed how girls and boys in the village are taking different routes, how they move around differently in their city and streets. She is talking with schools and feels how young people do not longer connect with the places they live. She asks kids and youngsters to show her the places they avoid, where they don’t feel at ease. She shows a picture of high narrow stairs, hunderd and thirty-seven untidely stairs between high, sinister walls. That is where she starts, that is the work she decides to do. Together with schoolgirls and –boys she is fighting to give the place a new face. There is no plan or design: they just tackle the stairs together. The result is a paradise-like stairway to heaven. For the eye of the artist, it does not matter whether the work is beautiful, that is a only a matter of taste. The result is not the arty stairs, but the totality: smiling faces, the changed city, the open road. The work would be temporarily, but the pressure of the people to keep the work is so high that the city has to decide to keep the work permanently. The dragonfly has build a nest, gave colour and a new perspective to a new generation. The real message is: organize, work together, make beautiful things, don’t agonize. Look around, learn and create with what you see: change is everywhere.’

Stockholm City Library

There is something special about Stockholm. As if the sun is making it even more vast. It feels a bit like staring at the sea in Ostend. Today we will visit the City Library, quite a long way, but we decide to walk the main part of the way. Sightseeing, working out and sharpening the mind.

The ’Stadbibliotek’ is an impressively beautiful building. Everything breathes architectonic perfectionism. The hall with a view on the round central library is breath-taking. We are welcomed very warmly by Gundula, head of the youth department and Ewa, project manager. They host our visit with a very open and honest attitude.

Yes, it is a beautiful monument, and they are very proud of it, but at the same time this impressive building (1927) is a bit in the way of a contemporary operation of a public service. That’s why they dream to connect the current youth department with the storage room in the basement. It would quadruple the current surface, which is very much needed. The library has over 2000 visitors daily and the only have three toilets, to give one example. There have been made adaption plans, well thought-through, checked with monument care, ... to end up in a drawer.

Gundula and Ewa remain pragmatic: if the minds are ready, the plans are already there. In the meantime they try to optimize where possible. And it looks like they are very good at that. A lot of small initiatives show a lot of involvement of the readers and the professionals. Teenagers have their own recommendation format on a nice display. And the library staff is working hard in rethinking the whole library environment.

They made a test set-up to adapt the available space as much as possible to the wishes of the visitors. Therefore they use the design thinking method. Questioning, testing, observing, adapting. User comfort is key. In ’Stadbibliothek’ the possibilities are limited, but in the new branch in Kista, they went all the way for UX (user experience). So we need to go and have a look there too!

There is a lot of change and experiment. Visitor numbers are increasing, loan numbers are decreasing, the library offers more and more activities.  It is a recognizable story, as are the budget cuts. The next door International Library, also run by the City of Stockholm, is closing. The collection will be transferred to a part of the city that would be easier accessible and culturally more diverse. Nobody is losing his or her job, but they need to save drastically on infrastructure. Ewa is motivating the decision, both ladies are seeing opportunities in the change.

We hear a different story in the international library next door. We meet a colleague and have an informal conversation where we learn she does not approve the plans at all. Indeed, the visitor numbers have decreased dramatically, but a collection like this is not available anywhere else. On the new location only a small part of the collection would remain accessible. This staff member does feel abandoned by policy makers who serve the deconstruction as gaining accessibility. Not everybody is happy with the wind of change.

In the afternoon we provided working time but we change the plan. We leave for the other end of town to visit the youngest library, where they have this week an UX expert at work. We indeed, as Ewa and Gundula predicted, in another world.

The library is located in the middle of a shopping mall. Electronic billboards are announcing the program, escalators bring you to the centre of the reading room. A colourful hall, people and object, real and very naturally multicultural. We are here unannounced, but the librarian immediately makes some time for an introduction and a tour. This is a library to come home. Very diverse, and with a cosy ’feeling at home’: even socks are to be found in the lost items basket.

The librarian claims to be very satisfied with the results of the design-thinking workshops. It is nice for the staff to actively change the spaces, even though this often is out of their comfort zone. And it is a plus for the visitors, who has the library adapted to his or her needs and desires. Staff and visitors are together making it a better place.

This is a place with tons of inspiration. Once more we get reassured that the library is an amazing place to work.

Museum of Contemporary Art 

Day 5 is filled with summarizing reflections, regaining lost working time, and a fast Stockholm-visit to say goodbye to the city. Yesterday we already said goodbye to Jasmin. She was the one who shaped the program for the partner organization Intercult. In August she will be with us for the exchange with all partners.

We are taking our last steps in this Learning Week with Iwona, ceo of Intercult. She knows -like Jasmin- , Stockholm by heart, and yet this organization, specialized in building cultural networks, is looking for more local relevance. Intercult is working on European projects that are stimulating connection, but also exploring possibilities to gain a foothold in the local community. Their question: can the city not be a lab for the European constellation as a whole?

Local environment is exactly the domain in which the library of Ostend can share a lot of knowledge and expertise. It is only one of the complementary aspects within both organizations.

This is how we conclude the Learning week, close to the goals where we started: sharing knowledge and experience, learning from each other, finding inspiration and discuss. Back home, where possible, implementing that knowledge, and using it to become better and grow in different areas: as a professional, as an organization, as a service provider for the community.

We finish with a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art and, although rushing through it, get very impressed by the National Museum. And then it is also time to say goodbye to Iwona.

In August an Ostend delegation will be back. In a meeting with all partners we will report on the method, the status and the learnings in the dementia -project. The first task now is to concretize and start the project. We warmly welcome the participants with dementia in our library. They will also help us to learn. We really are looking forward to it.