Is a library without books still a library? Some thoughts on The Library as space

Text of my talk at The Danish Research Library Associations Winter Assembly 2017, Korsoer, Denmark.

I like people. Not all people but in general. I strongly believe that people talking to each other, sharing ideas, challenging one another on believes and arguments makes this world a better place. The landscape of human beings interacting has changed. The rise of social media platforms as a arena for sharing of opinions has change the way we talk to each other. It has changed the culture of communication. Is some cases to a more hostile, superficial, alternative facts environment. It’s easier to bash people when you don’t have to look them in the eyes I guess. In order to try to maintain a sound, healthy and democratic world we need to be aware of this development. I’m not anti social media, not at all, I’ll embrace them, but they are changing our game fundamental. And I think libraries are an important and unique counterpoint to this development as a platform for people to get together, talk, share ideas and opinions in a safe space, both within society and academia.

We must never stop talking and listening to each other.

I will, using our Data Lab at the Faculty of Social Sciences Library as a case, talk about the library as both a physical and mental platform for dialog between people in order to support research, education and learning by bringing people together. In this case the focus is on creating a platform for sharing knowledge ant network within data handling and data analysis, digital methods and social sciences but I believe the concept can applied to many areas.

The physical library space has been going through a highly interesting development and have changes a lot over the years and I like us to think beyond the library as a place for a collection and a traditional study environment with table and chairs. I like to take on a more active approach to the library as place and will give examples on how to do that.

You must know your past in order to understand your present, so before I get to the core of this story I would like to take you all along on a little tour – I would not call it a library historical tour, that would be too narrow – let’s call it is a story of what has always driven humans towards a better world: education, research and learning with the library in a leading role.

Historically we see two counterpoints: Knowledge is power and information sets you free. Both are true, and the library has pretty much served them both. In the early medieval Europe we find Monastery Libraries were huge collections of books where made in scriptoriums. It  was a long and patient process where crafty members of the monastery wrote and illustrated the books. The access to the library collection was reserved for the few and the librarian was a powerful man (not many female librarians around monasteries) that to a great extent was more of a guardian than an intermediary to the collection. The book could not be borrowed, it could graciously be accessed. The physical libraries were fortresses, guardians of powerful knowledge.


I jump to one of my favorite periods in history, the Enlightenment. Who had just been a librarian in the Enlightenment, right?. For both libraries and our world in general the Enlightenment, combined with Gutenberg’s printing press came with significant changes. Philosophy and science were to expand human knowledge about the world they lived in and the gained knowledge should be used to question the authority of Crown and Church. The book was an absolutely perfect medium for disseminating these ideas and with Gutenberg’s printing press it could suddenly go tremendously fast. The libraries became public and was open to everybody and it was free to borrow books and the libraries role as supporting institution of free and equal access to knowledge for all was established. Through the collection the library was a window to the world, an open and accessible place for everyone and the librarian managed with a steady hand the huge book collections. Now I just want us all to take a moment and think about how extremely beautiful and important this was and still is.

We make a rapid jump to the library in the year 2017 where a forceful trend in recent years, at least in Danish academic library context, has been that the number of physical titles at the library fell while the number of students who came to work at the library increased. There are still plenty of academic and research libraries, varying from subject to subject, with huge book collections in the physical library, but I think most of us can agree that we are generally moving towards less physical collections in open academic libraries.

In the context of this development I think it is interesting to ask whether a library without books is still a library? And if so, what do we need library buildings for? I think personally that a library is not only defined by its collection – whether it be physical or electronic. It is a very important part, but our main assignment in my opinion is to support research, education and learning, and it relies on other activities than just the collection.


Libraries has for many years been quite successful by providing a physical study and learning environment for primary students on the square meters that was vacant when the book collection moved out. We have created a varied learning environment with reading rooms, group rooms and lounge areas with different types of tables, chairs, sofas etc. Students has been flocking to the library to work and I think this is because the library is a solid brand that signals tranquility, knowledge, contemplation and openness which has given the students study stimulation and study disciplining and a kind of community and identity. It’s completely different setup and identity you find to sit and study at a reading room than at home in your dorm room. It seems more professional to meet with you study group in a library than in private. Plus, very important I think, they have valuable assistance from library staff at hand. They may not use the library staff directly everyday but the awareness that it’s there and will help you if needed I think is important for most students.

It’s has been a successful use of the physical library which have created value and have supported students success and we must continue the good work with this kind of learning environment. But today I will show you an approach to a more active support of research, education and learning taking place in the physical academic library.

Very roughly, one can say that we have gone from a physical library as a place for a collection to a library with tables and chairs (again, I know this doesn’t goes for all libraries but for many). At The Faculty Library of Social Sciences (a part of Copenhagen University Library) we have tried to carry out an active utilization of library space for learning and network activities – and I’m not talking about on the regular library instruction – I’m talking about a facilitating approach where the library actively are setting a platform where people meet and learn from each other.


