vol. 21 no. 1, March, 2016

eRemembrance or eOblivion? International Conference on Society’s Memory Functions in the Digital World, University of Tampere, Finland, Tampere 23-24 November, 2015

The library as a multidimensional space in the digital age

Pentti Mehtonen

Introduction. The purpose of this study was to explore how library space is conceptualized in the library design process.
Method. The main research material consists of semi-structured interviews with the key individuals involved in two recent library building projects. In addition, various planning and design documents were used.
Analysis. The data were analysed with qualitative thematic analysis methods using the Atlas.ti program. The data were divided into three main themes: digitisation, the design process and the conceptualization of library space. These themes were then analysed more closely.
Results. Digitisation was considered one of the most important factors affecting the function of present-day libraries, including its spatial solutions. Library design is a pragmatic and contextual process where the design goals are formulated in cooperation with key individuals involved in the process. Based on the analysis of the research material, a multidimensional model of library space is introduced that consists of physical, social and digital space.
Conclusions. The design and utilization of physical space enables the versatile development of libraries and their adaptation to the digital age. Library space should be understood as a complex and multidimensional concept. Greater efforts should be made to find out how the design of physical space facilitates the various uses of libraries and how these uses are connected with the library’s digital resources.


Recent developments in communication and information technologies have deeply influenced the way in which we define the purpose and function of libraries. Digitisation has been considered challenging, and even threatening, to the existence of traditional libraries. On the other hand, widespread interest in library architecture has redefined the library as a physical space.

The concept of the hybrid library, a fusion of the physical and digital dimensions of space and services, has offered one possible strategy for libraries to function as multifaceted social institutions (e.g. Oppenheim and Smithson, 1998; Rusbridge, 1998; Baker, 2008). However, there has been little serious interest in developing this concept further. In addition, the main interest behind the concept has been to explore possible means of connecting emerging electronic resources to existing library organizations. Therefore, the physical aspect of this dual concept has been poorly defined from the beginning, predominantly referring only to physical collections. A more rigorous understanding of the role of the physical space of libraries could benefit their development as institutions as a whole.

In this study, I analysed two recent library-building projects: Helsinki University Main Library, an academic library, and Helsinki Central Library, a public library. My main interest was to explore how library space was conceptualized in the design process and how the design solutions are connected to the ongoing processes of digitisation. My research material consisted of interviews with key individuals involved in the library projects, and various documents concerning the planning and design processes. Based on the analysis of this material, I introduce a multidimensional model of library space, which consists of physical, social and digital space.

Literature review

Library space is nowadays a quite versatile object of study in library research. However, it is still a somewhat marginal subject in this particular academic context, and the theoretical and conceptual base of the research remains greatly underdeveloped.

The more comprehensive studies: e.g. Sievänen-Allen (1989), Van Slyck (1995), Dahlkild and Black(2006), Pepper and Bagshaw (2009) have mainly concentrated on the earlier history of library buildings in the twentieth century. In all these studies, library buildings are analysed from the wider societal perspective, combining influences from library history, architectural history and sociology. The studies can be considered basic research on the subject, offering valuable information on the design and social role of libraries and providing examples of methodical choices. As an exception to this kind of historical approach, Mattern (2007) analyses the present-day discourse on the design of public libraries in the United States. In the Finnish context, Aaltonen (2012) has provided a comprehensive presentation of the history of development of public library spaces.

The interest in library space seems to have increased steadily since the mid-1990s. Undoubtedly, one reason for this has been the change in library functions caused by new information technologies. These changes have induced the need to reform existing library spaces and to develop new concepts for the design of new libraries. To sum up the previous library research literature, there have been two major concepts for library space in the digital age: the library as a learning environment and the library as a place. The former deals primarily with academic libraries, while the latter is often directed at public libraries, but the division is not exclusive.

The library as a learning environment

One of the most influential ideas in academic library design since the mid 1990s is the use of the concept of information commons, sometimes also referred as information centre or learning commons. In library research, these ideas have been developed particularly by Beagle (e.g. 1999; 2006) and Bennett (e.g. 2003; 2009).

