The German library system
Diverse. Cooperative. Endangered?

Reading room of the Berlin Staatsbibliothek
Reading room of the Berlin Staatsbibliothek | Photo (detail): © SBB-PK / C. Kösser

With eight thousand libraries, ranging from small local branches right up to the country’s national library, the German library system is impressive for its diversity. All the same, tight budgets and a lack of national structures are making their presence felt.

With more than 30 million media items, and another 1,000 new items arriving every day, the German National Library (DNB) with its branches in Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig has the job of collecting and archiving all German-language media published since 1913. Although it is one of the jewels in the crown of the German library system, it actually does not properly reflect it; this is because the national library is financed by the federal government, whereas education and culture in Germany are the responsibility of the individual states.

One key feature of the German library system, as well as being one of the reasons for its diversity, is its decentralized structure. There has never been a central state in Germany, so education and culture have never been administered in the country’s capital, as for example is the case in France. Instead, there were small and even smaller territories in which a large number of independent libraries evolved.

Almost ten thousand libraries

In 2015, the DBS – the German Library Statistics – counted 7,877 libraries; the number is actually closer to ten thousand if all branches are included. Germany’s local authorities and districts jointly run roughly 3,700 libraries, including public libraries, children’s, youth and school libraries, mobile libraries, music libraries, libraries for the blind, prison libraries and hospital libraries. Almost 3,900 libraries are financed by the churches.

In addition to the country’s public libraries, Germany has some 250 academic libraries, most of which are funded by state-level governments. By contrast, the federal government pays for only a handful, including the DNB and the Library of the German Bundestag. 

With 218 million visits per year according to the DBS, libraries are amongst Germany’s most popular cultural institutions – partly because they ensure free access to information. In 2015, ten million active users borrowed nearly 450 million media items. In total, there were 375 million media items in their collections.

The German National Library (DNB) The German National Library (DNB) in Frankfurt | Photo (detail): © Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, Stephan Jockel Apart from the DNB, libraries of national importance include the Berlin State Library and the Bavarian State Library in Munich, the country’s two central universal libraries. Three central libraries specializing in particular subject areas also play their part in providing nationwide library services: the German National Library of Science and Technology in Hanover, the German National Library of Medicine in Cologne and Bonn and the German National Library of Economics in Hamburg and Kiel. 

Unlike in two thirds of other European countries, there is no national library law in Germany to ensure that libraries receive funding or to stipulate that local authorities have to maintain them. It was only with difficulty that state-wide library laws were passed in Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia, Hesse and Saxony-Anhalt. In North Rhine-Westphalia, a consultation process on whether to introduce such a law is currently (as of 2016) underway. 


Because of the decentralized structure of the German library system, there is an absence of robust national structures and institutions which could steer the development of libraries and represent their interests. Cooperation in all library areas is therefore essential – for example when it comes to expanding collections, cataloguing or inter-regional borrowing.

German librarians have set up a number of highly active associations. Library staff have joined forces in a professional association for information and libraries called the “Berufsverband Information Bibliothek” (BIB) and in the “Association of German Librarians” (VDB), while the “German Library Association” (dbv) represents the institutions themselves. The individual associations are represented by an umbrella organization named the “Federal Union of German Library and Information Associations” (BID), to which the Goethe-Institut and the ekz.bibliotheksservice GmbH (ekz) belong.

Almost all academic libraries work together in six regional networks. Among other things, they maintain a joint catalogue listing all the media of the participating libraries, and offer a remote lending service for media not available in a particular location. There is no national catalogue of library holdings in Germany. This job is done by the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalog, which searches the databases of more than 70 regional and international catalogues as well as the online book trade.

A lack of funding, but plenty of ideas

Nonetheless, there are now roughly 1,800 libraries fewer than there were in the year 2000, according to the DBS. Many libraries are battling with drastic cuts to their funding. As the dbv’s 2016 report on the situation of libraries shows, 35.9 percent of those institutions surveyed do not believe that it is possible to expand their range of digital services on their current budget. Almost one in two libraries lack the money to recruit additional staff.

What with budget and job cuts and the emergence of new media, the conditions faced by libraries have changed. They are responding to this in all kinds of different ways. Contemporary library concepts often involve offering places where it is very pleasant to spend time. Reading cafés and “maker spaces”, in which users can experiment with new technologies such as 3D printers or virtual reality glasses, are no longer uncommon. Increasingly, libraries are also pinning their hopes on digital media, offering a wide range of events for different target groups. The challenge of the 21st century is clear: to preserve the diversity and importance of libraries in Germany.

Jürgen Seefeldt und Ludger Syré: Portale zu Vergangenheit und Zukunft. Bibliotheken in Deutschland. 4. Aufl. Hildesheim; Zürich; New York, 2011.

Engelbert Plassmann (u.a.): Bibliotheken und Informationsgesellschaft in Deutschland. Eine Einführung. 2. Aufl. Wiesbaden, 2011.