We don’t have patent on these thoughts. Back in the late 1800s Justin Windsor, the first president of the American Library Association, pointed out that The Library both had to be “…a repository, a collection, but also a workshop, a place where you together could be informed and learn about the world“. I highly agree with Mr. Windsor.

The world is not a static place – react on it

At The Faculty Library of Social Sciences, we opened Digital Social Science Lab on 18th of February 2016 as a reaction to some of the changes we saw around us. When the world changes, it often affects the institutions and people we serve and when they change, libraries should also take a good look at whether there is something they should change. And it seemed that something was changing and to frame what this was all about, I’ll like to tell you a little story from my own exciting academic life; When I did my master thesis at The Royal School of Library and Information Science in Copenhagen back in 2007 I did interviews with relevant people to collect information and data on my field of interest (University Libraries); I had recorded the interviews, transcribed them and analyze what was said in them. That was my data and the way of handling it. Pretty solid and straight forward method. Today students and researchers has other opportunities to explore the world. In Digital Social Science Lab we recently had a master student presenting how he harvested 2.5 million online articles on the crypto marked, analyzed them with a machine learning method called topic modeling and in the end visualized the huge amount of data in one single slide illustrating how the public opinion talked about the cryto marked over a period of 5 years. There is only 9 years between the two papers but they hold a proof of a huge difference in the way scholars work. Both methods are valid today and we are not trying to say, that one way is better than the other – we are simply trying to show students and researcher that there are other opportunities today.

To meet this change and development in higher education we established Digital Social Science Lab. DSSL is a physical space for education and instructions for data handling within social sciences, it’s software and hardware for harvesting, clearing, analyzing and visualizing various kinds of data, it’s a community but most of all it’s a reaction – a reaction to a changing world and needs of our students, teachers and researchers.

In DSSL we have initiated some activities in order to create a bridge between the students and the digital methods. The library teach and do workshops on various software and methods for handling and analyzing data within social sciences – for example Netvizz and TCAT for harvesting data, Open Refine for cleaning, NVivo, SPSS and Excel for analysis and Gephi for visualization. It is a very important part of DSSL, but that’s not what I want to talk about in this context. What I want to focus on is the facilitating work we put into it our data lab: We are trying to create a platform for people to meet and learn from each other in relation to work with data, we are trying to create a community where the library serves as platform and the librarian as facilitator.


Examples of the library as facilitating platform

One of the specific activities we are doing is an event series we call Digital Methods Sessions. It is an event where we invite students in to present their work with digital methods and data management for their fellow students. We typically have three groups of 20 minutes’ duration for the purpose of inspiring there peer students and give insights on other methods than the traditional ones. Digital Methods Sessions is not about learning something hands-on, the purpose is to inspire and create networks and new relationships.

We do one or two session per semester and we simply use our campus network to get students to come and share there ideas: Talk to the students and researchers we know have an interest in digital methods to hear if they know anybody who would be interesting in presenting; make calls in the various Facebook-groups relevant for the faculty etc. The more sessions we do the easier it seems to get students to come and present there work. We always wrap a session up with some snacks and beverages to support the network part of the concept.

Students presenting data visualization at Digital Method Session in DSSL

Another facilitating activity is Data Sprint’s. A data sprint is a time-limited often intensive research and coding workshop where people from different academic and non-academic communities convene physically on a set of data within a curtain topic. The two latest data sprint’s has been on crypto marked and just a month ago a all-day, week-long data sprint on fake news which we co-hosted with TANT-Lab, our sister data lab, from Aalborg University. The data sprint was open for everybody and it was extremely satisfying to see scholars from the different institutions work together with journalists and just regular people walking in from the street. The aim of data sprint’s like these are typical two-fold: 1) to raise awareness on how digital methods can be used on various subjects and a more concrete final result of working with the data. In this case the data sprint contributed to a global Field Guide to Fake News.

IMG_8406Data sprint break in Digital Social Science Lab

A key in the facilitating approach is collaboration with other parties in or outside the academic community. That could be students or faculty members, other instituions of higher education, companies, NGO’s and governmental institutions relevant in the specific case. We had an awesome and valuable collaboration with Open Knowledge Denmark – a part of the global Open Knowledge network, an NGO that advocates for access (and awareness) to open knowledge and open data. Together we have hosted Open Data Day in DSSL which is a yearly global event that serves as a celebration of open data all over the world with hundreds of local events where people will use open data in their communities. It has been such great events an this facilitation comes with the extra benefit that Open Data Day is open for everybody so we get the chance to hook our students and faculty members up with a lot of outside people with different perspectives and skill sets. How does this even come to happen one could ask? Well, in general we reach out, drink coffee and agree to make it happen.

