Aarhus libraries – Powering Learning


“If you’re the first to do something, you’re allowed to fail. If you just come along with the mainstream you can’t fail.”

Here’s the next installment of the Public Libraries 2020 articles I wrote for the Reading and Writing Foundation and it’s a pretty mind blowing one.

Aarhus libraries and their director Rolf Hapel are rightly well known in the library community. They are hosting the Next Library conference this September in their impressive new waterfront library building. But, as this article shows, they’ve been showing us how it’s done (and thinking about how to do it in future) for many years…

All quotations are from Rolf Hapel. All images supplied by Aarhus libraries unless otherwise credited.


Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark. The economy of the city, along with the rest of Denmark, has been transforming from an industrial base to a knowledge-based economy. There has been a particular move towards urbanisation of the population, with rural areas moving from a primarily small scale agricultural economy to a large scale farming and leisure-based economy.

Another challenge for the country is the ageing population in Denmark, although the city of Aarhus remains quite young because a number of educational institutions are based there. The economy is currently relatively stable and although the financial crisis had an impact in 2008 there are signs of growth.

As many other European nations Denmark has a problem with illiteracy – around 15-20% of the population have a reading age of 8 years (2nd year of primary school). In addition, the population needs to develop its computer and media literacy as many social services are moving to an online-only presence which relies on citizens to ‘self serve’ using web based services. Although there is a high penetration of fast broadband and mobile web-enabled devices such as smart phones and tablets, around 30% of the population are not able or confident to use public services online and also do not understand why they should do so.

Libraries are included in the government digital strategy as places to get help in using public services and increasingly they are the only physical presence of government services on the high street as housing and benefits offices are closing their doors.

“Increasingly, physical libraries are about physical people. Where we used to be book oriented we are now human oriented”

There are 18 libraries in Aarhus, and the new central library DOKK1 opened in June 2015.

The process of change

“The process of change has been longer than you might imagine. We have been talking about the paperless office since the 1980s. We had the first e-readers in the late 1990s. Libraries in Denmark have been at the cutting edge of finding new ways of distributing knowledge.”

Because of this, Danish policy makers see libraries as a tool to educate the Danish population, particularly about how to engage with digital public services. Libraries are neutral spaces that are free to enter and don’t require you to have a specific religious or political affiliation.

The new library building

Aarhus library

(Image courtesy of Freek Zonderland)

The local public were involved in designing the building and workshops were held with school children to get them to provide a brief to the architects about how they wanted the building to be designed.

“We thought that today’s children are tomorrow’s adult library users, and we want this building to work for them throughout their lives, so why not involve them in the planning of the building? The architects were sceptical at first but when they saw their ideas – particularly in relation to soundscapes, they were really inspired.”

Dukketeater for børn på Åby Bibliotek, Åbyhøj  © Foto: Søren Holm/Chili Dato: 05.09.03 Chili foto & arkiv

Dukketeater for børn på Åby Bibliotek, Åbyhøj
© Foto: Søren Holm/Chili
Dato: 05.09.03
Chili foto & arkiv

Fostering innovation

In Aarhus the municipal government had a decentralisation scheme implemented in the late 1990’s. Institutions were given budgets and allowed to spend them as they saw fit within certain boundaries. This liberated the library and allowed it to become more innovative in its approach. The library invested more in technology and less in staff posts that were no longer needed – it became leaner and more efficient. Plans and ideas were also easier to realise.

The library began an innovation policy which saw staff members being invited to propose new services every year. These proposals are assessed and the best ones are invited to pitch their idea in person to the library management team. If they are successful the staff member is allowed a certain number of days to work on the project where they are relieved of their other duties. They are also promised a certain amount of matched funding from the library service if they are able to source funding from other partners, and they are given support to do so. In this way the library has managed to raise at least €1 million annually from external funding to develop services in connection with partners.

One example of a project that began in this way is the “Digital ABC” curriculum which the library staff developed together with local secondary school teachers. The aim of the curriculum is to teach young people how to access important digital public services. Having started in Aarhus it is now being taught across Denmark.

Pix 13

New delivery models

“We are working out how to run the libraries with a minimum of effort, through co-creating services with our communities”

There were 2,044,089 physical visits in the 18 libraries in Aarhus in 2014. Of those were 409,133 visits took place in the periods where there are no staff (the so called “open library”).

