Libraries invent themselves new as a working place

Analog and digital are not two terms that are precluding each other, instead they are influencing each other, as they are either forming a …

Analog and digital are not two terms that are precluding each other, instead they are influencing each other, as they are either forming a connection or as they can at least be considered to be congruent. The example of a library makes it visible and shows, how digital innovations affect analog developments. Even after almost 20 years since Google (1998) and Wikipedia (2001) have been founded, libraries still remain a significant source for information.

The range of tasks for libraries have changed massively during the past 20 years. It has been a long time now already that a library is not only a house of printed books, besides analog offers more and more digital offers are appearing. There will be big tasks in the future focusing on the gathering and the mediation of a library’s offers.

– Dr. Frank Simon-Ritz, chairman of the German Library Association

Libraries change digitally as well as analogically

The digital usage of libraries is the digital aspect of the change of this unique, non-commercial, communal space. The composition of this space itself is the analog equivalent of this change. „The aquisition of knowledge, even the knowledge itself, has changed a lot in general“ , as Corinna Haas, head of the library at the Institute for Culturale Inquiry, is explaining in an interview on Netzpiloten.de, and the same applies to „the ways we learn and work, space offers, digital accessible materials and learning platforms.

A proof that the term digital often simply functions as a catalyst for the term analog is shown in Germany by the town library of Cologne, which was awarded as the ‚Library of the Year‘ in 2015. Knowledge transfer is not restricted to (digital) media only here, but is also practised in courses and new rooms. The town library of Cologne was extended by some working places which are inspired by Coworking Spaces and by a Markerspace which is incorporating the change of learning digital abilities.

This development is impressing, because the digital world is not seperating itself from the analog world to elevate itself, nor is it isolated from the analog world to devalue it. Digital things can only be an image of analog things, therefore the latter one needs to be changed by the former one, because it is not less real than something digital. The innovations of libraries, its rooms, functions and offers are therfore only logical and consistent. These changes are steady and never-ending, by the way.

That is why the library of the future needs to understand, how to recognise these mighty connections between the digital and the analog and how to shape it. On a press trip of the German Library Association, on which libraries in the Netherlands and Belgium where visited in the middle of September, I had the opportunity to get to know interesting examples of usages of these efffective joints: the library of the Technical University Delft and the public library DOK Delft, as well as the intern learning center of the University Leuven.

Libraries being recreated as Coworking Space: TU Delft

Liesbeth Mantel, Head of Open Space at the library of the TU Delft, sees her working place as a giant Coworking Space „with various departments like relaxation rooms, working places for team work and tables for tinkering.“ There is probably a room for every person and for every activity in the library. She introduced the change in 2009, after she had read more and more about the new methods of working in companies, in particular on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.

The library consists of one big room, where people are mainly working. This is also where one can find the staff of the library who does not have an office on their own anymore. „We wanted to launch new ways of working, in order to make the staff more cheerful (…) and for me, an office of my own had never been convenient“, she explains. That is the reason why computer and project rooms are spread, as they are supposed to be used by both visitors of the library and its staff at the same time. The giant wall with books at the end of the room almost only serves decorative purposes.

TU-Delft-Library-Coworking
A place of work instead of a reading room: the library of the University TU Delft (Image: Tobias Schwarz, CC BY 4.0)

In 2010, the directress of the library already refused to have her own office and the entire management of the library did so as well. Since that time, one former office floor of the management has been transformed into project rooms every year: „We design our closed office rooms new with a new facility and transform them into hybrid office spaces which can be used by our staff during the day and by students during the evenings and weekends.“ Mantels‘ colleagues were coping well with their new, open working places.

The library is mostly used by students which can access the library for free. However, everyone can use the library in general. This offer is accepted as the library opens seven days a week, even on bank holidays. And on top, there is the community and event management which brings the concept of Coworking Spaces back to mind. „We want to give a meaning to meetings again“, this is how Liesbeth Mantel explains her endeavours to organise courses as well as readings and exhibitions in order to give freedom to humans.

Where people meet and get to know each other: DOK Delft

Marijke Timmerhuis from the public town library Delft, would probably describe it in a similar way. This is why they introduced a very unusal rule for libraries: the users of the library are allowed to talk and eat. „We allow this, because we think that the big issue about using a library is getting to know other people and not the silence and the study part. For this, we have the library of the Technical University here in Delft as well as other places where one can study.“, Timmerhuis says.

DOK-Delft-Library-Coworking
The town library Delft wants to be a place for people and not only one for books alone (Image: Tobias Schwarz, CC BY 4.0)

With this concept, which focuses on the joint part on a level where work does not matter, the library wants to distinguish itself from similar institutions: „If you want to make people feel comfortable, you need to feel free and independent about whatever it is, that you are doing. I believe that eating and talking, whenever you want it, is part of it.“ And the people make use of this offer. Just like it is the case for the library of the TU Delft, the DOK Delft has an increasing number of members.

The free usage of the rooms also applies to the staff, another thing which is similar to the university library of the TU Delft: „The office floor is more like an assembly hall for the staff than a place, where to work silently. It is very important, to meet one’s colleagues, to keep busy and to work together.“, is the way, Timmerhuis is describing the employees‘ daily working routine. „Now everything is more casual and thus everything is faster than it used to be when setting up formal meetings.

Regarding the space, the library has been shrinking and with a musical school, they have found a lodger which also sticks to their concept of preparing children today for their future. The leitmotif of the DOK Delft is to „influence the living and learning environment of children in order to animate them in a playful way to explore their phantasy and creativity.“ Because one day, they will work in a society which will differ from the current society in the aspect „that it will be less about knowledge and more about creativity.

Libraries take over new functions in a community

The Belgian libraries, which we got to know on our press trip, seemed to be much more like civic centres in their communes, whose most important task is to try to integrate people seeking refuge as best as possible, a task that has been neglected by the state for decades. This was visible in the library in Antwerp in particular, in a quarter with the world’s highest density of different nationalities and languages, as well as in the library in Molenbeek, a district of Brussels.

Permeken-Library-Coworking
The library Permeke serves an incomparable multicultural community (Image: Tobias Schwarz, CC BY 4.0)

The university library Leuven seems to be very classic in comparison and did not attract attention with new societal functions or innovative room concepts – except for the newly created learning centre Agora, which should, according to the head of the library, Peter Verbist, support people to learn in a better way in the first place. For this, various rooms and usage concepts have been developed in order to be able to offer students an individual and suitable place where they can study.

And the services offered by the learning centre for students have been extended by hackathons, business simulating games and similar events. „These events are all not taking place as a formal course. Here, students can organise theirselves and create knowledge together. We regard them as young professionals which can develop further in Angora in order to become better students and young adults“, is how Verbist describes the mission of the learning centre. Studying is considered to be a space of freedom in order to reach self-empowerment.

Whether it is a place for integration or a Coworking Space for working – these libraries in the Netherlands and Belgium are responding to the influences of the digital change on the concept of knowledge transfer with new strategies for analog spaces. Beside the digitalised stock of knowledge and the access to digital media, they try to redefine humans and their activities in libraries. The question which is boosting every change is how libraries can be used (in another way).


The press trip took place as an invitation from the German Library Association and was fully financed with funds from the German ministry for Education and Research. Read the German version of this article on Netzpiloten.de.