Information commons is a comprehensive strategic and spatial concept that gathers together the uses of library facilities, services, and equipment, especially the use of information technologies. The use of the concept often promotes new learning methods, such as interactivity, co learning, and situated learning. Beagle (1999) was one of the first to attempt to examine the concept in a systematic way by formulating three main goals for the design of information commons. He defined these goals as the renewal of library services by emphasizing the use of electronic resources, the provision of new learning spaces enabling both individual and collective forms of study, and the initiation of collaboration projects between different actors of the university community. Beagle (2006) provides a comprehensive and practical view of the design of information commons, while Bailey and Tierney (2008) give detailed information on the existing information commons in the United States and Canada.

Bennett (2003) compares the concepts of information commons and learning commons, claiming that the latter should serve as a future model for library spaces. By learning commons, he means a space that should aid the students’ learning processes more profoundly by trying to utilize research evidence in the design and function of these spaces. In addition, students should play a more active part in the design and operation of learning commons. Bennett (2009) divides the history of academic libraries into three time periods, which he labels as the reader centred, the book centred and the learning centred library. According to Bennett, the current challenge for academic libraries is the paradigmatic shift from book centred libraries to learning centred libraries. This transformation process remains greatly incomplete, and a more rigorous definition of the concept and goals of learning commons should be formulated.

Closet-Crane (2011, p. 34) maintains that the concept of information commons has been used to some extent uncritically – like a brand mantra – in library information science literature. She also underlines that the theoretical conceptualization of library space should be developed further: for example, more research is needed on the impact of affective and architectural qualities of library space. Gayton (2008) distinguishes the concepts of the communal and the social, and argues that the new kind of social activities happening in information commons may hinder the academic library’s traditional role as a communal space in supporting and manifesting the solitary and contemplative scholarly work of students and faculty members. Likewise, Caniano (2010) takes a critical stance on information commons. He claims that the design of such libraries based on information commons do not fit the users’ expectations of what academic libraries should look like. More importantly, such spatial arrangements promote unstructured social interaction that may not actually facilitate students’ learning processes. In addition, the heavy reliance on fixed computer stations, which Caniano (2010, p. 3-4) calls the labization of library space, may soon be obsolete due to the advent of various mobile devices.

Shill and Tonner (2003; 2004) and Stewart (2010) afford more a general overview of the building of academic libraries in the United States since the 1990s. In addition, an analysis of the actual use of space in academic libraries is provided by Applegate (2009) and Antell and Engel (2007), while Nitecki (2011) and Matthews et al. (2013) have analysed space assessment.

The library as a place

Under the general theme of the library as place, libraries – especially public libraries – have been considered concrete places for a wide spectrum of social activities (see, e.g. Buschman and Leckie (2007) and Most (2011)). Unlike the concept of the library as a learning environment, the concept of the library as a place is often only indirectly connected to the advancement of information technology. Indeed, the concept could be seen as a kind of response and countermove to digitisation: if libraries cannot compete with the Internet and the new digital services, they can invest in the design of appealing library spaces and try to draw people by offering new kinds of activities, often ones claimed to be supporting various forms of social interaction.

Ray Oldenburg’s concept of third place has been a popular catchphrase this millennium, and this is also the case in library design. However, actual empirical research utilizing this concept has been scarce; an exception is the work of Fisher et al. (2007), who apply the concept of third place to the analysis of Seattle Public Library. They report that the library functioned only partially as a third place according to Oldenburg’s original criteria: the library was considered an accessible, inclusive, and neutral ground for the general public, and it was felt to be a comfortable place, ‘a home away from home’. However, the library was not particularly functional as a place for lively conversation, nor did it facilitate spontaneous meetings between acquaintances or strangers. Elmborg (2011) provides a critical view of the concept of third place in the context of public libraries, maintaining that it may lead to a kind of commercialization of library space through the mimicry of retail spaces, such as bookstores and cafes. Instead, he promotes the use of the concept of third space, introduced by Homi Bhabha, a kind of discursive space that would allow libraries to function more profoundly as public spaces, facilitating the construction of various social identities and enhancing public debate. However, the actual realization of the concept of third space has been largely left open, especially its connection to the spatial design of libraries.

