Learning Renaissance

Don't Judge a Library by its Cover

Bibliotheken – Libraries – Bibliothèques
Library guests don't have to explain themselves because entry isn't conditional to consumption, admission or course participation.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Libraries are one of the world’s oldest public institutions and still serve an important societal, cultural and educational role – even in the digital age.

  • Facts


    • According to the German Library Association, there are 3,800 public libraries in Germany, receiving 118 million visitors in 2014.
    • The number of visitors to Cologne’s Central Library has risen by 60 percent since 2009.
    • Germany’s first public library opened in 1828 as a place of “immorality.”
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To many people, “city library” sounds as antiquated as “cassette recorder” or “encyclopedia.” Libraries remind people of their childhood. Some may recall narrow, gray rows of shelves, an enigmatic decimal system, and their first laminated library ID card. On second thought, maybe the old days weren’t that good.

But a visit to the Cologne Central Library will wow those who haven’t set foot in a library since high school. From the outside, it still looks like the same old concrete box it has always been. What lies behind its heavy glass doors, however, is completely new. Instead of waiting in line at check-out counters, library-goers can borrow and return books independently at the library’s electronic terminals. Finding a specific book, however, still remains a careful task.

“Our library has very little in common with libraries from the nineties,” says head librarian Hannelore Vogt. And her library’s success underlines her claim. Since Ms. Vogt took over seven years ago, the number of visitors has increased by over 60 percent. In 2015, the German Library Association honored the Cologne Public Library as the “Library of the Year.”

Her success is just the pinnacle of a nationwide trend in Germany. In recent years, German university libraries have also made gains based on the increase in students.

According to the German Library Association, there are 3,800 public libraries in Germany. These libraries, particularly in major cities, are seeing membership numbers and check-out rates surge. In 2014, German public libraries recorded 118 million visitors.

“The modern library is not limited to books or media. It is a place to learn, collaborate and actively create and do.”

Hannelore Vogt, Head librarian, Cologne City Library

It’s a remarkable phenomenon, unsupported by trending social statistics. Only about a quarter of the German population still reads more than ten books per year. At the same time, online music, audiobook and film subscription services are taking the markets by storm. The shift has, in fact, taken a particular toll on village and town libraries, as rural demand and public funding continues to disappear.

“People looking for content don’t need libraries anymore,” said Rafael Ball, the head librarian at ETH Zurich university, in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. But a few city libraries have found ways to attract visitors nonetheless.

“I’m living with my mother at the moment and she doesn’t have wifi,” says Karim, who is working on the Cologne Central Library’s second floor. Here, he surfs the web, looks up answers to everyday questions and tasks, and shops online. “I can concentrate on my work up here,” he adds. “And I’m in the middle of the city.”

In fact, many prefer to get things done at the library. On an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, almost all fifth floor desks are occupied. The small tables are occupied by student study groups, presentation practitioners and tutors. The city’s famous Neumarkt is less than a block away. It is the third busiest location in Cologne, right behind the city’s central station and the famous Cologne Cathedral. People who come to the library can spend the day studying and still pop into shops on their way home.

In 1828, the Prussian financial officer Karl Benjamin Preusker founded the first municipal library in Grossenhain, eastern Germany, with a social mission in mind. He envisioned that it would become a place that hosts “tavern visits, idleness and immorality.” It remains unclear if his library became the house of fun he intended it to be. His overall concept, however, soon caught on.

At the turn of the century, there were 28 comparable public meeting points. Since then, each made its way through historic twists and turns. Today, libraries stand for equal opportunities – a fundamental element in the modern politico-economic discourse.

And although libraries don’t provide education per se, they level the playing field. All citizens sit at the same desk. An empty desk may fail to impress privileged children from academic households and posh neighborhoods but someone from a large family living in an underserved district savors an empty desk in a quiet library.

In the meantime, the library has moved beyond its role as a free working space. “In recent years, we have experienced a renaissance with regard to the value of real spaces,” says Ms. Vogt. The world’s unstoppable virtualization gave birth to a new desire for its opposite. More and more people are eager to create real things and collaborate with others.

The library is growing in popularity due to its two defining qualities. It may sound trivial, but the library is one of the only public spaces that is both public and weather-resistant. Its visitors don’t have to explain themselves.

