Interview with Dr. Hannelore Vogt Always one step ahead: On the success of new library concepts

Airman im Konzert
© Stadtbibliothek Köln

Dr Hannelore Vogt, head of Cologne’s prize-winning city library, talks to us about the relevance of libraries in the digital age, whether the term “library” still fits and about her own library’s recipe for success.

Public libraries in Germany are offering users more and more new services above and beyond curated media collection. Is the word “library” still up to date?

Well, not entirely, libraries are actually more than that. But at least libraries still have to do with books and the word “library” has positive connotations. People associate it with trust and reliability. Since there’s no really suitable word in German for what libraries represent nowadays, it does make sense to stick to “library” for “branding” purposes.

“Those looking for content don’t need libraries anymore,” Rafael Ball, head of the ETH Zurich said recently in the Swiss daily NZZ. What are German libraries doing to remain relevant in the digital age?

Libraries have never merely provided information. In certain cases I may be able to procure information very easily on the Internet. But libraries do a whole lot more. They connect the dots, they educate, and generate knowledge. We have observed, for example, that libraries are increasingly used as places for people to learn together and exchange with one another. That goes far beyond mere information to include a wide range of different aspects of learning – not just conventional book learning and e-learning, but learning through inspiration and spontaneity, through interchange and autonomous action. In these respects, the library is still relevant.

In certain kinds of activities, users are no longer just “consumers” or participants, they become actors themselves, passing their knowledge on to others. In digital learning workshops, for example, or workshops in our so-called MakerSpace, where schoolchildren as “Junior Experts” impart their knowledge to grownups.  Serial events such as our Science Slam likewise contribute to new kinds of learning and go far beyond conventional learning formats.

Your library, the Cologne City Library, was named Library of the Year in 2015. What is the basis of your successful library concept?

Part of our innovation management is that we don’t want to wait until something is established – we act proactively. Our young co-workers observe the scene in the city, besides which we keep up to date through trend reports and trade fairs for various industries, such as the tech sector, for example. We’re guided by new trends, on the basis of which we develop our library’s range of services. In the reasons they gave for the award, the jury made special mention of the fact that we consistently incorporate innovative and creative approaches into a rigorous clear-cut strategy and have the courage to try out new things. Sure, there’s always a risk of making a mistake once in a while, but at least we’re always one step ahead. Partnerships with unusual partners are part of our recipe for success. We cooperate with co-working spaces, with FabLabs – in other words, open workshops – and with schools that give iPad classes or work with mini-robots.

Your library is becoming more and more of a social venue. How does that go down with your sponsors and your public?

These days our sponsors are, of course, raising the same question as Mr Ball: do we really need physical libraries anymore? And yet as social venues, libraries are key components for our stakeholders. Social interaction that is cross-generational, inclusive – for immigrants, too – and participative makes the library a social and profoundly democratic place, which is a key component for us and our users. This is why we don’t argue based on lending figures anymore, but on user numbers, which puts us in a context together with other cultural institutions. Our library in Cologne has more visitors than all the city’s municipal museums put together. Sponsors and politicians always want to see our figures and statistics in addition to our substantive activities. When I submit our usage figures, it’s very convincing.

You’ve just won an award as part of the European Week 2016 on the theme of “Arriving in Germany”. What does your library stand for in this regard?

A great many refugees are coming to Germany these days. This is an important social issue, an important issue in our city. We’re part of this city, so we’re addressing this issue too and playing an active part. Besides, language and language teaching is an important part of our work, so this is right up our alley.

What is your next project?

That’s very hard to answer because we have at least ten new projects. In the area of e-learning, for example – Apple wants to develop content for its e-learning platform with us. We’re also planning language acquisition projects: we want to develop an app for refugee children to learn German and an app for guided class tours of the library. Our “Fathers Read Aloud” programme, on the other hand, is a very traditional project about reading aloud to children – involving fathers from societies that don’t have a tradition of reading aloud.

In closing, one last question about library staff: how can the library management lay the foundations necessary for personnel to adapt to processes of change?

In addition to partnerships with other establishments, our staff are a key factor in the library’s success. Since we usually work with permanent staffers, it’s important to involve the whole workforce in the change. For project development purposes, first we put together an innovation team that works across various levels of the hierarchy. The whole team are then briefed and trained for the new projects, for which we also use internal blogs and wikis. Participation, communication, information are key elements in implementing change. If the staff don’t go along with it, then it won’t bring the library forwards either.

Hannelore Vogt © Hannelore Vogt Dr. Hannelore Vogt studied library science, art history and cultural management and did her PhD in marketing on the subject of customer focus. Since 2008 she has been the head of the Cologne City Library, which won the award for Germany’s “Library of the Year” in 2015. Before that she was the head of the Würzburg City Library for nearly 15 years, which also won the “Library of the Year” award.