Editorial: A new ‘open library’ concept

In striving for new public library concepts we see many fancy ideas presented. One of the most successful results in Denmark is the ‘open library’ concept. As all libraries are ‘open’, ‘open library’ is hardly a very apt term for a concept that allows users to access the library space in principle 24/7 and serve them- selves with loans and return materials. And use the computers, read or maybe even set up a meeting or an event, if the space allows it. In the first instance the term ‘open library’ was chosen as the concept was implemented in libraries that had typically been branches with short – and often inconvenient – opening hours. And ‘open library’ is also a term preferable to ‘self service library’, as this concept requires another kind of professional support enabling the users to complete the necessary transactions themselves and to find their way in the library.

In a few years this concept has spread to 80 libraries in Denmark and more are planned. The reasons for this fast spread of a new concept are several. First and foremost the concept is simple. All Danes have a medical card with a magnetic stripe and a bar code, and along with a pin code obtained at the library this card gives you access to the library. In the library there is a video camera, and during some of the opening hours there may be staff, but the principle is self-service at the automated loan and return desk. And in by far the most of the many opening hours, there is no staff at all.

A second cause for the success of this concept is immediate user accept. A typical model is that opening hours are from morning to late evening every day. And due to the log-in procedure there are valid user statistics. Users come and go all through the long opening hours. Forget about branches open a few hours at midday. The open library that I frequently use in a small village is open from 6. a.m. to midnight every day, and last time I used it was a Saturday evening, where there were five other users during the 20 minutes I was there.

A third good reason for the success, or even a prerequisite, is that for many years Danish libraries have worked with self-service in loan and return transactions, which means that a majority of users are familiar with selfservice procedures, which by the way are extremely simple.

What is really striking and astonishing – at least for me – is that the concept has spread from small villages with a high social control to more complex neighbourhoods in cities. And extremely few examples of theft and vandalism such as tagging and aggressive ruining of furniture have been reported. On the contrary, there seems to be a tacit agreement among citizens that this is a good spot for everybody, hard to be against, resulting in a common protection of the library. It seems that the public library has a position comparable to the church that has for centuries been run with open, unguarded houses.

The open library concept demonstrates that it is possible to create institutions that are under the protection of the public and are designed to meet citizens’ needs in a flexible way. It is likewise obvious that there is a potential for further development of the concept. A library director told me, that in their open libraries they often found traces of activities they did not know of. For instance all chairs in the library set up in a half circle revealing that some presentation had happened in front of them. “We actually give the library space back to the users. It is their library”, she said. The perspective in this is also a strengthening of the civil society and we need that badly.

Jens Thorhauge
Director General
Danish Agency for Libraries and Media
jth AT bibliotekogmedier.dk
Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor