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Libraries at the Goethe-Institut
On smart oases, Gameboxes and mobile libraries

Language Students in the Library of the Goethe-Institut Cairo
The Library as a Learning and Communication Space: Language Students in the Library of the Goethe-Institut Cairo | Photo (detail): Goethe-Institut/Bernhard, Ludewig

Goethe-Institut President Klaus-Dieter Lehmann offers a comprehensive insight into the library work of the Goethe-Institut against the backdrop of global social change. This article first appeared in June 2018 in a Festschrift published on Thomas Bürger’s 65th birthday entitled “Kooperative Informationsstrukturen als Chance und Herausforderung” (i.e. Cooperative Information Structures as an Opportunity and Challenge).

By Klaus-Dieter Lehmann

The year 1995 marked a turning point for the Goethe-Institut: this global German cultural institution embarked on its first tentative steps into the digital era by attempting to establish an Internet presence. While this was initially limited to the “Where? Who? What? and When?” of its cultural events and language courses – ultimately making it nothing but a PR tool – it quickly became clear that the Web could also be used as an effective instrument for leveraging German cultural relations and education policy abroad. However, there then followed some fairly lively debates about how much time, effort and cost we could save ourselves if we were to switch predominantly to a digital rather than an analogue presentation of our content: while the first step involved scrutinizing our own printed products, and then discontinuing them to a considerable extent, the discussion soon turned to the more than 100 libraries that the Goethe-Institut still maintained on the world’s five continents. And rightly so, many people said, predicting that the Goethe libraries with their extensive media collections encompassing everything from Schiller to Böll had clearly had their day given that everything would be accessible online in the foreseeable future. And rightly so was also said by those who believed that the Goethe-Institut’s remit to “convey a comprehensive and contemporary picture of Germany” should be fulfilled solely by the online content provided by InterNationes and the Goethe-Institut. Yet these arguments were roundly refuted by critics who began to make their voices heard and who continued to believe that libraries had more to offer than simply long and dusty shelves full of the classics.
Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Instituts Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Goethe-Instituts | Photo: Herlinde Koelbl Over the course of their lengthy history, libraries have seen technical transformations time and time again. Not one of these was as radical as the digital transformation, however. When it comes to digital processes and publications, it is a question of more than merely viewing, selecting and managing; it is about safeguarding intellectual property, about unrestricted accessibility, and about transparent processes that should not be dictated only by a market-driven mindset. The crucial point, both for the general public and for the cultural and academic institutions, will be to combine the advantages of the digital medium with the standards applied to the previous physical storage media in such a way as to ensure that our cultural memory remains a public good.
Digital publications have some attractive properties: they can be accessed flexibly, they allow text, images and sound to be combined, they can be updated easily and they are interactive. There is no reason to reject or refuse to use this medium – after all, it simply offers too many interesting possibilities. Ultimately, it will be unrealistic for users to abstain from the digital world. The risks lie not in the consequences of the medium but in a lack of responsible usage. The pluralistic structures in terms of the content offered present new levels of freedom: the freedom not only to follow the influences of technology and economics, but to recognize and take advantage of the specific qualities of the medium in question. This should be what guides us.
In 2017, the Goethe-Institut recorded over 34 million visits to its websites and one million visits to the 100 libraries it still maintains. It would appear that both were right – the sceptics and the supporters of the digital transformation.
Thus the new technology has not replaced the traditional tried and tested ways, just as television did not replace radio in the twentieth century, and streaming services today are not replacing television with its fixed viewing schedules, even if some broadcasters are struggling. What is true, however, is that the new technology has brought about a fundamental shift – a shift in the way we consume media, in the way we learn and in the ways in which content of all types is created and accessed. For the Goethe-Institut and German cultural relations and education policy, digitization offers great opportunities and challenges, yet it does not question on any fundamental level whether a physical on-site presence – in our case at 160 locations around the world – might no longer be necessary. It does change the form and function of this physical presence, however.
Promoting the German language, international cultural exchange, access to educational offerings and the provision of information relating to Germany represent the core remit of our German cultural institution, as laid down in the statutes of the Goethe-Institut. Ever since the turning point in 1995, digitization has helped increase the range of its services, and thus also their reach, making many of them available at any time of day and allowing us to enter into dialogue with our partners and customers in entirely new ways.
Classroom-based lessons continue to constitute the core business of our German courses, though online and blended learning programmes are enjoying double-digit growth rates each year. While just a few years ago sensitive and heavy rolls of 35 mm film would be dispatched for the numerous German film festivals, Digital Cinema Packages nowadays enable inexpensive, secure and easily copiable access. Whereas lesson and seminar material would have to be created on site or sent out to the farthest-flung corners of the world in the past, it is now accessible to everyone at any time at the click of a mouse. These days, the Goethe-Institut runs Moderated Open Online Courses, has established a “Deutsch für Dich” learner community that already boasts 300,000 active members, has made “digital classroom registers” and “learning platforms” the global standard and takes part in the “Digital Concert Hall” in cooperation with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. More than 3,000,000 fans and followers track and comment on our activities in the social media. The possibilities are far from exhausted, and range from video-on-demand services and digital German exams to “social reading” and even “social translating”, the latter being a collaborative approach to text translation on online platforms.
The Goethe-Institut did well to establish a forward-looking digital strategy in 2013 which – no matter how much speculation there may be about the next digital technology that no doubt will be just as disruptive again – places the focus squarely on this issue within the organization, thereby paving the way for the necessary innovation drive, both internally and externally.
The Goethe-Institut likewise did well to approve at the same time a new concept for its global network of libraries; its aim was not to change the core essence of the libraries but to bring about a shift in their key functions. Looking back now, one rather dramatic way of describing this might be to say that it was only by fundamentally transforming them that it was possible to prepare the libraries for the future. As a president of the Goethe-Institut who comes from the world of books and still feels very much at home there, I would like to highlight this by quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Only that which changes will remain.”
Let me list some topics and give some examples to illustrate this transformation:

From a space for media to a space for users

While the Goethe-Institut’s libraries essentially had a monopoly on “access to information about Germany abroad” until the 1990s, they have lost this status now as a result of digitization. It is no longer necessary to visit a Goethe library in order to find out about Germany’s general elections, the book prize or Beuys, as this information can equally well be accessed elsewhere. Where our services used to be fairly comprehensive and rather unspecific, we now see a trend towards focusing on particular themes, concentrating library collections and – above all – creating space. The long aisles and high shelves have been removed as people have become more conscious of the need to make libraries are pleasant place in which to spend time. And people should come to the library not only for a brief visit to pick up a book. One good example is the Goethe-Institut in Bratislava, where library staff no doubt found it painful to get rid of old books they had become attached to, yet the space that was freed up as a result is now available to be used as a cinema, café and exhibition area; for the first time, the basic raison d’être of a library – sharing and exchanging – was extended to include everyday items, turning the institution into a library of things. The integrated concept resulted in a surge in visitor numbers and lowered the average visitor age considerably.

Enabling collaborative learning and working

A library should be a place where one enjoys spending time and that one visits not only to study silently on one’s own but also to engage in animated exchange, to take part in workshops and labs, and to attend readings and seminars. To reconcile these needs with a library’s core function, it is necessary to create distinct zones – both in terms of time and space – that enable visitors to coexist peacefully and that may even generate positive synergetic effects. Digital technology can likewise play a useful role here: the widespread use of RFID and self-checkout systems for example allows opening hours to be extended considerably and thus permits wider use of the multifunctional library.
One extreme example of this is the library run by the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg, which reopened last summer. A zone with the catchy name “Hub” was created there, without impinging on the library’s core function: it offers creative entrepreneurs the opportunity to secure a place for themselves in an inspiring environment for a period of six months. And alongside the Hub, there is also the Gamebox, where visitors can familiarize themselves with and try out the latest digital computer games. A curated selection of games from Germany and South Africa is permanently on offer there, and is being expanded all the time. High-tech devices such as Ultra HD screens, Playstations, Xbox and Switch consoles and virtual reality headsets create the perfect environment in which to embark on new games and new experiences. One particular focus is on the presentation of projects by independent developers and gaming start-ups.