Aabø, Audunson and Vårheim (2010) and Aabø and Audunson (2012) have studied the public library as a meeting place and place for the accumulation of social capital. Public libraries are considered particularly important as inclusive places that gather people from different social and cultural backgrounds. Moreover, the use of libraries is not predetermined to advance a narrow social agenda. Lapintie and Di Marino (2015) provide an analysis of how library space is utilized for transitory work like teleworking, a type of work that is not bound to a particular physical location. The study shows that libraries already function as significant places for this kind of activity.


The study had two main goals: to explore how library space is conceptualized in the library design process and to determine how the phenomenon of digitisation is reflected and expressed in these conceptualizations.

Study cases

Two library projects were selected as study cases: Helsinki University Main Library and Helsinki Central Library. The former represents academic libraries and the latter public libraries. These two cases were selected because both projects had an innovative functional programme and utilized new design practices, especially the Helsinki Central Library project.

Helsinki University Main Library is a part of the restructuring of the University of Helsinki and its facilities, a process that started in the 1990s. The facilities located in the city of Helsinki now operate on four campuses, with each having its own newly constructed campus library. The Main Library, the campus library of the City Centre Campus, is the latest of these library units and is located in the centre of Helsinki. It is the result of merging six larger libraries and other smaller libraries. The architectural competition for the library was held in 2007–2008, and the library was opened in 2012.

The design process for Helsinki Central Library started gradually at the end of the 1990s, but the actual architectural competition was not held until in 2012–2013. Construction started in 2015 and the library is planned to open in 2018. Although a noteworthy building, the Central Library is not a new main library, but it is planned to be a new kind of innovative library unit located in the centre of Helsinki.

Research material

The main research material consists of interviews with key individuals involved in the library design processes. The interviews were semi-structured with a relatively open framework; they were recorded, transcribed and analysed by using the Atlas.ti program. In total, there were 19 interviews with 31 interviewees, including the architects responsible for the actual design, Helsinki University’s and the Helsinki City administration’s architects, members of library management, various other library staff and library users. Most of the interviewees were chosen because they had actively participated in the design process. Additionally, some members of the library staff volunteered for interviews. The interviews were a mix of individual and small group interviews.

The chosen interviewees represent important stakeholders in the library design process: architects, librarians and library users. The library users are the most difficult group to include in this kind of research, as their attachment to the design process is the vaguest. The interviews at Helsinki University Main Library included one student and three academic researchers. The interviews at Helsinki Central Library included one senior official of the Helsinki City administration as a representative of Helsinki’s residents.

To compensate for this kind of skew in the data, materials from two surveys were used. The Helsinki University student’s magazine Ylioppilaslehti conducted a survey in 2007, which included both close-ended and open-ended questions. Over a thousand students participated in this survey. Material from the open-ended question ‘What is your dream City Centre Campus library?’ was used in this study. The Central Library project has an ongoing survey on their website in which over two thousand people have participated. The survey has only one open-ended question: ‘Tell us your dream about the new Central Library.’ The data used in this study included 52 answers concerning Helsinki University Main Library and 88 answers concerning Helsinki Central Library. The answers were selected according to their length, based on the presumption that longer answers would also include discussion about the library design, along with more common themes of library collections and services.

Beside the interviews, documents from the architectural competitions were used, as the designs for both libraries were chosen using an architectural competition. These documents included the competition programmes and jury reports.


The analysis was conducted by applying the methods of qualitative thematic analysis. Braun and Clarke (2006, p. 77) advocate the use of thematic analysis, ‘a poorly demarcated, rarely acknowledged, yet widely used’ analytic method, as an independent method in its own right. Thematic analysis is a useful method in a situation where analysis must be mainly conducted inductively. As pointed out in the literature review, library space has been vaguely theorized in previous library research and no rigorous analytical framework was readily available.