 “One way of thinking about it is to call it the ‘mashup’ library. We provide a space and then import services that have been developed and delivered by others into that space. Just like you might mash up a weather report or traffic information into your website”

Sundhedsuge på Gellerup Bibliotek, udstilling og vejledning om sund og usund kost for bl.a. indvandrere, her pige med tørklæde ser på sukkerindhold i forskellige drikke. © Foto: Søren Holm/Chili Dato: 09.10.03 Chili foto & arkiv

Sundhedsuge på Gellerup Bibliotek, udstilling og vejledning om sund og usund kost for bl.a. indvandrere, her pige med tørklæde ser på sukkerindhold i forskellige drikke.
© Foto: Søren Holm/Chili
Dato: 09.10.03
Chili foto & arkiv

One example of where this has worked particularly well is in areas with high immigrant populations where the library has partnered with health services so that midwives can offer information to pregnant women. Midwives then continue to work with children’s librarians to help young families run events and family reading groups so that they get the support and information they might not otherwise find.

“Libraries are mediators, the content they mediate can change. I’m not worried that this approach will dilute the library brand – we know what we are.”

Leveraging friends groups

“A lot of friends groups were started in Denmark in the early 2000’s when libraries were under threat. Although they can often be seen as a conservative force, in Denmark they are actually very progressive and they support libraries to try new things.”

Friends groups have been instrumental in funding expensive author visits to libraries and approaching authors to ask them to come to the library and speak to library users.

Innovation as a service

Aarhus libraries are working with Chicago Public Libraries and IDEO (an innovation business) to develop a toolkit for libraries to undertake rapid innovation and teach staff to think in terms of design. Specifically, they are looking at bringing in service users to co-create services.

Lifelong learning

Trige Kombi-bibliotek, kombineret skole- og folkebibliotek, her børn fra Bakkegårdsskolen og almindelig bruger.  © Foto: Søren Holm/Chili Dato: 09.10.03 Chili foto & arkiv

Trige Kombi-bibliotek, kombineret skole- og folkebibliotek, her børn fra Bakkegårdsskolen og almindelig bruger.
© Foto: Søren Holm/Chili
Dato: 09.10.03
Chili foto & arkiv

Approaches to learning in libraries have changed over the past 20 years:

“It’s not just about the physical entity of the book providing learning opportunities. It’s about human development, social cohesion, knowledge and idea spreading”

Lifelong learning in libraries is not just about the library’s collection of books, although that is still important. Libraries have always been about mediated learning and now they are also mediating the knowledge and learning that is held in the community. There is a change of focus from the book collection to the humans that engage with the library.

“Books are not the only source of knowledge transfer we have in the library – we also have knowledge in our communities and libraries can be places where ideas are spread.”


Mor læser bog for sit barn, læsetrappen på Børnebiblioteket på  Hovedbiblioteket i Århus.  © Foto: Claus Haagensen/Chili Dato: 27.09.03 Chili foto & arkiv

Mor læser bog for sit barn, læsetrappen på Børnebiblioteket på Hovedbiblioteket i Århus.
© Foto: Claus Haagensen/Chili
Dato: 27.09.03
Chili foto & arkiv

Lifelong learning activities and services in libraries are co-developed with library users. In 2014 Aarhus Public Libraries had 1651 events.  One example is the knitting club in Aarhus started because some women used to meet at the library to knit. The library staff asked them if they would be happy to include others in their knitting group and then proposed speakers and experts to come and talk to them about knitting. Club members were given advice and information about resources the library holds on knitting and asked to make their own book recommendations and the service grew from there.

“When people come through the door of the library we don’t see them as  clients, we see them as  resources. They all know something and can do something”

Partnership is also a key element of delivering lifelong learning support. For example, homework help cafes are delivered by the Danish Red Cross Youth Division four times a week in three libraries across Aarhus.

Reading groups are another strong trend in Denmark that are being supported by the library service. The library service has set up a website www.litteratursiden.dk which puts Danish readers in touch with each other, helping them to find out about reading groups taking place in libraries and other places nearby. It also connects readers with authors: the site lists all contemporary Danish authors and their works and allows readers to contact authors with questions and comments. The site also facilitates contacts between reading groups and libraries, so that they can borrow books from the library and use other library services. Although it is a user-driven service, the service is facilitated by the library service. This service also demonstrates the interconnections between the digital and physical world and new ways in which they are influencing each other. In 2014 the site had 3,313,091 unique visits with 11851 people have established profiles on the site. But the impact is also felt in Aarhus libraries- there  are 211 readers clubs registered in Aarhus libraries, with between 8 and 15 members in each. Registering with the library means that each club has a borrowers card that allows for special lending rights, such as several issues of the same title, and support in acquiring books from other libraries if needed.


