Libraries Bring People Together
Important Despite the Internet

Library of the HU Berlin
Library of the HU Berlin | Photo (detail): © Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin/Matthias Heyde

Even in today’s digital age, libraries are losing none of their appeal for their users, finding themselves in more demand than ever as pleasant, inspiring and communicative places in which to learn and research.

In past centuries, libraries were the only places that offered access to important research sources. Nowadays, information is accessed increasingly – and in the sciences almost exclusively – via the Internet. Although researchers and students can comfortably tap into the world’s collected knowledge from the comfort of their desks at home, however, academic libraries are fuller than they have ever been.

“Reading places in the new library in the Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin are so coveted that parking discs have to be issued for occupied seats”, explains Petra Hauke, member of the Education & Training section at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and an assistant lecturer at the Berlin School of Library and Information Science at Humboldt-Universität. “If a user does not return to his or her seat within a set time, library staff will clear away their things to make space for other users.”

Inspiring, attractive and detached

Even – or perhaps particularly – in today’s age of digitization, libraries retain their appeal as inspiring spaces. “Right from the start, the new Philological Library of Freie Universität Berlin was overrun – not only by philologists, but also by large numbers of law students who brought their legal texts with them”, adds Petra Hauke. “They were interested ‘only’ in the attractive and inspiring space, not the library’s collection.”

Spectacular new buildings aside, libraries are perceived as places where one can feel at ease and is not exposed to any commercial or other temptations or distractions.

Genuine encounter and communication

It is not only the space itself that inspires library users, but also the proximity to other like-minded people who are concentrating on their work or wish to exchange ideas and views. “The more people find themselves sitting on their own in front of their computers, the more they seek out encounters with others”, says Hauke.

For Hauke, for example, the trend towards “conference tourism” is becoming increasingly apparent: “When digital communication emerged, many people thought there would no longer be any need to travel to conferences. In fact, the opposite is the case: more and more conferences are being offered and are extremely popular – and there too the most important exchanges do not necessarily take place during official presentations, but over a cup of coffee in the breaks.”

User- rather than collection-oriented

Increasing numbers of academic libraries are responding to this evidently growing demand. One example is the library at the University of Konstanz, which restructured its science library in 2011 – the first step involved evaluating the requirements of students and researchers.

“This showed that what academics need above all is direct electronic access to databases and journals, and that they only require something from the science library’s printed collection from time to time”, explains Oliver Kohl-Frey, deputy director of Konstanz University Library. “Students, on the other hand, not only need access to printed and electronic holdings, but most of all require individual study places and group working areas with a contemporary infrastructure.”

In consultation with the departments concerned, print versions of journals were then discarded that are now available electronically via national licences. “This alone meant we were able to sell, give away or recycle around 32,000 journals”, says Kohl-Frey, “freeing up space for us to restructure the science library.”

Space for work and relaxation

Besides additional individual workplaces, a new group work area with desks and office chairs was created. “Within just a few hours, it was occupied by students who took it completely for granted. Ever since, it has been in use for 75 percent of the time on average – and is fully occupied at peak times. Students rearrange the desks to suit their needs”, says Oliver Kohl-Frey.

A modern centre of learning also provides space for informal learning and for relaxation, however. “A separate reading corner was set up with comfy sofas, and there is a new drinks machine. What is more, we acquired additional loungers, which of course are used not only for sleeping.” The quality of life for library users in Konstanz was thus improved significantly within a short space of time. “And our example proves that this does not require a spanking new building or a huge investment budget.”