The interviews and other research material were first read closely several times to select potential sections for closer analysis and to identify possible themes. The data were divided into three general themes: digitisation, the design process, and the conceptualization of library space. The data were then analysed more closely by identifying and selecting possible sub-themes. The sub-themes were constantly reviewed during the analysis process and changed, merged or deleted when necessary. When the list of sub-themes was completed, the whole research material was once again analysed in a consistent, analytical manner.

The ideas guiding the analysis are based on two notions. Firstly, the study is based on the premise that the library institution and the practices attached to it are embedded in the material and spatial realm of the library. In other words, the spatial organization of the library has a significant role in the way libraries are constructed and maintained as social institutions. In recent decades, there has been a wide and profound interest in the concepts of space and place, an interest stretching across several disciplines, including sociology, geography, psychology and the humanities. The concepts of space and place are often interchangeable, notoriously opaque, contested and used in multifaceted ways (see, e.g. Thrift (2009) for space and Gieryn (2000) for place).

Secondly, the notion of discourse should be regarded as vital when studying organizational change. Discourses can be understood as mediating social practices between structure and agency, constituting ‘social structures as actualizable allowances in particular areas of social life in certain time and place’ (Fairclough, 2005, p. 922).


Impact of digitisation on library functions

Digitisation was considered unanimously by the interviewees to be one of the most important factors affecting the function of present-day libraries. It was referred to with expressions like ‘historical turning point’ and ‘paradigm change’. The potential impact of technological changes on library operations was seen as an extensive and complex phenomenon that influences many – even the core – functions of libraries, including the collections, services, work tasks and library users’ requirements and expectations. The change from physical collections to digital collections and services was thought to be especially challenging for present-day library organizations. Libraries could be perceived to be increasingly dependent on the changes in their external operating environment.

The transformation period was considered incomplete and in a state of flux. Therefore, the future of libraries was felt to be unclear, even threatened. Despite the on-going changes, there is, or should exist, a kind of essence to the library, some kind of core mission or value that refers to functions like giving free access to literary and other cultural resources, promoting education and providing a non-commercial public space accessible to all. It was considered paramount that libraries do not lose this ethos in the process of renewal and reform.

The library design process

Library design should be considered a pragmatic and contextual process. Both library projects were based on relatively well-established planning and design practices, and they applied more practical than theoretical knowledge. Many contextual factors restricted the actual design, including experience of previous library projects, the building site, the existing library collections, the library organization and the library’s relationship with the larger community it serves.

All the stakeholder groups considered cooperation a vital part of a successful design process. The design goals were formulated and reformulated during the design process by discussion and negotiation. Ideally, this would call for equal opportunities to participate in the design process, unrestricted discussions about the design decisions and genuine commitment to finding solutions that all stakeholders can find acceptable. The key participants in both library projects considered the negotiations fairly successful and unrestricted. However, it was evident that the different stakeholder groups had clearly unequal opportunities to influence the design process, especially in terms of decision-making. In addition, some individuals in the stakeholder groups held positions that were more powerful. For example, the members of library management had a much more influential and multifaceted role compared to the other members of library staff.

The inclusion of library users in the design process is a new objective and it is difficult to put into practice. Both library projects applied some new methods to realise this goal. Special user groups and a service design project were used in the design process of Helsinki University Main Library. The Helsinki Central Library project utilized a variety of new practices, including a special web page for the project, participatory budgeting, city events and workshops.

Library users were able to participate by giving feedback and commenting on the existing plans and design, and – to a lesser extent – by producing new ideas for the design process. In the case of Helsinki University Main Library, user participation had some influence on the library design, the fine-tuning of some spatial solutions, and the choice of library policies and activities. As the design process for Helsinki Central Library is still incomplete, it is difficult to estimate how much user participation will influence the final design. Nevertheless, the extensive measures taken to include library users in the design process can be considered a means of promoting the public image of the project. The library was also able to build a social network, thus creating contacts with various institutional and individual actors that can be utilized later in the actual operation of the library.