Another more simple and basic type of event is to get someone to talk on a topic and then release the discussion afterwards. That is pretty normal in both public and academic libraries but that is because it works and we should remember to celebrate that. We recently had a huge event with Rufus Pollack, the founder of Open Knowledge, who gave a talk in Digital Social Science Lab on which models we could use to create an open knowledge society. We got a limit of 60 people in the lab and there was 70 present this evening; students, scholars, politicians, business people, librarians and just normal kinda people with an interest for the topic. It was a melting pot of discussion and sharing of perspectives on this very important matter. Was it hard and a lot to get Rufus to come then? No, we got a call from our friends in Open Knowledge Denmark who we did the Open Data Day with and they said the Mr. Pollack was in town on other business but would like to do a more open discussion event somewhere – cold we co-host this. Sure. Thanks again network and coffee drinking.

The last example on how the facilitating approach in the physical library space can be used is actually not an active move by the library – it’s more of a consequence of the work we do. We discovered that there was a lot of independent Stata workshops (Stata is a program for working statistical data) going on in Digital Social Science Lab. It was simply students who had been meting each other at various DSSL events and now had started a study group sharing knowledge and collaborating on Stata. We building communities here, ladies and gentlemen. Creating spaces where can meet, talk and share.

The value of facilitating peer-to-peer learning in the library space

What we are doing circle a little around the peer-to-peer setup. Now I’m not a learning expect but I can see that something different is happening when we set the scene with peer-to-peer sessions instead of the regular instructor/expert-to-student setup.


First of all it gives us other opportunities to create different events and learning content than if we where to be the expert/teacher/instructor on every event. I only have a certain amount of library staff, resources and skills and we have no chance to cover the whole spectrum of relevant digital methods and tools. And sometimes a student simply looks different at a certain method or tool than a library be course they are more often to use it on tasks in there academic life and not only as an instructor.

Then there is the actually learning situation. Then the librarians teach they represent an institution and they come with some sought of authority. That is totally cool and I think and hope many students see the teaching librarian as someone who really want to make the students succeed which gives the librarian a pretty cool role. But it’s different than a student who shares some knowledge and experience on a specific tool or method: The librarian is a professional and the student is a peer and when students see I think students are more likely to think “hey, if Joe from sociology can do this Gephi data visualization for his paper so can I”.

They way we set our facilitating events up we want the participants to be as equal as possible, we want them to collaborate and to work together. We don’t want one person standing at a chalk board being the expert. We want them to talk to each other, learn from each other, challenge each other. Peer-to-peer learning seems to be really great at that.

The librarians role

So what is the librarians role in using the library space in a facilitating and active approach? What skills does it take?


First of all I think some of the output could happen by itself, people in general like to learn new stuff and talk to other people, but it would not happen to the extend it does when the library actively set the scene. I have a lab director on Digital Social Science Lab and a part of his job is very much to drink coffee with various folks discussing how we together could do stuff that bridges digital methods and scholars. Some of that coffee talk is just coffee talk but a lot of it he puts into actually activities and events like the ones mentioned above. How does he come from talk to and event? His mind is set on letting others use the library as a platform to share, learn and get inspired. So at some point doing the talking he says “that sounds cool, how would you like if we did a little event on this anytime soon?”. Most people really like to share the knowledge they got – just basic human behavior – so it often doesn’t take much persuasion to get people on board. Then there follows some planning on the event and some practical stuff and it’s a wrap.

Skills? I don’t know. It’s hard to pinpoint specific skills that goes with this but if you got an eye for bringing people together, can communicate why it’s relevant and got a strong stomach (for all the coffee) you come a long way.

Final note – why does it work to use the library this way?

Digital Social Science Lab is a success. And a big part of this success is that we have managed to facilitate learning and network in the lab and have created a community within digital methods and social sciences.

Could we do this without a physical room. Maybe digital or just outside the library, somewhere on campus. I don’t think so or at least I’m sure it would not have the same impact. One of the reasons this is working so well is that we are doing in A Library. Sometimes as library professionals we seem to forget it but libraries are one of the most solid and trustworthy brands in the world. Both public and academic libraries are viewed as open spaces for enlightenment, collaboration, knowledge and experiences. A place where everybody is welcome. We make communities smarter (courtesy to library hero Jan Holmquist for the saying) by bringing people together. That is the library in the mind of many people with or without a physical collection. It’s important we remember this when we create and talk about libraries now and in the future.

I hope you all got some inspiration on how to use the library space for community building through a facilitating approach and to return to my opening question, is a Library without books still a library? If you believe that a library is not only defined by it’s collection but by the way it succeed to support learning, education and research. Remember; A Library is not a goal in itself, it’s a mean to contain those very things. When stuff around us changes, like physical books disappearing from the library, let’s take up an active approach to continuously support and create values for our communities.

And the one last note on the library decor in this facilitating environment: Different kinds of learning demands different kinds of physical learning setups plus nothing is static, you might want to change things at some point in the future. That is why the library decor should be flexible and mobile. Put things on wheels or whatever.





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