Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

by Inger Edebro Sikström


Being a member of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section’s Standing Committee is very rewarding. One cannot stop being amazed by the wide diversity of the group with members from so many different countries – Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Uganda, U.S.A. and Sweden. The group dynamics generated by the mix is hard to beat.

The opportunity to meet colleagues from all over the world has been very inspiring for me in my work as a library director in Sweden. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

What follows is an attempt to summarize some memories and reflections from my five years as a member of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee. At the same time, I would like to say thank you to each member of the Standing Committee for being a “giant” for me.

Green and Sustainable Buildings – and Organizations

The pre-conference satellite meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2011 was my first encounter with IFLA’s Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee. The meeting’s theme was: The effect of new technologies on library design: building the 21st century library. Excellent papers on many topics were supplemented by visits to local libraries.

We visited the Hamilton Mill Branch of the Gwinnett Public Library. This library had been awarded prizes for sustainable design that dramatically contributed to decreased use of electricity and water, as well as reductions in other operating costs. The library demonstrated very systematically and pedagogically its environmental thinking through displays and detailed explanations.

Self-service as a Catalyst for Change

At Library Buildings and Equipment Section meetings and conferences, we have heard how focusing on self-service in design contributes to improving the working environment and decreasing operational costs. A lesson learned is that a major element in cutting ongoing costs is to plan for self-service very early in the building process.

While not many public libraries need large robot storage and retrieval systems, I was inspired by hearing how the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City used  self-service in its design and as a catalyst for change in the library’s staffing positions and working methods.

Iconic Library Buildings

While IFLA Section Standing Committees meet annually during the IFLA Conference itself, most Sections also hold mid-term meetings in various locations. The Library Buildings and Equipment Section mid-term meeting in 2012 was held in Germany. At last I obtained the opportunity to see the Philological Library at the Freie Universität Berlin designed by Norman Foster . The library building has a fabulous organic form that is replicated in the design of the circulation desks.

A History to Value and Protect

Libraries have at their core strong democratic values based on everyone’s right to seek and receive information. A contrast to the futuristic Norman Foster architecture at the Freie Universität Berlin was the Library at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg founded in 1696. Think of the impact it has had for so many people during the more than 300 years of its existence – a history to value and protect. All libraries have past achievements to preserve as well as new directions to take.

Tried and Tested Functions in New Contexts

Not far from Halle is Dessau, the centre of the Bauhaus movement in 1925, after its beginnings in Weimar through the work of Walter Gropius in 1919. The Bauhaus movement took tried and tested functions and introduced them in new contexts and venues.

Everything is consistent and well thought-out at the Walter Gropius Bauhaus School. One example is the use of strong colours to facilitate orientation in the building. The colours coincidentally are almost the same as the traditional bright colours of blue, red, green and yellow which characterise the Sami people of Northern Europe.

As early as 1925, Gropius designed a unique typeface for all Bauhaus communication. Sune Norgren did the same in 1997 when commissioned to create the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in a converted mill in Gateshead, England.  The use of the letter “B” for Baltic in the Centre’s signage is clever and catchy. It reinforces the message and marks the brand for the Centre.

New Approaches to Learning and Libraries

In 2012, the Standing Committee was invited to take part in a seminar: Designing the Future Library, hosted by the Helsinki University Library, the National Library and the Helsinki City Library. We learned about new concepts for learning and a service design that supports interaction based on diversity and flexibility. Dialogue with customers and stakeholders was emerging as central to an understanding of needs and the basis for determining appropriate design responses.

The IFLA World Library and Information Congress was held in Singapore in 2013 and new insights were acquired.  A visit to the Library in Chinatown found that the inhabitants of Chinatown had created its own vision for the library with three themes: hope, heart and home. The library@chinatown has many audiences. A significant group is older residents, many of whom are grandparents who visit the library while waiting for their grandchildren to finish school for the day. The old and the young frequently do homework in the library subsequently.

Most Problems can be Solved

Anyone who has planned a new library building knows that some things do not always go according to plan. I found the words on a wall painting in the Chicago Public Library very comforting. They were first spoken in the inaugural address of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983.

Most of our problems can be solved. Some of them will take brains, some of them will take patience. And some of them will have to be wrestled with like an alligator in a swamp

Wall plaque in Chicago Public Library

I have learned so much from my membership of the Standing Committee of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section. My colleagues have shared their ideas with me. I have seen buildings from all over the world. I have been able to apply new approaches to my own professional practice. I have stood on the shoulders of giants.

Author details

Inger Edebro Sikström has worked in school and public libraries in Sweden. She was Director of Public Libraries in Umeå, Sweden from 1996 until her retirement. Under her leadership, the libraries received many awards.  These include the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille’s Amy Prize in 2010, a United Nations Public Service Award in 2008, a European Public Sector Award in 2007 and the Union of Baltic Cities Cultural Prize in 2007. Inger has been Vice-President of the Swedish Library Association from 2007-2012 and a member of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Standing Committee from 2011-1017. Inger is now retired and working with her father’s collection of photographs from her hometown. Together with her husband, Inger is documenting the town’s economic and social development after the inauguration in 1891 of the railroad connecting the capital city Stockholm with north Sweden. Inger can be contacted at

Acknowledgements: Photographs by Inger Edebro Sikstrom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s