Model programme for public libraries

Library moving out. Photo Michael Christian PaldanDanish public libraries are currently being refurbished. A considerable and notable transformation process is taking place. This is a response to increasing demands about digitisation, cultural collaboration and user requirements. The change process is taking place in many different ways, depending on local municipal traditions, current context and ambitions for the future.

In this exciting landscape of ongoing and future library projects, the Danish Agency for Culture and Realdania launched a ‘Model Programme for Public Libraries’ in the summer of 2012. The purpose of the Model Programme is to provide innovative suggestions as to how modern libraries can contribute to urban development, and how libraries’ physical settings can be developed in order to support the libraries’ new role in the best possible way. The programme will conclude in the autumn of 2014.

The Model Programme’s mission

The mission is not to deliver a complete design and construction guide for the optimum
library based on an unambiguous library concept. Instead, the mission is to create inspiration and open possibilities for the public libraries’ change agents: municipal culture politicians and council officers, library managers and key staff, and the advisers who are to contribute to realising new local interpretations of the public library or to implementing extensive changes to existing libraries.

In addition to its work on new building projects, the Model Programme will provide inspiration and instructions on how the interior design of existing libraries can be optimised, not least with a view to creating space for new functions or facilitating the interaction of several functions.

Design principles

The Model Programme is about homing in on and describing a number of decisive design principles in relation to elements that concern the new public library. It will be important for the municipalities to consider these principles.

One example of a design question is to ask how a library can present itself as an important part of the public urban space. The model programme propose a number of ideas or design principles that describe in text, illustrations and references how this can be achieved. An amphitheatre, as seen in conjunction with the new super library in Birmingham, is a potent example of how a library can feature high quality cultural experiences in what is partly an integrated stage in the library and partly an amphitheatre in an open city space.

A café with a mixed outdoor and indoor function can also be an effective bridge builder and connector. In the extreme, the library can transgress its physical boundaries and deliver services where new customers are readily available and have time on their hands – for example the Beach Library in Copenhagen.

Another design question is how to express the digital and the physical library in cohesion. One approach could be to integrate digital platforms and touchscreens into the physical design everywhere in the library and equip floorwalking librarians with iPads to make info services immediately available to the customers across the library.

A third design question is how libraries can make space for and facilitate high quality ‘maker spaces’ and labs.Where are these best situated in the library? How can they easily be adjusted to other uses? A fourth design question is how to think library functions into a time cycle, so that both space and function can be altered during the day to match the majority segment of users, which changes over the course of a day.

There is no answer book for any of these design questions. The questions and the principles provided by the Model Programme must serve as a launching pad for local discussions and decisions.

The Model Programme’s organisation

The Model Programme’s steering committee has made an agreement with Signal Architects, who will handle the development process. In order to assist in the process, Dorte Skot Hansen, the Royal School of Library and Information Science, and former Director at the Danish Agency for Culture, Jens Thorhauge, have been hired by Signal as expert consultants and contributors.

Signal is also seeking inspiration from an appointed vision group with knowledgeable people from other professions. Furthermore, the libraries’ users, stakeholders in the municipalities and other interested parties have the opportunity to contribute to the project via the blog at the project’s website and during workshops at project conferences.


The website is a pivotal point in the project. Knowledge from the project, collected experience and activities are communicated continually on the website. The result is partly a dynamic knowledge bank, partly a number of flexible design principles.

The ambition is that the website and not least the design principles will keep developing, also after the formal completion of the project. The reasoning is that a model programme for a concept as dynamic as the public library cannot be captured in a snapshot image, a report or a book.


The Model Programme was launched at a well-attended kick-off conference in Copenhagen on 31. October. In addition to a number of interesting presentations by, among others, Brian Gambels from Birmingham, information was generated and gathered from a number of workshops. This information and the experience from study trips to Malmö, Helsinki and the Netherlands have been included in the continued work.

The study trips provided many different kinds of experience, e.g. that it is possible to make a lot of library within a limited space, as a relatively small number of square metres can support the intensity.

There were examples of very thoroughly designed libraries that did not necessarily attract a lot of users. Conversely, it was noted that the staff ’s visible and outgoing action had a positive effect. The challenge is to create diverse and dynamic content combined with inviting, differentiated places to stay, along with activity options.

Workshop won by three municipalities

A survey conducted in February 2013 about the challenges facing public libraries provided very relevant information for the model project. The survey particularly confirmed the topical relevance of the project: Practically all Danish municipalities are currently working on transforming library spaces at some level or other.

As a result of the survey, three municipalities won a facilitated workshop in connection with their ongoing projects. Thisted, Billund and Sønderborg can now look forward to their library services taking the lead as libraries of the future. Each municipality will get a professional workshop aimed at designing the layout of the libraries to meet the many new demands about the content of tomorrow’s library. The professional workshops are designed and facilitated in collaboration with Signal Architects.

In Thisted, the interior of the main library will be re-designed in connection with a climate renovation, and at the same time it will be laid out partly as a self-service library. Thisted will also collaborate with the surrounding cultural institutions.

In Billund, the library is partly to be converted into a self-service library with Danish and international citizen service. The library is also to serve as a driver in Billund’s vision about the creation of The Children’s Capital. The project will be set up in partnership with the LEGO Foundation. In Sønderborg, a new library is to be constructed as a part of a multi-purpose cultural house along the waterfront. The 12.7 million euro project will be carried out in collaboration with Sønderborg Harbour Association.

The final

The Model Programme will conclude on 25 September with a conference where the programme’s results will be presented. By then, the website will also be available in English.

Chief Consultant Danish Agency for Culture, libraries
Deputy city librarian, The Regional Library of Northern Jutland.
The steering committee:
  • Anne Mette Rahbæk, Chairman, Director, Danish Agency for Culture
  • Marianne Kofoed, Project Manager, Realdania
  • Tone Lunden, Development Consultant, Hjørring
  • Rolf Hapel, Administration Manager, Aarhus
  • Jens Lauridsen, Library Manager, Tårnby
  • Jonna Holmgaard Larsen, Chief Adviser, Danish Agency for Culture
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