“Open Library”
A New Key to Borrowing Books

Key to knowledge
Key to knowledge | © Oleksandr, fotolia.com

Can libraries be used outside normal opening hours? With the “Open Library” concept it is possible. In Germany a pilot project has been in operation in Hamburg since December 2014. The model may serve as inspiration for similar projects across the country.

“A library's opening hours are often not geared to the needs of the library users”, sayd Carolin Rohrßen. She added that the Bücherhallen library in Hamburg – where Ms Rohrßen works as deputy director of the IT and organisation department – were, for example, open on weekdays from 11 am until 7 pm. “Many of our users, however, would like to avail themselves of what we have to offer either before or after our opening times, not to mention at the weekend.” In order to improve the way the library accommodates the users' needs Rohrßen and her colleagues looked to other countries to find out if they had any successful models they might adopt. In doing so they came across the concept of the Open Library – that has been in operation in Denmark since 2004.

Denmark as a role model

The principle is simple – during normal opening hours the library staff are present. “At other specified times the users can more or less open their library themselves”, explains Rohrßen. In Denmark – where there is generally no charge for borrowing library books – the health insurance card, which every citizen is in possession of, is used for this. In Hamburg the Finkenwerder branch library was chosen for the test project and its users gain access to the library by inserting their library membership card into a computerised scanner in the library's foyer. The first phase of this Open Library project in Hamburg was restricted to the library staff's lunch break. It is a small branch library, open on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the moment, that closes for lunch between the hours of 1 pm and 2 pm. For the duration of the break the users who are already in the library can stay there. Anybody who comes after 1 pm simply has to swipe his card through a scanning device in the foyer that allows the library's management system to check his or her data and verify him or her as a user.

Gradually more open

“Of course we had to set up a basis that would enable all our services to be used on site, but without any staff present”, explains Ms Rohrßen. She continued, the customer himself has to deal with the borrowing and returning process, as well as pay any possible fines that may have been imposed, into a machine. The technical prerequisites for this have more or less already been installed – since 2007 users have been able to scan any media available for borrowing at the Finkenwerder branch library into a self-service checkout terminal via radio frequency identification (RFID), the same process applies when the media are returned. Automated pay stations for paying fines and fees are to be installed this year.

The second phase of the Open Library non-staffed hours project is to focus on the time before the regular opening hours begin. “Something that in terms of logistics is going to be comparatively simple to realise,” says Rohrßen. She continued that providing access to the library in the evening was more of a challenge – this will be phase three in Finkenwerder.

Security and protection

The branch library is, on the one hand, fitted with loudspeakers that announce to the users that the library is about to close and they should leave the premises. On the other hand, it also has four cameras that keep an eye on the whole area of the library. If they register any movement on the premises of the library after closing, a security service is automatically informed. Rohrßen explained that the library had taken on a pioneering role with this camera surveillance. “We make sure that the legal parameters have been accurately clarified with the data protection officer in Hamburg, for example, how long we are allowed to store the data recordings.” The surveillance wasn't so much about the fear that somebody might steal one of the books, says the librarian. “It is above all about insurance-related issues.”

Control and trust

Ms Rohrßen of course often has to deal with the question asked by sceptics of possible theft and vandalism. In this context she likes to answer them by quoting the words of a Danish library director on the subject of the Open Library – “ It’s a balance between trust and control”. The first test pilot projects in Scandinavia were conducted in small towns that had a high degree of social cohesion, not unlike Finkenwerder. In the meantime, however, in Copenhagen there are now Open Libraries in districts that have a reputation for being social trouble-spots. So far there have not been any incidents worth mentioning.

Ms Rohrßen went on to report that about 80 percent of library opening hours in Denmark were non-staffed. A complete removal of staff is neither the aim of the Bücherhallen in Hamburg, nor in line with the wishes of the library's users. “On the contrary we often hear that the users really do not wish to do without a contact person on site,” she assures.

The 24-hour library?

Of course the model scheme in Hamburg is being avidly observed on the public library scene. Other towns are also planning to introduce Open Libraries. On the Der Westen portal there was recently a report on the Hemer Municipal Library intending to be open round the clock, which at first met with no political support.

Finkenwerder, on the other hand, is not striving to become a public library open round the clock. “The fact that our library management system is busy scanning the user accounts for our reporting system between the hours of midnight and 5 am means there has to be a natural break,” explains Ms Rohrßen. “We were not really expecting an onslaught of night owls anyway.” More and more customers would like to “be able to integrate their trip to the library flexibly into their daily routine.”