Are we making libraries for people or libraries for books?

What is the purpose of the academic library building when it’s no longer filled with a physical collection of books and journals?

I had the pleasure of presenting two different perspectives on the development of the physical academic library space at The Danish Research Library Association’s annual meeting in Aarhus on the 17th and 18th of September (slides can be seen at the bottom of this post).

The two perspectives is what I call the traditional and the intelligent library space.

The traditional in ‘traditional library space’ is meant in every positive way and is framing the great work we have been doing on library space development for years; a diverse space with a variation of different kind of student environment, e.g. group rooms, lounge areas, small study hubs and large reading halls, along with an aestetic and nice atmosphere. And it works – we are great at it, it creates value and the academic libraries will continue to work on this.

The intelligent library space is grounded in our work with Digital Social Science Lab at The Faculty Library of Social Sciences – a physical lab to connect academia with tools, skills and methods to handle data. The ‘intelligent’ part is the skills that is embedded in the lab.

The development of the traditional and intelligent library space is not a question of either/or. They are highly connected and should co-exist in development and in practice. Togther they create value to the academic community.   

Asking the right question: “Why?”

The development of the intelligent library is closely related to the development of the traditional library space.

My favorite question to ask in my professional life is always “why” and “why a physical library space?” is an interesting question because the answer to the question has changed over the last 20 years or so. In all time, before the migration to the electronic medium, the academic library as a building has highly been a place to storage and access a physical collection of materials. The library was filled with books and journals on shelves like big temples of knowledge fixed in physical materials. Those days are long gone – at least at The Faculty Library of Social Sciences and The Copenhagen University Library. We spent approximately 7,5 million US dollars yearly on electronic resources and 700.000 US dollars on physical materials and most of the physical books we have are in remote stacks. So asked 20 years or so ago the answer to the question would have been something like “to collect and storage a collection and make it accessible to the academic community “. Asked today the answer would be different:

We are making libraries for people – not for books.

The consequences of this development are significant – or at least they should be if you act on them. The library has a lot of extra space to use for something else than shelves with books and the very identity of a library as a building full of books is under pressure.

The books and journals are retrieving from the academic library shelves – what should be the library building function of the library space post-books? 

The academic library anno 2015: A library for people, not books. Here the Faculty Library of Humanities, Copenhagen University Library

The bigger picture: Liberating library services from the physical space

So when you step back for a while and look at the bigger picture of academic library development I think it’s fair to say that we, apart from national and special collection libraries, have moved away from a library that functions as a building to storage books and journals to a building that serves as a working space for students and were many of the services, e.g. instructions, bibliometrics, open access, data services, is liberated from the physical library space. Some of them might take place there but could – or should  – function apart from the actual library building, e.g. in the lecture hall or researchers office.

So is the library building in itself still important in 2015? The students that comes there to work might just be as happy if they have a chair and a table anywhere and one could question if study environment, table and chairs at a library, really is a core library task? I don’t think the future of the academic library space post physical collection is fixed in the traditional study environment but in a combination of this and relevant academic support to the community – services that is not grounded in the building but in the skills of great librarians and other library folks. With the growth of data labs within academic libraries there also seems to be a tendency to re-embed researchers and students as an active player in the library space  were focus is shifting from the physical collection to instructions and workshops on data handling and research methods instead.

The library collection: more accessible, less space and lower resources 

The collection? It ‘s still as important as ever. It is, and will for many years on, be a cornerstone in the academic library. But it has changed form: It’s even greater and more accessible than ever before since electronic books and journals don’t get checked out and don’t take up any shelves at the library and at the very same time the administration of licenses don’t take up that many resources as the handling of physical collection. This means that even in times with budget cuts we have been able to scale up services like data, bibliometric, open access and copyright services.

The academic library of the present and the future is a library for people – not for books.

Slides from my presentations on the development of the traditional and intelligent library space [in danish]

The traditional library space

The intelligent library space



Leave a Reply to peterals Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s