Interview with Hellen Niergaard, chief consultant, The Danish Library Association

Aldo Ciummo


Libraries were born in the age of analogical communication; can libraries meet contemporary societal demands?

“Libraries as all knowledge institutions must of course reflect and adapt to changes in information formats. Public libraries, as other public institutions in Denmark and in many other countries, are currently updating their services according to the development of the knowledge society, its focus on e-sources and the change in citizens’ media habits. In order to provide access both to analogue and digital information, knowledge and culture formats.

In the most recent updating of Danish library legislation, “Act regarding Library Services” from year 2000, it said that: “The objective of the public libraries is to promote information, education and cultural activity by making available books, periodicals, talking books and other suitable material, such as recorded music and electronic information resources, including Internet and multimedia.

More recently, in 2009, a report on “The Public Libraries in the Knowledge Society” was published by the Danish Agency for Libraries and Media for the Ministry of Culture. It contains recommendations of a national committee and it sees the library as the local learning and culture center. It underlines that “In the knowledge society the public library’s efforts to further enlightenment, education and cultural activity is more important than ever before” and “today the library is also the place for being and meeting, where one for example gets instruction, uses the internet or gets help in the local citizens’ service center”. The latter offers a range of city hall services incorporated in public libraries in particular in rural and suburb areas (is found in 21% of municipalities, 2010). The report recommendations for further library development are divided into five action lines: Open libraries (building wise, 24/7 access, long opening hours including branches with so-called open self service, long hour access and only stuff avalaible part of the time etc), Inspiration and learning, the Danish Digital Library (one access point to Danish Library services on the net), Partnerships and professional development.”

How importanty is the debate about the library building in order to obtain a real change in the library activities?

“As the public library is changing radically in terms of concept and services, the library building must equally be modernized. The building design should also reflect the change in actual the use of the library. According to Danish surveys about 50% (Traflitaelling/KL, 2004, Trafikanalyse Arhus/Moller, 2005) of the users visit public libraries for other purposes than loan. The physical library building is thus changing from a room dominated by printed collections and shelving to a common, open place for culture, learning and insight providing access to both physical collections and digital resources, and to professional guidance of various kind.

To promote a debate on the new library concepts and the modern building of the Danish Library Association (DLA) published “Library Space: Inspiration for building and design” in 2009. With this book the association wants to stimulate a rethinking of the library layout and construction, from a product-orientated to a user-orientated place. In order to provide citizens with relevant, updated high quality services in the 21th century knowledge society: for the benefit of the individual user and of society as such.”

During the Conference the debate also underlined libraries role in favour of citizens integration and social inclusion; what can architecture do to reach this aim?

“There is probably no correct answer to this question however one thing is very important. The architecture must be open and inviting – and less like more formal book fortressess of the past. Will this demand lead to insignificant and uninteresting architecure? Personally I do not think so. On the contrary – any library building should match local sorroundings but also function as a local landmark for knowledge and culture; something to be proud of and to be attracted by wheter you are a frequent library user or a non-user, an intellectual or not. A recent international example of very impressive sculptural character is for instance the Seattle Public Library by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, OMA, from 2004. Ten + one qualities are considered critical for any library building. UK University Library director, professor Andrew McDonald, in “The Top Ten Qualities of Good Library Space” (IFLA Library Building Guidelines: Development & Reflections, p. 13-29. Saur, 2007), updates and converts the 1970s ten commandments on library architecture by British architect Faulkner Brown. Ideally, McDonald claims, new library space should be: functional, adaptable, accessible, varied, interactive, conducive, environmentally suitable, safe and secure, efficient, suitable for IT – and on top of that – new library space should have the “oomph” or “wow” factor. The key words here are when speaking of social inclusion: accessible, varied, interactive and not least conducive; high-quality humane space which motivates and inspires people, as he says.”