The Library Landscape in Germany An Overview

Reading room at the German National Library of Economics in Kiel
Reading room at the German National Library of Economics in Kiel | Photo (detail): © ZBW Kiel/Stefan Vorbeck

The library landscape in Germany is vibrant and diverse. Around 11,000 libraries, all with their own specialist areas and target groups, ensure that access to information and knowledge is as barrier-free as possible.

State and national libraries which preserve valuable manuscripts; public lending libraries which provide people in cities, towns and communities with a source of modern media; academic libraries which support researchers and students with a full spectrum of services; libraries for children and young people that motivate the next generation to read; school libraries which impart information literacy and the joy of reading; specialist libraries that collect literature on specific topics; mobile libraries that serve remote communities: the library landscape in Germany is extraordinarily colourful and diverse.

What is more, its history spans many hundreds of years, the first monastic libraries having been established in the sixth century AD. Today there are some 11,000 libraries in Germany.

Often visited and much used

The German Library Statistics, a survey in which by no means all libraries take part, recorded around 8,500 libraries at a total of approximately 10,700 locations in 2010. Among these are some 2,100 public libraries run by full-time staff plus around 240 academic libraries, which include university, state and national libraries.

The majority of these libraries is funded by local authorities and Germany’s federal states. With over 4,000 libraries run by full-time, part-time and voluntary staff, churches also account for a considerable proportion of the total.

Libraries in Germany are visited around 680,000 times every weekday: attracting 205 million visitors a year, they are the most heavily used cultural and educational institutions. In 2010, over 10 million Germans were active library users – and 474 million media were borrowed.

Decentralized organization

Organization of the German library sector is decentralized because culture and education in Germany’s federal system are generally the responsibility of the individual federal states. In stark contrast to many other countries, there is no central institution here that is responsible for national planning and control of library affairs, nor is there any national law governing libraries. Since 2008, state-wide library laws have been passed in Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Hesse, and similar laws are also under discussion in other states.

For a long time Germany had no national library. This was primarily because the Federal Republic of Germany was officially established only fairly recently as compared to other European nations and because the country was divided after the Second World War. The German National Library, with its sites in Leipzig, Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, has only borne this name since June 2006. The largest library in Germany in terms of its holdings, it collects copies of all German-language media published in Germany or abroad.

Rich in tradition yet modern

Even today, many duties of national importance are still performed by other large and traditional libraries, such as the Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage and the Bavarian State Library in Munich. Furthermore, there are three centralized specialist libraries: the German National Library of Economics (ZBW) in Kiel and Hamburg, the German National Library of Medicine (ZB MED) in Cologne and Bonn and the German National Library of Science and Technology (TIB) in Hanover.

In all other cases, the supply of academic literature is organized in a decentralized manner. Within the Special Subject Collection Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG), each field of knowledge is assigned to a specific academic library.

Innovative and creative

German libraries see themselves as guarantors of free access to information and knowledge. They tirelessly broaden their range of services in an attempt to offer their users barrier-free access – as far as possible – to media in different forms. Alongside books, newspapers and magazines, these are above all CD-ROMs, DVDs, Blu-rays, music CDs, videos, games, audio books and eBooks. In total, German libraries provide their users with 364 million media items.

The range of digitized media offered by libraries via the Internet – irrespective of time and place – is growing steadily. Nonetheless, physical libraries, many of which are housed in imposing traditional or modern buildings, continue to be places where people meet and pursue lifelong learning. In today’s information society, librarians are serving more than ever before as navigators, teaching reading, information and media skills in all kinds of different ways to users of all ages.