Theories of the library

In my interview with him, Rolf Hapel described a “four room model” for what a library is that I thought it would be useful to share – although not all of these will be contained within the physical building, or be discrete from each other in practice:

  1. The inspiration space

A space for serendipitous learning – where you can find out about things you didn’t even think you were interested in

  1. Learning room

A place where you can access structured knowledge – either through book, e-resources or classes, peer-to-peer learning without having to be a member of an educational institution

  1. Meeting space

A space for democratic dialogue, where you can hold workshops, exchange views and ideas and where the community can ‘borrow’ physical space to do activities that are free to access and fit with the library’s public purpose

  1. Performative space

These are maker spaces, hack spaces and other ways of expressing yourself – poetry slam workshops and other creative activities that can take place in the library


A Gateway to the Future: San Giorgio Library – Pistoia, Italy


I spoke to Maria Stella Rasetti, the Director of Pistoia’s San Giorgio Library in Italy as part of the work I did for the Reading and Writing Foundation‘s Libraries Change Lives publication. We didn’t have space for the full case study in the publication but it was so inspirational to me, I’ve produced it in full here (with their permission).


Pistoia is a small city with around 90,000 inhabitants located in the central part of Tuscany. Although it is close to several major urban centres, such as Florence, Prato and Pisa, it is surrounded by mountains and has always been rather isolated and less well-known than its neighbours.

The town includes primary, middle and high schools. It also has a University that is linked with Florence University. Alongside traditional academic subjects, the university supports technical specialisms, such as engineering. The local industry is dominated by commercial arboriculture and engineering.

The financial crisis in 2008 had a significant local impact, particularly on small businesses in the area, many of which closed down.  But The local population is close knit and has a strong tradition of social solidarity. There has been some recent migration from within the European Union and Africa and these communities have been relatively easily absorbed into the local population.

Although the educational level is relatively high in the area, there is a specific skills gap among adults in relation to modern technology and computer use. Being able to effectively participate in the knowledge economy and conduct ecommerce and engagement is as an important factor for the redevelopment of small and medium size enterprise.

Developing the new library

_N0Z0406Since the 1600s Pistoia has had an impressive library housed in the historical centre of the town. The building is a beautiful example of Renaissance architecture. It also houses an important collection of historical manuscripts and books. However, the library was never well used by the local population. It had a circulation of around 23,000 loans per year and was mainly used by students and visiting scholars.

In 2000 a decision was made by the local Commune to build a new public library in the old industrial area of Pistoia. The new library was conceived as the centrepiece of a plan to kick-start redevelopment in the area, which had become derelict as local businesses moved to out-of-town locations. The site of the original Breda factory was chosen for the library, as a symbol of the renewal of the town and to signal the town’s optimistic ambitions for its future growth.  The new library is known as “The Knowledge Factory”, in a nod to its industrial roots and is housed in a converted warehouse of around 1,700 square feet.

“We wanted to create a library that was for everyone. Where anyone could come and feel at home, but also see something interesting and engage with all kinds of cultural activities.”

The library was conceived as an indoor ‘piazza’ or public forum. It has a large glass-fronted atrium with a tree growing in the centre. The tree alludes to the main local industry of arboriculture, the traditional material of books, the idea of growth, hope and development, the tree of knowledge and is a central focus where people congregate and share shelter, conversation and ideas.


There is a large exhibition area and an auditorium with 100 seats which is used as a public meeting and performance space and there are several smaller reading activity and meeting rooms branching off it at ground and first floor level. There is a privately run café bar and two cinema halls integrated into the library building, as well as a computer media suite and maker space.

Pistoia 1

The construction of the library was funded entirely from local taxes and cost E10 million. It costs E1.5 million per year to run the library, including staff costs and overheads. These core running costs are funded by local taxpayers, but there is no additional public funding for activities, courses or cultural additions to the core library offer. These all have to be provided on a goodwill basis in collaboration with the local community.

Soon after the library opened, in 2007, the financial crisis hit Pistoia, along with the rest of Italy. Maria Stella Rasetti took over the running of the library in 2008, just as the financial crisis began. The planned redevelopment of the rest of the industrial quarter in the town was in danger as building work on other public and private projects temporarily ground to a halt.

