I spoke to Maria Stella Rasetti, the Director of Pistoia’s San Giorgio Library in Italy as part of the work I did for the Reading and Writing Foundation‘s Libraries Change Lives publication. We didn’t have space for the full case study in the publication but it was so inspirational to me, I’ve produced it in full here (with their permission).
Pistoia is a small city with around 90,000 inhabitants located in the central part of Tuscany. Although it is close to several major urban centres, such as Florence, Prato and Pisa, it is surrounded by mountains and has always been rather isolated and less well-known than its neighbours.
The town includes primary, middle and high schools. It also has a University that is linked with Florence University. Alongside traditional academic subjects, the university supports technical specialisms, such as engineering. The local industry is dominated by commercial arboriculture and engineering.
The financial crisis in 2008 had a significant local impact, particularly on small businesses in the area, many of which closed down. But The local population is close knit and has a strong tradition of social solidarity. There has been some recent migration from within the European Union and Africa and these communities have been relatively easily absorbed into the local population.
Although the educational level is relatively high in the area, there is a specific skills gap among adults in relation to modern technology and computer use. Being able to effectively participate in the knowledge economy and conduct ecommerce and engagement is as an important factor for the redevelopment of small and medium size enterprise.
Developing the new library
Since the 1600s Pistoia has had an impressive library housed in the historical centre of the town. The building is a beautiful example of Renaissance architecture. It also houses an important collection of historical manuscripts and books. However, the library was never well used by the local population. It had a circulation of around 23,000 loans per year and was mainly used by students and visiting scholars.
In 2000 a decision was made by the local Commune to build a new public library in the old industrial area of Pistoia. The new library was conceived as the centrepiece of a plan to kick-start redevelopment in the area, which had become derelict as local businesses moved to out-of-town locations. The site of the original Breda factory was chosen for the library, as a symbol of the renewal of the town and to signal the town’s optimistic ambitions for its future growth. The new library is known as “The Knowledge Factory”, in a nod to its industrial roots and is housed in a converted warehouse of around 1,700 square feet.
“We wanted to create a library that was for everyone. Where anyone could come and feel at home, but also see something interesting and engage with all kinds of cultural activities.”
The library was conceived as an indoor ‘piazza’ or public forum. It has a large glass-fronted atrium with a tree growing in the centre. The tree alludes to the main local industry of arboriculture, the traditional material of books, the idea of growth, hope and development, the tree of knowledge and is a central focus where people congregate and share shelter, conversation and ideas.
There is a large exhibition area and an auditorium with 100 seats which is used as a public meeting and performance space and there are several smaller reading activity and meeting rooms branching off it at ground and first floor level. There is a privately run café bar and two cinema halls integrated into the library building, as well as a computer media suite and maker space.
The construction of the library was funded entirely from local taxes and cost E10 million. It costs E1.5 million per year to run the library, including staff costs and overheads. These core running costs are funded by local taxpayers, but there is no additional public funding for activities, courses or cultural additions to the core library offer. These all have to be provided on a goodwill basis in collaboration with the local community.
Soon after the library opened, in 2007, the financial crisis hit Pistoia, along with the rest of Italy. Maria Stella Rasetti took over the running of the library in 2008, just as the financial crisis began. The planned redevelopment of the rest of the industrial quarter in the town was in danger as building work on other public and private projects temporarily ground to a halt.
“We had money for the staff and to keep the lights on, but little more. And we’d just built a big library in a small city, which already had a library. We were under pressure to demonstrate the difference we could make to the town, to be the beacon of hope for the future. But we had no publicity budget, let alone money to stage cultural or arts activities.”
Her solution was to rely on a network of partnerships with local schools, the university, local businesses, volunteering organisations and the Civil Service (a volunteering option for those who do not wish to undertake military service), as well as encouraging her library staff to plan and run their own events. The library now runs around 800 individual free events each year (nearly 3 per day), including courses, workshops, talks, exhibitions, cinema screenings, performances, public meetings and information events about local services and initiatives.
“We changed the way people in our town spend their free time. Where before they stayed at home or went into Florence on their days off, now they come here. They can do whatever they like – see an art exhibition, go on a course, read a book, hang out by themselves or catch up with friends. It’s the place of choice for the local community, and we have around 1,500 individual visits per day.”
The library averages 2 loans per head of local population per annum (in contrast with the national average of 0.5). And its open, collaborative approach hasn’t just changed the way the library is used, it has changed attitudes to the library among library staff and library users. Library staff, who used to act as protectors and conservators of the books, engage with users in new ways – for example putting reading recommendations inside cosmetics boxes, yoghurt pots branded “Healthy Mind” and boxes of vegetables for those on New Year health kicks.