It’s different at malls, museums or community classes, where attendance is conditional on consumption, admission or course participation. What are you doing here, how can I help you, are you looking for something specific? Questions that don’t exist at public libraries.

“The library is the noncommercial, public city meeting point for everyone,” says Ms. Vogt.

And Cologne natives are eager to come together and collaborate. Every couple of days, the library staff clears aside its colorful furniture to make room for public events. The library provides space for anything the city’s creative minds want to organize. Most recently, they hosted a “Travel Slam,” where participants showed pictures and told stories about their travels.

The library welcomes events of all shapes and sizes. At the recent “Extra Life” event, old computer game lovers spent an evening playing and reminiscing about their favorite retro games. The “Maker Kids” vacation program teaches children how to code.

“The modern library is not limited to books or media,” says Ms. Vogt. “It is a place to learn, collaborate and actively create and do.”

Three years ago, Ms. Vogt’s library was the first public institution in Germany to acquire a 3D printer. Since 2008, the library has introduced various types of electronic readers and offers visitors special 3D-glasses to play three-dimensional computer games. Visitors can also digitize old records in the library’s “Makerspace.”

“Our most important target audience is between 20 and 30,” says Ms. Vogt. And with success: the Cologne Library was only public institution to be invited to the world’s largest computer games fair, Gamescom. “An ultimate accolade” for Ms. Vogt.

Conscious efforts to reach a larger audience also contributed to an increase in library expansion. “In the past the library was only for the very old and the very young,” said Ms. Vogt. Still today, the oldies rustle their newspapers, while the little ones scramble around the carpeted floor playing with building blocks.

When a staff member leads a group of 20 visitors through the DVD aisles, their loud chatter takes over the room. One visitor asks the librarian for films about Hitler. She shows him a few relevant works, among them “Downfall” and “Schindler’s List.” Just to be clear, she adds, “We have nothing positive about him.”

The man nods. He and the two dozen men in his tour group are refugees. The man has only been in Cologne for a few weeks and his political ambiguousness is quickly forgiven. “At some point we realized that refugee learning groups met up here quite often,” said Ms. Vogt. “And so we took it upon ourselves to see them as a unique target audience.” In an adjacent building, the library created a learning center that offers newcomers instructional library tours.

When the library’s staff notices a new potential audience, they often take the initiative to understand its interests and goals. “Public libraries have the advantage of not being under financial pressure,” says Ms. Vogt. “And so we place our time and efforts into identifying current trends and responding to them proactively.”

For example, a lot of libraries have noticed a growing interest in craft works. As a result, books on knitting, tailoring, carpentry, and origami now take up dozens of shelves in Cologne. “Now big book chains are also jumping on the bandwagon,” Ms. Vogt explains.

When it comes to contemporary literature, however, librarians are ruthless. “Anything that isn’t checked out for a longer period of time is taken from the shelves,” she says. Even though libraries order up to 30 or 40 copies of new bestselling novels, they sometimes only leave out a single copy a few months later.

And so Cologne’s library went from being a state-subsidized dust collector to a young innovation hub. No wonder that Ms. Vogt sometimes shies away from using the antiquated term “library.” “The term only refers to a limited number of our purposes.”

In other countries, libraries have distanced themselves even further from featuring books as their main medium. London calls its libraries “Idea Stores.” Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, opened a new library last fall and invented an entirely new term for the new architectural gem at the city’s port: “Dokk1.” In Danish the name sounds like “port” (Dokken) and the building itself looks like the future. According to Ms. Vogt, Dokk1 is “known as an ideal library among those who deal with libraries.”

The building is made up of a polygonal plate that rests beneath a white metal grid. Its visual appeal has turned it into a central element in the city skyline. It radiates a type of self-confidence that the functionally designed German municipal libraries often lack.

Dokk1’s poised grandeur continues within its interior. A gigantic staircase serves both as a reading area and the library’s event space. Every Danish state insurance card doubles up as a Dokk1 access card, thus giving every citizen access to the building and its endless resources.

Whether in Cologne or in Aarhus, the prosperous libraries send a remarkably positive message to the cultural pessimists of our time: The public’s interest in education and curiosity to learn is apparently greater than ever before.


This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche: To contact the author: Konrad.Fischer@wiwo.de