“We had money for the staff and to keep the lights on, but little more. And we’d just built a big library in a small city, which already had a library. We were under pressure to demonstrate the difference we could make to the town, to be the beacon of hope for the future. But we had no publicity budget, let alone money to stage cultural or arts activities.”

Her solution was to rely on a network of partnerships with local schools, the university, local businesses, volunteering organisations and the Civil Service (a volunteering option for those who do not wish to undertake military service), as well as encouraging her library staff to plan and run their own events. The library now runs around 800 individual free events each year (nearly 3 per day), including courses, workshops, talks, exhibitions, cinema screenings, performances, public meetings and information events about local services and initiatives.

Da collocare possibilmente a corredo della introduzione di Stella, senza necessità di relazione precisa con parti di testo

“We changed the way people in our town spend their free time. Where before they stayed at home or went into Florence on their days off, now they come here. They can do whatever they like – see an art exhibition, go on a course, read a book, hang out by themselves or catch up with friends. It’s the place of choice for the local community, and we have around 1,500 individual visits per day.”

The library averages 2 loans per head of local population per annum (in contrast with the national average of 0.5). And its open, collaborative approach hasn’t just changed the way the library is used, it has changed attitudes to the library among library staff and library users. Library staff, who used to act as protectors and conservators of the books, engage with users in new ways – for example putting reading recommendations inside cosmetics boxes, yoghurt pots branded “Healthy Mind” and boxes of vegetables for those on New Year health kicks.

“We don’t see ourselves as knowing more than anyone else, we’re there to welcome people and go on the journey with them”

And in return, the public value and feel involved in their new library:

“We haven’t had any vandalism, because people feel as though it’s their space. We started off creating a library for the people, but now it’s a library of the people”

The library has also fulfilled the original aim of regenerating a dilapidated area of Pistoia. There is now a school, University campus, healthcare centre, hotel and private apartment blocks where before there were only run-down warehouses and factories. The Commune is currently building a garden walkway to link the industrial zone with the historical town centre.

Digital inclusion


The free public events, courses and workshops at the library are designed around the principle of lifelong learning. The idea that learning does not stop when you leave school and that the library is the best place to deliver it is central to Maria Stella’s understanding of her mission:

“The library is the main social elevator we have at our disposal these days. It’s the best way to provide opportunities to all – schools can’t even out all social differences. Libraries offer free access to the most extraordinary opportunities which can help people to develop their working lives, their relationships and their interests. Libraries provide the opportunities but people can choose how they use them, they can create their own personal geographies using the tools offered by the library.”

Digital inclusion is a key element of the lifelong learning package offered by the library. People of all ages can take courses in anything from basic word processing, to how to safely use social media, to computer coding and 3D design.

“We stop people being ‘prisoners of technology’ and show them how they can be in control of it and use it in ways they never imagined. People come here all the time with a smart phone or a tablet – maybe they got it as a present or bought it, but they have no idea how to use it and in fact they are quite scared of it. But by the end they are crazy about the new technology, because they see what it can do for them – like being able to design and make something you need for your home using a 3D printer in the library, or take 100 books on holiday in just one Ereader.”


Many of the tutors are local young people and enthusiasts, keen to share their interest with others. Experts from the schools and universities also give up their time to host courses in everything from 3D printing to robotics.

“Some of our local robotics students are taking a robot they have made to an international Lego League in the USA”.

There are QR codes around the library building to signpost the resources available in different areas. A geo-tagged book trail leads readers through Pistoia’s historical town centre, allowing them to discover literature relating to their local monuments on their smart phones and share what they are reading with others in the community.

“We are taking digital activities out of the library and giving people a reason to engage with digital technology and the library, as they go about their daily lives.”

But it’s not all just new and cutting edge technologies. The older generations are bringing their own skills to hi-tech creativity and fabrication:

“We have a long tradition of domestic arts and handicrafts in Pistoia. People who are skilled in these traditional crafts are bringing their knowledge and translating it into new technologies – creating modern artefacts that blend old and new skills. This week we’re hosting a jewellery 3D printing workshop, for example.”

Maria Stella believes that by ensuring everyone has access to a broad range of new technologies, regardless of their ability to pay, the library is supporting the local population to benefit from the opportunities offered by the knowledge economy. But her vision is broader than just the economic benefits offered by digital inclusion:

“We used to bond together because of our shared roots, but now we can’t do that anymore – we’re all from different places. So the only thing we have in common is our shared experience of the present and our vision for the future. The library is the gateway to that shared future.”

