Issue 3, 2015. June-July



Surrounded by apartment blocks, the late-1960s building was once the central hub of information for Georgian research institutions of the Soviet Union. A boost in funding has now given the National Scientific Library of Georgia the chance it needs to reinvent itself as a modern public library.

Heather Yundt

The library, founded in 1941 just days before the Soviet Union joined the Second World War, was the first building in Georgia built with the specific purpose of being a library. It rose to prominence as a valuable resource for scholars and scientists, hosting the largest foreign collection in Georgia. But the model the library was based on is no longer working.

"All these processes of globalization, digitization and so on give some challenges to libraries all around the world, especially academic libraries," the library's director, Irakli Garibashvili, said. "And all academic libraries are discussing: what is the mission of an academic library in modern days?"

How to push the library into modern times is a question Garibashvili has been asking himself since he started working at the library in 1993 as its only IT specialist. The library had just two personal computers at the time. A few years later, in 1997, Garibashvili introduced internet at the library — one of the first places with free internet access in Georgia.

After a few years away, Garibashvili returned to the library as its director. Though the number of people using the library's services is growing, it's not as active as he'd like.

"We have subscribed to so many databases and the usership is quite low. We put everything online openly, freely and so on, and again I think the usership is not enough," he said.

"That forces us to be very active and look around and see what's happening around us — not necessarily inside the library, not necessarily with the people who are already coming to the library, but in society. Because unfortunately the majority of society is not coming to this library, is never using this service, and many people have never even heard of this library."

"Maybe our potential users need something different."

Meanwhile, the UNDP in Georgia had been embarking on a shift of its own. About a year ago, the UNDP began to seek out and contribute to public service innovation in Georgia, which led it to support the creation of an Innovative Service Lab at the Public Service Development Agency. Sesili Verdzadze, the head of the agency's Innovations Management and Research Division, said the lab, which opened its doors last November, acts as a consultancy to organizations looking for new ideas.

"What we do as a lab is that we are here as an extra hand for different organizations and different government or private organizations who need our help. We have some skills in the development of new services, new concepts," Verdzadze said.

The UNDP and Innovative Service Lab were connected with the National Scientific Library through Rémi Boissonnas, the founder of the Tbilisi-based co-working space CospoT, who recognized the organizations' common interest in creating innovative spaces and services.

It was a perfect match.

Together the UNDP, Innovative Service Lab and the National Scientific Library held a redesign workshop that took up the question of the future of the library and put it directly to its potential users. About 30 students, professors, scientists and architects joined the two-day design brainstorming workshop in late March. The ideas that came out of the workshop were just as diverse as the people in it. Public lectures, maker spaces, co-working spaces, children's play areas and movie nights were just a few of the suggested services for the redesigned public library.

"I like how [the process] works," Garibashvili said. "Very different people meet, discuss, and the results are really very good. It's somehow surprising maybe, because when people have different backgrounds sometimes they have problems with communication. But in this case, they're all motivated to build something together."

"It was a first attempt to look at the library in a different way," said Khatuna Sandroshvili, a Social Innovations Specialist and Programme Associate at the UNDP in Georgia. "We realized that what people expect the library to be is not just a repository of information and knowledge but also a social space, a space where people can not only gain knowledge but also share and generate new knowledge."

The library's redesign has been given an added boost through a 140% increase in its budget this year, as well as additional funds for renovations.

The first step: renovating the physical space. A tour through the building takes me past stacks of old books playfully arranged in corners in the shape of forts and trees, through a dome-ceilinged room with a mosaic covering one wall, and into the dimly-lit labyrinth of the book storage. The building is grand, but well past its prime. "Now everything is problematic: ventilation, heating, electric supply," Garibashvili said. The vision for the library, however, extends beyond the physical space. "What we want to do is develop [a sense of] ownership for this library," Verdzadze said.

"Right now the library is a very traditional library where you go, you check something out or you read something, and we want it to be more dynamic than that," Tabatadze added. "Another thing we're looking to develop is a space between home and the office. That's kind of what's lacking in Georgia: something that's less formal than an office but also less isolating than home."

"We really lack this in Georgia: the comfort in libraries, accessibility to the books. In Georgia, you have to go to the librarian and then tell them I need exactly this book, and they will go and get it for you," Verdzadze said. "In other countries you can browse. When you are close to the books, your attitude towards the books changes."

The library's transformation could take years, but Garibashvili's goal is clear.

"[In the past, the library] was for scholars mostly, not for the general public. Now we are changing this. We are trying to be a public library."