Libraries as Sharing Partners
Anything but Old-Fashioned

German National Library in Frankfurt am Main – also a part of the share economy
Photo (detail): © Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz

In libraries knowledge and things have been exchanged from time immemorial. They are part of the share economy, even if many are unaware of this. But the “sharing” trend places libraries before a new challenge.

Whether books, cars or food, sharing is the new having. The share economy, the systematic mutual providing of things, spaces and areas, and the sharing of information and knowledge, is becoming increasingly popular. Libraries have long been an important part of the share economy, but in this connection are seldom mentioned in first place.

“Libraries are often seen as something to be taken for granted, something that has always been around”, says Andrea Krieg, head of the Karlsruhe Public Library. “But the idea that we’re pursuing is anything but old-fashioned. Perhaps we can find another terminology to make this clearer.”

Libraries are market places

Libraries have always been a guarantee of affordable access to cultural goods and information. The public institution of the library offers itself to its users as a “sharing partner” and gives sharing an institutional framework. Without commercial motives, it shares books, DVDs and CDs, and electronic borrowing makes it possible to use many media anytime and anywhere. A “third place” alongside the workplace and the home, libraries offer their users the opportunity to take part free of charge in the activities of other people, to learn computer applications for example. With forms of organization such as co-working, large public libraries above all want to address a new target group and win them for their services.

Diverse versions of sharing

The scope of library services in Germany in terms of sharing and exchange is diverse. The share economy in libraries also means access to streaming services. Libraries acquire licenses for music and films. But they also pay for Open Access access to online journals and databases. But the idea of sharing and exchange includes not only taking but also giving. For example, the Munich Public Library offers language tandems in which the interlocutors can deepen their knowledge of the respective foreign languages. At the Makerspace workshops of the Cologne Public Library, participants can learn from one another how to build a robot or a birdhouse.

At the Stuttgart and Bremen Public Libraries, users can borrow artworks free of charge, take them home and enjoy them within their own four walls. The “Living Library” of the public library Am Gasteig in Munich even offers the opportunity to “borrow” a human being for half an hour and ask about his or her unusual profession or country of origin.

Particularly intense is the exchange of already-read books. The opportunity to exchange already-read literature in private possession for not-yet-read books is offered at various bookcases, converted telephone booths and small display cases in public space. Here, often under the auspices of libraries or citizens’ initiatives, reading material changes hands quite without having to produce a library card. Libraries further offer virtual and physical meeting places for reading groups and book clubs. One example is initiatives such as the Leipzig Youth Literature Jury, where twenty young people meet in libraries to present selected novels to their peers.

Meeting the competition with future-oriented offerings

Libraries have therefore long been a part of the share economy. But increasingly they have had to face competition from private providers. For instance, in the field of media the share economy is also practiced outside the world of libraries. Services such as Free Little library Bookelo and many others offer virtual platforms for exchanging and sharing books. Will libraries someday no longer be needed because the exchange of books and other media will take place in a decentralized form, disregarding them? In their status as non-profit institutions libraries have a unique selling point that distinguishes them from the commercialization of other providers. Vigilant observation of the share economy scene, moreover, can put libraries on to new ideas and give them the opportunity of adapting their traditional mission to trends. Through new event formats, comfortable facilities and qualified advice, libraries can create a sustainable added value that sets them apart from online barter clubs.