Open libraries in Denmark

Entering Loevang Library branch in North Jutland using the social security card. Photo Peter SoholmSelf-service libraries, known as open libraries, are popular. 180 of Denmark’s 450 libraries are now open libraries – and more are on their way.

It started at Silkeborg public library in Jutland in 2004. The municipality were to take over the library service in Gjern, a rural municipality with very small local libraries. It would require heavy staff expenses and the municipality had to economize – also in terms of the libraries.

But the library’s wish to provide a better offer within the economic framework led to the idea of trying to let the users unlock the libraries themselves. Funding from the Danish Library Agency (now part of the Danish Agency for Culture) kick-started the experiment and in collaboration with the innovation firm Cordura the technology was developed, and the borrowers were very satisfied with the new library.

The model

The definition of an open library, engendered by the Silkeborg model, is a library department, which apart from the staffed hours, has been extended with more opening hours, where the citizen herself can “unlock the door”. Access is typically by way of a borrower’s ticket or the medical card that every Dane possesses, or a special borrower’s ticket with inbuilt RFID chip for verification of the user.

Over a period of several years, the development of library infrastructure in Denmark has moved towards centralization. With the municipal reform of 2007, the municipalities became fewer and larger – the libraries followed suit; several small branches were closed, resulting in renewed strength of the main libraries.

Dissemination of the model

The many branch closures worried the professionals and politicians. Was the free and equal access for the citizens to culture and learning being jeopardized? With this in mind, the Agency in 2009 offered a ‘pool’ for the establishment of an open library – on the clear understan ding that the libraries did not reduce the hours of staffed service.

The government grant sparked off the development. A further 40 open libraries were introduced, and the development continues. At first it happened mostly in the rural areas; but now also the largest cities, such and Aarhus and Copenhagen, have opened local libraries, where the citizens can unlock the door themselves.


Experiences show that in general loans and particularly visiting figures increase, and new borrowers appear who have not previously used the library. Overall, the local population gains a strong ownership of the library, and the politicians focus more intently on the local libraries. The sense of responsibility is extremely high among children, youngsters and adults.

But, as is often the case, there is a flip side of the coin. Professionals fear that politicians overlook the mediation aspect of librarianship in favour of large savings in terms of staff hours, when the borrowers seem so easily able to deal with everything themselves.

This has happened in some places and is bound to happen in several more over the next few years. Nevertheless, the question then arises whether a partly selfserviced branch is better than no library service at all?

Citizens look after the open libraries

For several years it has been evident that citizens look after their libraries. The problems of loss are no greater than in other libraries and there are very few cases of vandalism and disorder. A few urban branches have experienced problems, and one library has had to close the self-service hours for a period of time.

Whether the few problems are due to the fact that an old democracy like the Danish one is generally based on trust, or whether it is because of a special respect for the library as an institution, has not been the object of any further analysis. But the fact is that the fear, which the staff in many cases harboured beforehand as to what was going to happ en to their library, has proved groundless. Things are going well.

Continued development

As new municipalities join in, the libraries with several years’ experience of the self-service model are working on developing the concept furt her. How does one disseminate the library’s core services in the best possible way, when no staf f is present? With funding f rom the D anish Agency for Culture’s development pool, several systematic development projects have been completed concerning the open libraries.

A couple of projects from Aalborg Public Libraries in collaboration with North Jutland libraries are worth mentioning. One is called: How does the library sound? This deals with atmosphere-creating sound in the self-service library and with dissemination of e.g. the libraries’ electronic services via loudspeaker features. A number of very high-quality sound tracks are available to all the country’s libraries, manned as well as unmanned.

The other one is Værtensklasse. This project is about the development of a dissemination concept with methods for qualifying an indirect hosting, when staff is not present. It could for example be communication on signs, screens, additional sales initiatives, development of codices for the ‘hosting’ library and of dilemma games to prepare the staff for relational ‘hosting’ service.

Chief Consultant Danish Agency for Culture, libraries
User survey 2013 The Danish Agency for Culture and 42 municipalities with Rambøll Management as supplier asked about the citizen’s attitude and satisfaction with the open libraries. The survey revealed that: 92 % feel that they receive the help they need 91 % feel it is easy to use the open library 45 % do not differentiate between there being staff available or not 35 % prefer to visit the library when there is staff present. Left: Entering Loevvang Library branch
Facts about open libraries Local Government Denmark’s survey, 2013, Momentum 75 % of municipalities with open libraries expect to expand the scheme 35 % of municipalities have concrete plans for introducing the scheme 50 % of municipalities contemplate introducing the scheme 78 % of municipalities have experienced increasing visiting figures 65 % of municipalities have seen an increase in loans.
Charting of open libraries in 2011 Professor Carl Gustav Johannsen, Copenhagen University charted the existing 81 open libraries for the Danish Agency for Culture. The dissemination of the scheme was primarily due to the wish to offer the citizens increased accessibility, while about a third of the cases were due to the demands for cuts, e.g. as an alternative to the closing of local libraries. Read more about this in Carl Gustav Johannsen’s article in the periodical New Library World: “Staffless libraries – recent Danish public library experiences.