The interactive children’s library

Strategies and prototypes for the future 
The project

The interactive children’s library is an untraditional and interdisciplinary research and development project exploring the children’s library of the future. The project was conducted in the period 2004-2006 by the Main Library in Aarhus with financial support from the Danish National Library Authority’s development pool for public and school libraries.

Aarhus Public Libraries have joined forces with IT City ISIS Katrinebjerg, University of Southern Denmark, four business enterprises and public libraries in Hjørring, Odder, Silkeborg and Vejle to develop systematic research and collect empirical knowledge about children’s use of interactive means within the framework of children’s libraries.

The project development is based on children’s needs, culture and cultural experiences, and the research will be put to use in the shaping of a concept for the interior of the children’s library of the future. A library where IT-services based on pervasive computing, broadband network, 3D visualisation and interactivity constitute the instruments uniting the virtual with the physical library.

The object is to meet children’s needs for space providing new experiences, learning, events, sense impressions and physical activity. However, the library must still aim to be the place where children come to attain information which can support their cultural and democratic place in society.

The vision behind ‘The children’s library of the future’
Imagine a children’s library where movements activate rooms and elements in the library, and where imagination is stimulated by sound, images and light, while at the same time it is possible to seek isolation and become deeply absorbed.

How do we create a physical and virtual sensation of being inside and outside, of being both alone and part of a social group? It could be by making installations where children by touching can answer questions and evoke light, sound or movements in the room. It could be by making interactive programmes built into installations for children to interact with and thereby encourage their interest in decoding symbols, images and text.

Children’s communication with the library, with the materials, with the room and with other children is visualized and inter-activated.

Why a research project?
Over the years libraries have developed to an astonishing degree, from storage and loan machines to knowledge centres with mediation and learning as central elements. The Internet – ost people will maintain – has been the one single factor with the greatest impact on the development of libraries from 1996 until today. Most development resources have been spent on digitising the traditional library services into Internet services: online reservation, legal download of music, ‘Ask a librarian’, streaming of short and full-feature films on the net etc. This development has meant that fewer and fewer people need to visit the library in person to obtain the same service. The development has also forced the libraries to reconsider which services to offer, or perhaps rather what exactly the libraries should be offering in the future, and what kind of role we as librarians have to play in order to attract the users and keep the position we believe to hold in society.

Many ‘obvious’ services have been digitised, and it becomes increasing difficult to come up with something new. It is therefore necessary to seek new paths to work along, and it also means that the libraries have to find new partners and to a greater extent than previously to include the end user in the development.

The happy cooperation
In his book The Medici Effect Frans Johansson describes how ideas are generated in the synergy effect between various professional groups. One of the objectives of the project ‘The interactive children’s library’ has been to find other cooperation partners, and in this connection we have learnt that this is not only rewarding, but also a process that demands many resources. Just managing to ‘speak the same language’ or to establish mutual appreciation take a little while, as does learning to communicate with the large and geographically diverse project group.

But at the same time we have also come to appreciate that we would not have got as far in the development of ideas had it not been for this diversity in the group.

Howard Gardner’s theories about the multiple intelligences are widely used in a school and learning context, and there is general consensus that there are several ways in which to learn. It is also quite obvious that children (and adults) like to be stimulated in different ways, whether it be a question of sitting in a certain chair, listening to music etc,, in any given learning situation. The children’s library in Denmark is for the most part nice and quiet, and I regret to say so: Absolutely boring! Rows upon rows of shelves, a few chairs, maybe a bean bag and a few multimedia machines. If we are to be generous (and we ought to be) we might say that the libraries’ way of considering the multiple intelligences consists in arranging events such as theatre, role play workshops, PCs set up for games. But just how futureoriented have we been in applying present day technological and architectural trends?

From about 1995 till 2001, where virtual reality (VR) was at its very height, the libraries reacted by moving the real world into the machines and out onto the net, and many fine library services have emerged because of that: Ask a librarian, dotbot,, askolivia and the literature site. The fascination with technology was at its peak – look at this, see what we can do! Technological advances such as smaller and smaller mobile phones, chips, RFID etc. paved the way for a new field of research – augmented reality (AR). The basic idea was, and still is, that micro technology makes it possible to put ‘the intelligence’ into things, to dismantle the traditional PC and put it into things.

Several fine examples of library building are visible all around the world, and it is quite obvious that many architectural aspects have been considered – big is the operative word – and the buildings are often described as iconic or as giving a ‘lift’ to an area. By looking at some of the new libraries, I have wondered at the lack of exploitation and experimentation with technology, space and learning. The interior design is not in tune with the handsome building. The thoughts and ideas are there, architects experiment with serendipity promoting design, space within space within space, experience zones, other forms of learning and being, but somehow these things do not seem to reach right inside the libraries.Why is that? Is it a kind of inherent inertia on behalf of the libraries, are they afraid to do something that might offend or is it in fact just lack of vision, imagination and courage? Only the decision-makers can answer these questions. The ideas and the technique are available to make spaces and installations that support the multiple intelligences, while at the same time showing due respect for the library’s traditional virtues, but they are not integrated in the libraries.