Multidimensional library space

Based on the analysis of the research material, I propose a multidimensional model of library space (Figure 1), which consists of three spheres: physical, social, and digital space. The concept of physical space refers to the actual library building, its exterior and especially its interior, and the spatial organization of furniture, the collections and other library functions. The concept of social space refers both to the various forms of social interaction in libraries and to diverse ways a library functions as a public space. The concept of digital space refers to the realm of electronic collections and services.

The model should be considered a preliminary and schematic presentation of the possible dimensions of library space in today’s circumstances. The model is based on the idea that throughout the history, libraries have been composed of two basic dimensions, physical and social space. The physical space is the place where the library collections are stored. The social space is the realm of the activities and practices connected to the library’s construction, preservation, and use. The third sphere of the model, the library as a digital space, is a new and still greatly undefined part of the whole.

The different spheres of the spatial model should be understood as partly autonomous and partly interdependent, and they can have differing emphases on the actual realizations of different libraries. My main attention in the study was focused on the library as a physical space. Concepts of social and digital space were analysed mainly in the sense of how they were connected to the design goals of libraries’ physical spaces.

Figure 1: The multidimensional model of library space consists of physical, social, and digital space
Figure 1: The multidimensional model of library space consists of physical, social, and digital space

The library as a physical space

Both the functional and aesthetic qualities of physical space were considered important by the interviewees.

Flexibility and diversity were considered the main functional qualities of library space. Flexibility meant that the library should have an open layout without unnecessary permanent structures to hinder possible changes to the spatial organization. In addition, the technical infrastructure, electrical systems and communication networks, should support the flexible reorganization of library functions. The difference between the two library projects was the expected time frame for potential change. In the case of Helsinki University Main Library, the changes are presumed to happen in some indeterminate future. In Helsinki Central Library, spatial reorganization is planned to be a part of the daily operation of the library.

The flexibility of library space is not a new design criterion by any means; it has gradually become an increasingly essential part of library design since the mid-twentieth century (Mehtonen, 2011). However, what was new – especially in the case of the Central Library – was the goal that library users could modify some part of the space to their own ends. In addition, both libraries were also preparing for the possible downsizing of various functions, like the reduction of physical collections and the number of staff.

The diversity of physical space was another strategy that the libraries used when trying to adapt to the uncertainties of the digital age. Libraries are putting great effort into expanding the realm of new functions that are available in the physical space, making it more attractive and appealing. The libraries have also been designed to facilitate multiple functions in the same space and to offer different kinds of environments for library users’ current needs. One solution to control potential conflicts, especially problems with noise that the coexistence of different functions in the same space may induce, was the use of different activity zones, namely quiet, semi-active and active zones.

The aesthetic qualities of library architecture were also considered important by the interviewees. The interior of the library should be comfortable, beautiful and provide different atmospheric moods. The library building should be harmoniously integrated into the townscape, while also being an iconic and unique part of it. Furthermore, it was felt important that the architecture should somehow symbolically represent the core aspects of the library as an institution.

The library as a social space

Libraries were considered to function as social spaces in essentially two ways – either as concrete places for social interaction or as a part of the public space of the surrounding community and society.

Social interaction was seen to consist of various social relations and activities between people and to be an immediate part of the everyday use of libraries. Social interaction was primarily considered to occur between the library staff and library users. In Helsinki University Main Library, it was confined to restricted areas, utilizing fairly traditional forms of information services. In Helsinki Central Library, social interaction is planned to happen throughout the library space; the staff will move freely around the building and engage in different kind of activities, such as workshops and events. The forms of social interaction should be regarded as complex practices where the roles, identities and social positions of librarians and library users are constructed.

The interaction between library users themselves is a newer phenomenon, especially as an intentional design goal. Both libraries were trying to facilitate this kind of social interaction, for example, by providing special areas for it. However, in the case of Helsinki University Main Library, it was discovered that the library users did not automatically use these spaces as intended. The areas that were designed to be places for relaxed socializing were in fact used for quiet solitary study. The experience is a good remainder of the complexity of the relationship between prevailing social norms of library practices and the library’s spatial organization.

