The Culture-Led Construction of the Urban Image: New Public Libraries in the Netherlands

  • Abstract:

    This paper deals with the role of culture and in particular of the cultural institution of the public library in the (re)construction of the urban identity in a context of an evolving postmodern cultural economy. Paralleling a cultural-turn in post-industrial socio-economics, the production of ‘signs’ of aesthetic contents supports logics of urban branding able to create desire and induce attractiveness through social and spatial identity. Accordingly culture becomes a local asset. A new generation of public libraries is increasingly becoming part of this narrative in a more efficacious way than other cultural institutes like theatres or museums. This rising urban relevance of public libraries is paralleled and supported by their transformation from introvert repositories of collections into hybrid, multifaceted institutions targeted upon the aspirations of a community. Libraries todays are environments of synchronic production and consumption of culture by ‘prosumers’; a collective access-door to digital marketplaces and platforms. This evolution is evident in the Netherlands too, where many contemporary urban projects involve a new public library as the cultural anchor for refreshing the urban image. These new libraries contribute in different ways to the construction / transformation of the plural identities of the urban setting: as field of negotiations among cultures and agencies; as an architectural image that embodies the re-envisioning of local urbanity; as a creative, value-making workshop forging the image of the community. It is thus interesting to read the parallelisms among the urban image of the city, the branding topics, and the type of public library: an anatomy of its architecture, programming and strategic management. Drawing upon available research on city-library relationships this paper will discuss recent Dutch experiences emphasizing the connections between different local urban images and identities, and their strategic construction between design and community participation.