When asked about whether digital activities are a core element of library work, or whether they are just a passing ‘fashion’, she is thoughtful:

“We should take all criticisms on board, because they help us to think about what we are doing. But libraries have always changed and absorbed new media and platforms for creativity. I don’t think digital activities are any different – and they must always be incorporated into the library’s core work. For us that is lifelong learning. If the maker space or media suite isn’t integrated into the library then of course, it won’t work. But here, it’s a logical part of what we do.”

Maria Stella’s thoughts on libraries in the 21st Century

For Maria Stella, the library has a fundamental role to play in 21st Century Europe.

“It is one of the most important agents we can use to form our contemporary citizens”


For her, libraries need to invest more in lifelong learning, rather than focussing only on activities for children and families. But there is no one model that is right for every community. Libraries need to look at the needs of their local populations and design their services to meet those needs, always aware that they are constantly changing and evolving.

The library is a growing organism. We need to be ready to change, to make mistakes, to try something else. There are many different ways of being a library in the 21st Century.”

And she firmly believes that in the current economic climate, and given the new diversity of creative media, no library will succeed in its aims on its own. But the necessity of creating partnerships can become a virtue, and one that spreads beyond the library into the social fabric of the local community.

“We have all become poorer since 2008. We need to create networks and share what we have with people or we won’t survive. But this way of doing things can create a virtuous circle. It’s a model that can multiply outwards.”


Her final word is for librarians and library staff. They have not only to embrace new ways of working, but also need to recognise the importance of what they are doing.

“I always say that being a librarian is the most amazing job. I walk around in my home town feeling like I am making a difference to people’s lives and that my job matters. I call it ‘library pride’.”

(All images courtesy of San Giorgio Public Library)

Libraries Change Lives


A couple of weeks ago I was at a fancy lunch event in Brussels – with an actual princess – (that’s how they do things there).

No, it wasn’t some corporate jolly, it was an event to publicise the role of the 65,000 public libraries in the lives of the 503 million inhabitants of the European Union.

Funded by the Gates Foundation and designed and delivered by the Reading and Writing Foundation, a Dutch thinktank for literacy development in Europe, it was a bit of a masterclass in lobbying for the relatively uninitiated (me).

LIbraries Change Lives event

I must admit that the majority of public library natives there were a bit bemused – this isn’t our natural habitat – we’re much more comfortable in community halls with cups of tea and biscuits.

But this event wasn’t aimed at us – it was aimed at some of the 751 MEPs who debate European Legislation and who could have influence over the perceived status, importance and role of public libraries in their countries of origin, and, of course, at European level.

I don’t know about other countries in Europe but in the UK this kind of lobbying just isn’t usually done. We don’t see the relevance of EU parliamentarians in our daily life, funding or strategic priorities. And we don’t often look to our closest neighbours (with the noble exception of the Scandinavians) for examples of innovative and inventive library service delivery – we’re far more likely to look to the anglophone countries overseas. Perhaps this is natural, but we might just be missing a trick.

LIbraries change lives book

(The book I helped write)

I must declare an interest here, I was involved in drafting some of the think piece articles in the publication presented to MEPs at the event, but I learnt a lot through this process:

  1. If you can convince an MEP that public libraries are relevant to their brief and worth talking about, then you can probably convince anyone
  2. You can be ambitious and shout about the difference your library can make to important political priorities, even if it’s not the shiniest, best funded library around
  3. The room lit up when ordinary library users, who were invited to the lunch, shared their stories of how libraries had changed their lives – from the migrant who learnt German at the library and was volunteering to help others, to the unemployed man who joined the job club and is now in full time employment
  4. There are models for community libraries out there in some of the least well off European countries that show just how much can be done with community involvement and good will (more on this in later posts)
  5. Building an amazing library is just the beginning of delivering excellent service – listening to Francine Houben describe her inspiration for the Library of Birmingham was breath-taking – but the way that vision has been demolished by funding cuts following its opening, equally so

Francine houben

(Francine Houben on the inspiration for the Library of Birmingham)

I also heard critiques of this event – that we were talking to the self-selected more ‘friendly’ MEPs and that this kind of lobbying feels too far removed from everyday service delivery.

These may be justified, but what the Reading and Writing Foundation have created is a bank of video case studies and testimonials on Youtube and a digital publication with many of the video protagonists’ stories. These publications focus on key messages and policy areas, which anyone can use or take as a template for their own lobbying activities.

The Reading and Writing Foundation want to start a Europe-wide debate about the value and contribution of public libraries, and that sounds like something worth doing to me.