Taking centre stage 

If libraries put themselves in a position to assume new functions, they will have an opportunity to “take centre stage” in everyday life. No longer will they be on the fringes, they will become a central playing field within the institute; one that is open and freely accessible, that addresses and engages with topical issues and that has relevance for the other functions of the institute.
This is something that the Goethe-Institut in Prague has made a firm part of its agenda: thanks to their gallery character, the thematic areas designed in cooperation with the Central State Library in Berlin are one central element of a focus on topics and genres such as “Refugees”, “Poetry” and “Science Fiction”. While films about a particular topic are screened, discussions take place and reading lists are compiled, the thematic area takes the visitor on a three-dimensional and synesthetic journey further into the topic. And does so of course through simultaneous presentations in both the physical and digital spheres.

The place

Libraries have once again become “the place”: a place offering freedom and space for dialogue, a meeting point, a place for an intellectual community. Someone who spends hours commuting between work and home (or stuck in traffic) in Mumbai or Jakarta will be happy to have the chance to visit a freely-accessible library on the way, taking time out for themselves, exchanging thoughts and ideas with like-minded people and taking control of their own life. The libraries of the Goethe-Institut branches in India – which were initially closed down in the early 2000s – have been successfully reopened, partly because they were regarded as a vital place of learning for the increasingly numerous learners of German there, but also because they provide precisely that oasis of calm in the hustle and bustle of the city that is not available elsewhere. As such, the library itself contributes something to the development of the urban domain – incidentally also bringing people to the Goethe-Institut who would not otherwise have come here. In today’s fast-paced and fleeting world, this openness and this diversity of services, providing people with ideas and contacts, serves as a social anchor.
There is one place that I would like to mention in particular. It is the newly-designed Goethe-Institut in Beijing, which was originally an industrial plant where radio communication components were manufactured. It opened in the artists’ quarter 798 in 2015 and, surrounded by a thriving art and culture scene, is a public space for exchange and is open for encounters and events. Does it not have a nice symbolic significance that a site of technical communication has been reinvented as a genuine place for human communication, and for Sino-German cultural dialogue? After 27 years of the Goethe-Institut in China, this is the first time that a place has been created on a generous scale that can provide a nuanced range of services, with the library at its heart – and featuring exemplary modern interior design to boot. At the same time, this place is a technological machine that has every possibility to support academic, scientific and cultural dialogue. Wang Hui, one of China’s most prominent intellectuals and a professor of literature and history at Tsinghua University in Beijing, expressed this as follows: “What I would like to see is a new public space in which intellectuals from China and Germany could work together. To do this, we need joint knowledge. We must find common ground through the debates, though this does not mean that there will be no differences.” We have created exactly this place!

Finding one’s way through the digital jungle

If digitization can be described as an expansive movement through space and time, then one path also leads us back from the digital to the physical domain. We make “the digital visible” and help people to find their way through the digital jungle. In this context, one should initially mention all of the advice that is provided which cannot be found via Google and the like. Access to press databases, open access sources and specialized knowledge – in many cases it is only the Goethe-Institut branches and their libraries that offer such services. A basic level of digital equipment that enables collaborative working on site is just as desirable as active engagement on the part of the library with a view to improving the media and information skills of its customers and partners. Perhaps this could be illustrated by the motto “From Collection to Connection”, as the Goethe-Institut in Warsaw is currently doing.

Setting an example

What strikes one when one enters the newly-built Goethe-Institut in Cairo, besides the numerous notices advertising “German courses now also available at night” and “Additional exam dates at the weekend”, is the notice that confidently invites one to visit “Egypt’s most modern library”. This can also be one of the roles of the Goethe-Institut: by engaging in liaison work and dialogue, and especially by providing examples of good practice, to give impetus to the local scenes and encourage people to do things differently than in the past – while always remaining on an equal footing with its partners, however. The “Smart Oasis” (Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 17 March 2017) in Cairo sets an excellent example: it offers an attractively presented media collection that is tailored to learners’ needs, a flexible room that can be used in whichever way is required, the latest digital equipment, supplementary online services and continuing education programmes for the country’s librarians.