The concept of the library as a public space is in some ways a more abstract construct. Some of the questions to be considered are how the access and rights to use library space are defined and maintained, what kind of public roles people are able to perform in the library’s space and how the library’s functional and symbolic relationship to the surrounding community is constructed.

The library as a digital space

There were three main ways in which the emergence of digital space was considered to have influenced the library as a physical space.

First, the physical library space was seen to be becoming more technologized: more dependent on the use of different digital devices, such as computers and library automation. A recent example of this development was that both libraries were designed to facilitate the extensive use of library users’ private mobile devices. The question of the ‘visibility’ of the digital collections and services was a new kind of design problem that emerged in both library projects. There was concern about how to place the digital resources more concretely at the users’ disposal in the physical space. As a solution to this problem in Helsinki Central Library, some kind of interactive screens and other multimedia solutions are planned that will provide various access to the digital resources.

Secondly, the relationship between physical space and digital space was seen as a complex issue. On the one hand, digital space has expanded the library as physical space by providing access to various resources that no longer need to be stored locally. On the other hand, digital space has become detached from the physical library; the use of the digital collections and services is no longer connected to any particular location. Indeed, digital library space has the potential to become fully autonomous by providing several essential – even if not all – functions of the physical and social space. The libraries were concerned that the increasing use of electronic resources may alienate library users from the library. The distinction between the resources provided by the library and other resources is being blurred, physical visits to libraries may decline and the appreciation of libraries and the work they perform may decrease.

Thirdly, physical space has become more important in itself. As physical collections are seen to lose their previous value, new space opens up that can be used for other library functions. These new functions are mainly connected to the library users’ various activities and to new forms of interaction with library staff, thus potentially increasing the value of social space in the library. As the process of digitisation advances, libraries are increasingly in competition with other means of distributing literary and other cultural resources. Therefore, the reconceptualization of the library as a physical space could be seen as offering new opportunities for the renewal and further legitimation of the library institution in the digital age.


A model of library space consisting of three spheres: physical space, social space and digital space, was introduced in this paper. In the diagram, the different spheres are defined to be partly independent and partly interconnected. In reality, it may be difficult to distinguish this kind of difference; the spheres are interconnected in myriad ways that are either difficult to comprehend or simply unknown. For example, the physical reality of our built environment – which we may take for granted and assume to be permanent – is even in its most tangible form in a continuous process of change caused by various natural processes and human activities. Furthermore, all the mental concepts we use about this reality are products of various practices, all more or less socially determined, but also situated in this physical and material realm, and even to a certain extent produced by it.

The practical field of librarianship and the theoretical contribution of library research have tended to emphasize the value of libraries’ collections, often in a utilitarian way. The physical library space has thus been understood to be a neutral container for the preservation, use and distribution of the collection. The social aspect of libraries has been associated with the interaction between library staff and library users and primarily connected to the practical use of the collection, or, more abstractly, to the use of the library as an information system. The equation of the library with the collection has constrained our understanding of the library as a physical and social space. The recent interest in the physical space of libraries has created a more complex picture of the subject. However, research on the topic lacks a theoretical base and there are few critical assessments of the previous research. Also, examples focusing on the material and spatial forms of library practices have been scarce.


Library space should be understood as a complex and multidimensional concept. The design of libraries’ physical spaces provides various opportunities for the renewal of the library as a societal institution. The theoretical conceptualization of library space should be developed further. In addition, further rigorous empirical research on the subject is needed.

About the author

Pentti Mehtonen is Doctoral Student in the Memornet doctoral programme at the School of Information Sciences, University of Tampere, FIN-33014, Finland preparing his thesis on "Library space in digital culture". He may be reached at Pentti.Mehtonen@uta.fi

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How to cite this paper

Mehtonen, P. (2016). The library as a multidimensional space in the digital age. Information Research, 21(1), paper memo6 Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/21-1/memo/memo6.htm. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6gArS5eSo)

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