Presenter, motivator, musician, author and Storyhouse Trustee Erik Boekesteijn, is one of Europe’s most respected librarians and was responsible for much of the design for Storyhouse’s library. He lives in the Netherlands where he is Senior Advisor at the National Library at the Netherlands (KB). Here he shares some of the inspiration behind Storyhouse and contemplates what the future might hold…
My work involves mostly innovation within the library (cultural) sector on a local, national and an international level. I started out my working life in the CDR, which is the music library of Rotterdam. Moving on to the music library Delft, the city of the famous pottery and the painter Vermeer, I became part of the team that helped to create the famous DOK library concept center. The DOK building brought together a public library, a music library and the art library and I became very much interested in the design of buildings, services and innovation. Together we started to develop storytelling software that was sold to libraries all over the world, and I had the pleasure of working with amazing architects on library projects in Moscow, Sydney, Aarhus and in the Netherlands.
The role of libraries today
So what is the library today? A great book by the Dutch architect Aat Vos, 3RD4ALL indicates that libraries are becoming the place to be besides our homes, our offices or at school. Libraries are considered inclusive and safe spaces that are free to visit and where they do not ask you to buy anything – although the facilities over the years also brought along great food and coffees that are often hard to resist.
The fact that libraries in most countries are the most frequently visited places by the greatest number of people also makes them great places to introduce new technologies. People do not often realize that experiments with paying or registration by phone were tested and used in libraries at a very early stage. Also, the use of Artificial Intelligence to help open up collection and giving recommendations has already been a common practice for a long time. In this way libraries are levelling the playing field and with services such as Coding Clubs for young children and labs with 3D printers and laser cutters, libraries provide access to everyone way beyond books.
This, of course, not only applies to the physical buildings and libraries online are also working more and more on creating that same safe, inclusive feeling and the idea of redesigning the internet’s public spaces is a hot topic today.
When it comes to the design of Storyhouse I was asked in 2015 to help provide ideas on how the combination of a theatre, a cinema, a café/restaurant and a library could work to bring out the best in each different institution and to bring all together in one beautiful gift to the city and the people of Chester and the whole region. Together with the directors Alex Clifton and Andrew Bentley, we went on an inspiration tour around some of the places I worked on. This really did help in forming ideas and made us aware of the fact that the one thing that brings everything together is stories. It is all about keeping stories, sharing stories and making stories in a house that belongs to everyone in the city. The name of Storyhouse for that reason could not be more appropriate.
With Bennetts Associates as architects and the amazing Hannah Wehbeh as interior designer, the result is still astonishing and it is no wonder that there is already one adaptation of the Storyhouse model in the Netherlands and more are to follow.
The best way to measure success is how a library or cultural institution is taken over by the users and partners and stakeholders. Next to the unforgettable opening by Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Sussex, the fact that in the first year more than 100 partners wanted to co-programme and work with Storyhouse is clear evidence that it is here to stay.
The future is here
In 2007, in the process of digitalization and transformation, there was a most disturbing outlook in reports that most of the libraries and the paper book would disappear by 2018. Today we see libraries developing into network organizations that are places of kindness, places to practice democracy, and places of wellbeing that celebrate culture, elevate discourse and curate curiosity.
This requires a changing sets of skills for our librarians, but I see them eagerly embrace this new role, while doing very well what they have always done. Librarians are always out there to facilitate and help everyone find in what they want and need to achieve and help them to stay curious forever.
When Storyhouse opened, the change from working in a traditional library was a huge one for the team. Everything was different, the working environment, building, hours and colleagues. But everyone rose to the challenge, and we’ve learned a new more flexible, collaborate way of working, that benefits all of our visitors whatever their reason for entering the building.
Books are, and always will be, the core of what we do, but alongside looking after and promoting our collection of 50,000 books we join up with other Storyhouse teams to create events, activities, groups and festivals to delight and surprise. We also make the most of the talents and skills in the team to deliver and facilitate a considerable number of engagement activities – from Spanish and German storytelling and English conversation sessions to Rhymetime and reading groups. The recent transformation of the storytelling room to Stig of the Dump’s cave, to connect with the performance at Grosvenor Park, was down to the vision of one of the very creative members of the library team.
The challenge is always about what’s next, what could we do better, what’s needed for our community, what’s missing? Times are changing and we will need to change and adapt too but that’s exciting and we’re not short of ideas.
Erik says it so well, libraries are for everyone, a safe place… where you can just be without spending any money. Storyhouse is different, it’s special but the library is one of 22 libraries across Cheshire West and we’re all here to help with everything from recommending books and signposting council services to encouraging children to keep up with their reading by joining the Summer Reading Challenge. We try not to be too surprised by some of the queries and requests we get and are proud to be able to provide an answer to most of them. The lady who wanted to know what to do when her lawnmower broke down came to the library. The lovely gentleman who was feeling lost after his wife died and didn’t know where to turn came to the library. The lady who needed help to attend a funeral online and didn’t know where to start came to the library.
Of course they did, where else would they go?
Linda Tyson, Storyhouse Library Team Leader