The exhibition
During the period 24. April till 8.May 2006 the central library in Aarhus staged an interactive exhibition with 32 elements. The composition was a mixture of prototypes, art installations and purely commercial objects. The overall objective was for the exhibition to serve as an eye-opener, to demonstrate what a library could also be, and to provide inspiration for the professional visitor to develop in his/her own library.

Development and display of prototypes is interesting, but not something that everyone has the chance to do. It was, therefore, also important that the exhibition showed the ‘immediate’ such as yellow arrows, garage band, things to be bought at reasonable cost and right away put to use.

Story Surfer
In a close collaboration with InteractiveSpaces. net and by including children in iterative design processes, a search/ browse installation named Story Surfer, was developed. This is an innovative tool that gives children the opportunity to find inspiration among the great variety of library materials.

It is not an actual search tool, but rather an introduction to what is available. Based on the ideas of tangible design, children’s natural curiosity and application of intelligences other than the purely intellectual ones, Story Surfer focuses on use of the body and playing with materials.

With the help of pervasive computing the search is detached from keyboard and traditional computer screen, and instead large physical objects are employed for the users to search, examine and play with. The technology is secondary to the user – experiences, play and the positive meeting with the library is the essence here.

The idea is for the children – via physical movement – to use the space/library in a new way.

Traditional libraries’ OPACs are often cryptic and very difficult to decode, for children as well as adults.With Story Surfer we wanted to provide an installation which in a effortless way would enable the user to search, and through two interactive surfaces, floor and table, it was possible to see front pages of books and examine the content more closely, while having the opportunity to talk and collaborate with friends or other users.We cannot offer a valid research result, as the installation was not available long enough, but we did observe users of all ages, either on their own or in small groups examining books, talking about these or about what was actually happening on the floor. It is a victory in itself to get children to search quite voluntarily, in some cases for up to 20 minutes. This is not something we have seen before with traditional OPACs.

Materials in a library have a life cycle where they pass through many hands and are read by many different people. Imagine if all these books could talk, or if all the users had the opportunity of talking to the book and thereby indirectly to the next borrower/user.

Books could have information/values added to them independently of the library. Functions in the bibphone could be: Listen to a review/message or speak to the book yourself. Books could contain little traces which could be gathered – in a kind of treasure hunt – into a bigger story.

In the bibphone experiment, two different prototype designs were tested, a multiple and a single user version, with RFID and BlueTooth technology as a basis.With the chance to talk to the book, it becomes easy for the users in an intuitive and simple way to make their comments. At the same time the bibphone contains a potential danger (or possibility!), as the users can say exactly what they want, without the librarians filtering what is being said. But loss of control is exactly one of the exciting trends we can observe now in the library world. Children would like to be involved in defining content, space and design, which means that the library as an institution must adapt itself to another role and hand over some control.

The children’s library and local-historical departments may sound like opposites, but in a close collaboration an interactive table was developed where children with balloons and small dolls could examine the history of their town, watch historical clips from films, look at pictures and listen to comments on these. The RFID technology makes it possible for children to get access to information in an intuitive and effortless way not available to them before.

The possibilities of the table are more or less infinite – new themes can be developed whereby the technology of the table can be reused. The table is developed in cooperation with a local IT firm, Cordura, which works professionally with practical application of RFID technology.

What have we learnt?
We are told that if one were to let one hundred monkeys type away on typewriters for one hundred years, they would end up having written the collective works of Shakespeare. I do not wish to compare librarians with monkeys – I only want to make the point that for one thing we cannot wait one hundred years, for another it is necessary to get more professions to work together.

The value of diversity in the choice of partners, the probability of inventing something radically different, something that points further into the future, is greater than if we, libraries and librarians, just continue to cooperate.

The validity of ideas is secured through user-driven innovation, where close contact and cooperation with the children is maintained during the entire process. It is also essential that they can see that their input is put to good use and that their collective commitment has produced results. All along the project two classes have contributed to the development of new ideas and taken part in trying them out.

A recently conducted study at the Main Library in Aarhus into user behaviour and patterns of use showed that 60% of the visitors did not take out any books. A similar nationwide investigation among smaller libraries showed a figure of about 50%. That – combined with the decline in number of visitors – must force the libraries to contemplate how, what and perhaps also why we do what we do.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield
Photo: Søren E. Jensen

IT-Consultant and Developer with Aarhus Public Libraries