Being flexible and allowing different options

Besides established standards (a library management system, a standard for digital equipment), it has been found that building as much capacity as possible in a complex global network – and leaving this capacity in place – is the best way forward, and that this must be done where it will be in good hands: on site! In the international context, functional and aesthetic questions can only be answered at the local level, and the same applies to ascertaining user habits and needs. Restructuring always involves a degree of capacity building, and requires motivation and enthusiasm that need to be driven by colleagues who for the most part are rooted in the local area and must learn to take part in an intercultural dialogue. We also need the courage to experiment, and to see both successes and failures as learning experiences of equal value. Confronted with a difficult political setting, the Goethe-Institut in Ramallah for example decided to load its media onto a bus and to tour through the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Goethe mobile libraries are now also to be found travelling around the Nile Valley, through Anatolia and Lebanon. Hairdressing salons have turned out to be the ideal places for mini-libraries and swap shops in West Africa, while the Southeast European equivalent are the “Budki”, where books and other items such as food, alcohol and tobacco are sold. Refugee camps in Jordan, North Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon feature “Ideas Boxes”: mobile cultural centres that offer not only puppet theatres, film screenings and a reading corner, but most importantly the chance to work digitally, to browse, to educate oneself and to establish contact with the world. Innovations come from the periphery!

Offering freedom

If one were looking for one word to summarize the various developments, “freedom” might be the most apt. The Goethe-Institut has extensive experience of working in repressive societies and under political pressure. In many cases it is precisely the branches of the Goethe-Institut which provide space for free and uncensored exchange and which offer access to positions and information that would not otherwise be available outside this protected domain. This may be the most lofty function of a Goethe-Institut in an era characterized by growing censorship and repression, and by a lack in many places of the freedom necessary to think one’s thoughts, experience inspiration and share experiences. As Goethe himself put it: “We don’t get to know people when they come to us; we must go to them to find out what they are like.” This element of a dialogue of practical action, that also provides answers, should be an indispensable element of the libraries of the Goethe-Institut branches in the world.


Last but not least, it is versatile access to education that can be organized in and with a library. In this context, particular attention should be paid to improving the opportunities for girls and women. The extent to which they are hindered in accessing education is striking, and yet they play a crucial role in paving the way to a better future. This focus on education is particularly important in developing countries and emerging economies. In her speech to the United Nations, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said the following: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” This is why many Goethe-Institut branches and their libraries have made education for girls and women, through the promotion of literacy and knowledge acquisition, an integral part of their programmes.

These days, digital media likewise play an important role when it comes to the emancipation of women in these countries. “I am Science” provides digital learning services for mobile devices – both for basic knowledge and specific educational qualifications. South Africa is currently the focus for knowledge acquisition for girls and women. There are numerous important women who have shaped and continue to shape Africa’s countries and societies. Only very few of them are to be found in the world’s leading knowledge databases such as Wikipedia. Through the “Wiki loves Women” project, WikiAfrica and the Goethe-Institut are keen to reduce this deficit and have begun to initiate entries by and about women.
These few examples illustrate how new technologies can foster creative and independent developments and how they can contribute to stabilizing networks.

Digital influence and responsibility

The influence of the digital world has become too great for us to simply wait and see what happens. This influence is changing not only the publishing world, libraries, access to education and the availability of knowledge. Ultimately, all sectors of life will be affected. The carelessness with which people make their personal data available on the one hand, and the need to do so on the other hand as all economic and societal activities are transformed into solely digital processes, means that hardly any other alternatives are possible. Jürgen Habermas talks of our life worlds being colonialized. And indeed we need to consider the fact that real people may find their lives dictated by digital processes.
The Internet plays an important role for libraries. Time and place become irrelevant, and access to extensive stocks of knowledge and literature becomes possible. Nonetheless, there will not be one universal knowledge, but many stores of knowledge. This is why it is so important for libraries to ensure secure access to and transfer of knowledge. Libraries should also see that they have a responsibility to reflect time and again on the effects of the digital transformation on culture, science and society. Libraries must be in a position to assess the opportunities and risks on the basis of their own competence, and must be recognized as experts.

First published: Klaus-Dieter Lehmann (2018). Von smarten Oasen, Gameboxen und fahrenden Büchern. In Achim Bonte, Juliane Rehnolt (Eds.), Kooperative Informationsinfrastrukturen als Chance und Herausforderung: Festschrift für Thomas Bürger zum 65. Geburtstag (pp. 268–276). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.