“We don’t see ourselves as knowing more than anyone else, we’re there to welcome people and go on the journey with them”
And in return, the public value and feel involved in their new library:
“We haven’t had any vandalism, because people feel as though it’s their space. We started off creating a library for the people, but now it’s a library of the people”
The library has also fulfilled the original aim of regenerating a dilapidated area of Pistoia. There is now a school, University campus, healthcare centre, hotel and private apartment blocks where before there were only run-down warehouses and factories. The Commune is currently building a garden walkway to link the industrial zone with the historical town centre.
The free public events, courses and workshops at the library are designed around the principle of lifelong learning. The idea that learning does not stop when you leave school and that the library is the best place to deliver it is central to Maria Stella’s understanding of her mission:
“The library is the main social elevator we have at our disposal these days. It’s the best way to provide opportunities to all – schools can’t even out all social differences. Libraries offer free access to the most extraordinary opportunities which can help people to develop their working lives, their relationships and their interests. Libraries provide the opportunities but people can choose how they use them, they can create their own personal geographies using the tools offered by the library.”
Digital inclusion is a key element of the lifelong learning package offered by the library. People of all ages can take courses in anything from basic word processing, to how to safely use social media, to computer coding and 3D design.
“We stop people being ‘prisoners of technology’ and show them how they can be in control of it and use it in ways they never imagined. People come here all the time with a smart phone or a tablet – maybe they got it as a present or bought it, but they have no idea how to use it and in fact they are quite scared of it. But by the end they are crazy about the new technology, because they see what it can do for them – like being able to design and make something you need for your home using a 3D printer in the library, or take 100 books on holiday in just one Ereader.”
Many of the tutors are local young people and enthusiasts, keen to share their interest with others. Experts from the schools and universities also give up their time to host courses in everything from 3D printing to robotics.
“Some of our local robotics students are taking a robot they have made to an international Lego League in the USA”.
There are QR codes around the library building to signpost the resources available in different areas. A geo-tagged book trail leads readers through Pistoia’s historical town centre, allowing them to discover literature relating to their local monuments on their smart phones and share what they are reading with others in the community.
“We are taking digital activities out of the library and giving people a reason to engage with digital technology and the library, as they go about their daily lives.”
But it’s not all just new and cutting edge technologies. The older generations are bringing their own skills to hi-tech creativity and fabrication:
“We have a long tradition of domestic arts and handicrafts in Pistoia. People who are skilled in these traditional crafts are bringing their knowledge and translating it into new technologies – creating modern artefacts that blend old and new skills. This week we’re hosting a jewellery 3D printing workshop, for example.”
Maria Stella believes that by ensuring everyone has access to a broad range of new technologies, regardless of their ability to pay, the library is supporting the local population to benefit from the opportunities offered by the knowledge economy. But her vision is broader than just the economic benefits offered by digital inclusion:
“We used to bond together because of our shared roots, but now we can’t do that anymore – we’re all from different places. So the only thing we have in common is our shared experience of the present and our vision for the future. The library is the gateway to that shared future.”
When asked about whether digital activities are a core element of library work, or whether they are just a passing ‘fashion’, she is thoughtful:
“We should take all criticisms on board, because they help us to think about what we are doing. But libraries have always changed and absorbed new media and platforms for creativity. I don’t think digital activities are any different – and they must always be incorporated into the library’s core work. For us that is lifelong learning. If the maker space or media suite isn’t integrated into the library then of course, it won’t work. But here, it’s a logical part of what we do.”
Maria Stella’s thoughts on libraries in the 21st Century
For Maria Stella, the library has a fundamental role to play in 21st Century Europe.
“It is one of the most important agents we can use to form our contemporary citizens”
For her, libraries need to invest more in lifelong learning, rather than focussing only on activities for children and families. But there is no one model that is right for every community. Libraries need to look at the needs of their local populations and design their services to meet those needs, always aware that they are constantly changing and evolving.
“The library is a growing organism. We need to be ready to change, to make mistakes, to try something else. There are many different ways of being a library in the 21st Century.”
And she firmly believes that in the current economic climate, and given the new diversity of creative media, no library will succeed in its aims on its own. But the necessity of creating partnerships can become a virtue, and one that spreads beyond the library into the social fabric of the local community.
“We have all become poorer since 2008. We need to create networks and share what we have with people or we won’t survive. But this way of doing things can create a virtuous circle. It’s a model that can multiply outwards.”
Her final word is for librarians and library staff. They have not only to embrace new ways of working, but also need to recognise the importance of what they are doing.
“I always say that being a librarian is the most amazing job. I walk around in my home town feeling like I am making a difference to people’s lives and that my job matters. I call it ‘library pride’.”
(All images courtesy of San Giorgio Public Library)