Viewpoint: The library does not exist The libraries are being spread in every direction

Books. Many. Bookshelves. Many. Catalogue cards. Many. Desks. Not enough. The colours were brown. In my younger days libraries were more or less identical. They could be scaled to larger main libraries or smaller village libraries. But the service and the goods were the same. The book spines were also identical. The mobile libraries were the only exception, but that was only due to the fact that they had wheels.

When you enter any library today, you first of all have to get your bearings: The books are not always placed according to the same logic; the decimal classification system is being challenged. Newspapers, CDs, DVDs, computers, e-reading units, homework cafés, meeting rooms, sitting areas, stand-ing tables, exhibitions, bulletin boards, art – all of these create variation and fresh possibilities. The traditional phy-sical library has been altogether refurbished. It can be quite difficult to find the desk – because we service ourselves.

The libraries’ opening hours vary. Libraries can be independent institutions. But more often I experience that libraries share premises with cinemas, culture and community centres or exhibition sites. This is also reflected in the management: The head of a library no longer has to be a library professional, but can easily come from other areas of cultural mediation. The library does not even have to be part of a municipal institutional network; Sweden in particular experiments with private solutions, either as part of a local civic society that assumes more responsibility than is normally the case or as actual private businesses.

Add to this a gradually more widespread net of web library solutions: In Denmark we have (, (which still requires you to collect the book from the library or some other place), download of music, audio books, sheet music and e-books. All of them built up as independent systems, where former principles for selection of materials have been replaced by industrial syndicates’ commercial fixedterm models. And then we have the local libraries’ own web solutions with more or less engaging content, librarians’ and users’ recommendations, guides to parts of the Internet and dictionary-like resources about for example literature.

One can easily be a library user without ever visiting a physical library. But the standard library no longer exists. When two people talk about the library, they may easily be talking about completely different types of institutions, interfaces, platforms or experiences.

This is forcefully supported by development work over the past decade: Libraries are provided with extra means for developing services that lie outside their core activities. That which was once defined as the core activity – and perhaps still is in parts of the public debate. The books. Then.

Now any differentiation in the library act between interfaces, media types and platforms is to no avail. The users move around according to their own needs, not according to a public body’s assessment of quality, still less value.

The libraries are being developed as democratic hothouses, as facilitators for culture and health, user-driven, virtual offers, the library is part of the town development, a collecting place at places of work, libraries as learning centre, libraries as call centre, games café, innovation workshop, servicing people with reading disabilities, media coach, media jukebox, geotagging of fiction, knowledge portal. The desire for development is considerable in the libraries, focus is on meeting new demands from the public, on adapting to the digital challenges and on reaching out to sections of the population that possess few resources.

At the same time the public appropriation systems (new public economy) have a funny side effect in actually prioritising the development projects. Most library leaders have experienced being told to save some percentages or concrete amounts. That creates the typical, difficult annual prioritisation. Very few library leaders have tried the opposite: increase the grant with 5% and spend the money on the most desirable!

Any extra appropriation therefore demands projects which are creatively designed and well-defined in relation to the political or administrative focus areas of the time. In interesting contrast to that which is still the politically defined core service: the loan of books and other materials.

The librarian’s professionalism in the choice of parts of the material and the mediation is still undisputed. But just now and then we observe little chirps about letting borrowers review books or letting children get a word in. The flow, which the network society often demonstrates, where professionals and amateurs exhibit a like-mindedness, has surprisingly enough not yet penetrated into the libraries. There is not longer one library, one scalable library model. It is hardly possible any more to conduct a dialogue in the public space about the library, because our actual existing library reality is different.

Maybe in future the libraries have to be seen as a series of ‘isolated actions’. Based on a set of values which is closely related to the media’s public service concept, a large number of different activities are launched: Sometimes one builds houses, other times one gives away books in commuter trains, sometimes one invites people, other times one hosts chat rooms, sometimes one develops new distribution paths, other times one distributes via file-share services!

Libraries cannot be measured according to physical activity. Libraries are part of the knowledge society, where usefulness is measured through all communication, but some communication is considered more important than other. Library activity can be spread virally.

The library does not exist. The libraries are being spread in every direction.

Tom Ahlberg
Editor of cultural political newsletter
Søndag Aften (Sunday Evening)
Director of the Publishing Firm Underskoven
and former Mayor of Education and Culture
in City of Copenhagen

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Editor of cultural political newsletter Søndag Aften (Sunday Evening) Director of the Publishing Firm Underskoven and former Mayor of Education and Culture in City of Copenhagen