New Libraries
Made By Users For Users

Library user
Library user | Photo (detail): © CandyBox Images -

Libraries of course are all about books and other media. There is, however, more to them than that. In some European countries the focus is more on the user and his interests and needs.

“Children don’t really like going to the library,” says a girl who is about 11 years of age, “Because it is boring to look at all those boring books.” She went on to say that children need space to move around more. She did in fact have quite a lot to say about what a library should look like. At a workshop organised by the library in the Danish town of Arhus children were allowed to use their imagination and give free rein to their ideas. Some of these can be seen in the video on the library’s website: bookshelves that can be climbed up, a bouncy castle, a ball pool, animals in a garden and fruit trees with swings on them.

The Danes are involved in the decision-making

The town of Arhus has been planning its new library for the last 15 years and has invited the people of Arhus to share their experiences and expectations with the planners and architects. The library’s partners, i.e. educational institutions, clubs and organisations which use the library, were also able to input their wishes and ideas. “They are all contributing skills that we don’t have in the library,” says Knud Schulz, the manager of the library in Arhus.The ideas that came about in the various workshops with children were not, however, integrated in the design as they stood. “That was not the plan in the first place anyway,” says Schulz. “They were meant to be food for thought for the architects – to help them empathise with the world of children.” One thing, however, became quite clear – a library should be more than just a series of bookshelves. Schulz is of this opinion, too. “The libraries of the future will be about more than just media, but also about people,” he explains. The media are just one of the many options available for users to satisfy their needs.

Everybody’s opinion is important

In Arhus the people’s ideas were gathered above all from discussion groups and workshops. One of the issues, for example, was the actual library building: How can people get to it? Where can they park their bicycles? How can they get from the underground station to the building? All age and interest groups were invited to take part. Special attention was paid to the needs of disabled people. “At meetings with them the question of how blind people, people in wheelchairs or people who are afraid of being in big rooms can be helped and motivated to come to the library,” explains Schulz. At the moment the interior design is being discussed. It is above all the library’s partner institutions that are involved in this process. What do they think the conference room should look like? What objects or equipment would have to be in the room? Monitors? Water dispensers? A coffee machine? Schulz reports on a lot of different groups that have been dealing with different areas of the design.

Still quite rare in Germany

According to Konrad Umlauf, Professor at the Institute for Library and Information Science at the Humboldt-University in Berlin, this kind of user participation in public libraries does not exist in Germany. There is, however, a long tradition of people getting involved on a voluntary basis. “User surveys are also often conducted,” he says, “whose aim is to evaluate what is currently available. Surveys or questionnaires to generate new products or services are in fact rare.” He thinks, however, that this information in particular would be of great use.

The construction of the new Central and Regional Library in Berlin might well be the first German library to incorporate users’ ideas in the planning. It is, however, still not quite sure whether the library will actually be built. Nevertheless the various concepts for getting users involved are being dealt with. “At the moment we are working on the development of user formats for individual topics,” says press officer, Anna Jacobi. The “Construction Blog” represents the first example of these user formats. This is where innovative concepts to be found in other libraries are presented, which then prompt the users to get involved in the discussion. The plan is that later they, too, will then write and post articles themselves.

Equally as user-oriented – the Birmingham Library

As in Arhus, the people of the British city of Birmingham were also involved in the development of the city’s new library. “What the people told us went straight into the design,” says Sara Rowell from the library in Birmingham, which was opened in September 2013. The building is connected to the theatre next-door, there is an amphitheatre and room for exhibitions, music performances, films and readings. “Our building shows that the library of the 21st century can be a dynamic, attractive forum for public life. The people have many more reasons for going to the library and this gives them more opportunities to educate themselves and to realise their own potential,” explains Rowell.In Birmingham, as is also the case in Arhus, users can make suggestions about what books or media should be purchased by the library, if they are not listed in its catalogue. Both libraries, however, do not allow their users to directly influence the purchase of new products. The Patron Drive Acquisition system (PDA) for e-books, which allows users to place direct purchasing orders for the library is not available at either library. The PDA system has only been used so far by scientific libraries.

The library as a multifunctional centre

At the new library in Arhus workshops and cultural events are also going to play an important role. Furthermore library manager Schulz also sees libraries as centres of innovation. Certain events are in the pipeline, especially those related to the “Maker-Culture”, which means the “Do-It-Yourself” culture of our electronic age. The focus at these events will be on what can be done with technological junk, for example, how an old iPad can be used for other functions. “This kind of thing is going to become very relevant,” says Schulz and explains that ideas like these do not, however, come about in our discussions with users, but mostly from the work we do together with partners like media people, youth organisations and other innovative bodies. “Most of the users still see only books and media in the libraries.” However, Schulz thinks that there has to be room in a library not only for the things the users know, but also for things they would not expect to find there.