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Deconstructing the National Library

13. June 2023

In three years, the world will be given back another outstanding national library whose walls and renovated spaces will bring to life a diverse cultural environment with reading rooms, a cinema, sound studios, a music lounge, conference rooms, a floor for children and adolescents and, finally, terraces that everyone can use, writes Janne Andresoo in her opinion piece for ERR.

Actually, the National Library of Estonia (RaRa) in Tõnismägi is currently not undergoing renovation, but rather deconstruction, meaning that in a few years an accessible and necessary cultural environment will be opened, which will be very different from what was previously thought of as the National Library of Estonia. Of course, all of RaRa’s core functions will remain important and all our collections that are currently on a vacation will become available.

Although the scope of the result will be unique in the Estonian context, in the library world in general, it is the direction that libraries must move in, even national libraries. Such Derridaian deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning helps us stay relevant and connected to visitors, society and the global community.

If you look around the world today, many national libraries are on the brink of a new beginning as well, regardless of which corner of the world they are in. From the point of view of society, the library is a neutral area with a wide range of activities. The institution of national libraries must be in line with the needs of society and function as an institution that anchors people to their place and meaning, keeping and recreating the spirit of the place so that it remains sustainable.

The role of the treasurer

The responsibility of preserving national treasures lies with national libraries even after reconstruction, deconstruction or any other process. National libraries bring together their country’s literature, scientific achievements, music and many other art forms of the people, reflecting people’s thoughts over a centuries-long timeline. National libraries must collect and preserve the written word related to its country and people, and make it available to those interested both now and in the future. Many other media are also collected, and this is why the scope of national libraries usually extends beyond literature. The preservation of television and radio programmes may also be the responsibility of national libraries. In Estonia, such an archive is maintained by Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR). However, the legal deposit copies of vinyls, audio discs and digital audio mediums belong to the collections of the National Library of Estonia. Many people do not know this, but archives of Estonian websites are made for future research.

Speaking of digital media, the digitisation process that began at the end of the last century could also, in a way, be called deconstructivist. Looking back to its beginnings, digitisation gave many libraries pause for thought. Discussions about the necessity and maintenance of libraries were quite frequent in the noughties, however at one point they ceased almost as if by agreement. The realisation that digitisation does not eliminate the importance of libraries as a physical space and environment was key. They complement each other. In fact, digitisation has shone a spotlight on the significance of the physical space of libraries. It has perhaps even emphasised it, because the library has not been merely a place to borrow books from for a long time, and current events are bringing us ever closer to the goal of being a community and cultural centre for people of all ages.

Artificial intelligence?

Now that AI – whose possibilities seem endless – has entered the conversation, we as libraries must also respond to the situation. After all, in many countries, AI is waiting to get its hands on limited-access databases, which have so far been a human privilege. Whether AI or other new technologies can facilitate and accelerate our work and be part of RaRa’s future at Tõnismägi, time will tell. It is nice to see that we are not facing these big questions alone. For example, our colleagues 8,000 km away in Taiwan, whose 90th anniversary celebration I just attended, had similar questions on their mind. Again, it is a good example of how technological developments and similar goals place national libraries in similar processes of self-reflection.

Unleashing creativity

The renewed National Library, which will be opened in 2026, is meant to breathe new life into Estonian culture. Culture needs to be actively used, so that new values can be born from it. I consider it extremely important that thanks to its rich collections, the National Library of Estonia is able to fill the time of researchers, families with children, students, adolescents and people of mature age alike. It is a place that brings together cultural creators, interpreters and consumers, filmmakers and movie-goers, and people involved in theatre and theatre lovers. And why not fashion designers and consumers?

Maintaining the form

Concepts and contexts must be flexible in time. The spaces that house them also have to bend a little during the rethinking of the library, as we can see in the case of Tõnismägi. My colleagues and I have discussed that the culture of a country must not only be strong, but it must look the part as well. It is great if national library buildings themselves reflect the population’s attitude towards the written word and knowledge. Architectural language transcends ages, and this idea is harnessed by many countries when building, reconstructing or deconstructing their national library. Looking at Estonia from the outside, the Tõnismägi building itself speaks to the strength of Estonian culture.

Janne Andresoo
Director General of the National Library of Estonia