Why do they come? The Library as place and brand

You probably all know the scene: A library reading hall with endless rows of students working, studying, learning. Alone together. A nice view. Makes me happy every time I cross it. But we should never stop question our services and our users behavior (also when it’s a very positive behavior) and I often ask myself: “Why do they come? Why don’t they sit at home and study?”. Some of them for sure because they are gonna pick up a book or need library help or instruction and don’t get me wrong: I love a library filled with working students and I think we do an awesome job giving them good conditions but still, why do they come just to sit and work? I find the question important because it might be a window to both insights on the library and the people using them.

humWhy do they come? Students working at Faculty Library of Humanities, Copenhagen University Library

I think the questions holds several answers. Sometimes, when I ask the question out loud, I get the answer from library professionals that it’s because we, as libraries, are excellent at creating learning and study environments. I will not argue that is not a part of the answer but if we break that part down, what we do, are providing our libraries with tables and chairs so our users have places to work. Other institutions, for instance the universities themselves, can do that pretty well too I guess and I don’t believe it’s the only or most significant answer to the question

I think the answers should be found elsewhere but before I dig into that I like to tell you a story from one of my libraries.

Case: Thrashed campus, neat library

At the Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Copenhagen we have two physical library sites: The Faculty Library and a smaller Study Library at the center of campus. The Study Library has a small reference desk that are staffed from 10 am to 3 pm on weekdays and 3 large reading halls which are open from 8 am to 10 pm which means, they are un-staffed every day for 9 hours. I meet with the provost at the faculty ones every month to deal with cases evolving the library. He often complains about the way the students treat campus; Trash everywhere, a trail of parties, broken stuff etc. For some reason we never experience this at the Study Library even though it’s un-staffed many hours everyday. Why is that? Why do they trash campus but cherish the library? I think the answer to the question “Why do they come?” could be found in this pattern of behavior and I think it has to come with both the library as brand, development of the library as place and the life of the student in 2017.

The Library: A trustworthy brand since 2600 BC

I would argue that a  part of the answer to why students flock to academic libraries to work has to be found in the library as a brand. In my whole professional carrier I have been hearing voices inside the profession who calls libraries and librarians ‘traditional’ and ‘dusty’ and is arguing that we need to re-shape the brand of libraries. I don’t mind taking a discussion about re-shaping the brand but what if the library in the head of the users are just what they need? Thinking about it, libraries has been around for almost 5000 years and has since the introduction of public libraries during the Enlightenment era been associated with spaces for learning, education, research and cultural activity. Our values are openness, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (or at least that the values I like to be floating through my libraries). We are democratic institutions (but not neutral!). The book itself, which many link with libraries (for good reasons), are one of the strongest brands in the world. Looking at the example with The Study Library at Social Sciences I would not conclude that students love libraries but they for sure respect them.

Libraries don’t want people’s money – libraries want them to succeed, want them to learn, to explore, want to give them access to a bigger world.

In a highly commercial, capitalistic and digitized world, I think many students in higher education connects with that. So what if our brand is a bit traditional? It’s strong and it’s trustworthy and we should acknowledge that and use it in the future development of libraries.

19a8ff0760f0904dd9cb1a4e4e03226f--peterborough-the-libraryPeterborough, New Hampshire Town Library. First free public library supported by taxation founded April 9. 1833

Discipline, identity and belonging

The conditions for Danish students in higher education has changed pretty radical over the last couple of years: There are clear limits for your time of being a student, you got 5 years to finish your study or you are out. You can take on education and then decide to switch to another. The weekly hours students has access to there teachers and supervisors has been limited. It’s harder to get into most studies, the demands for good grades are bigger than before. I will not go into a discussion on how this development is good or bad in the bigger picture for higher education but I think it has forced our students to take on a more professional and disciplinary approach than before. They discipline themselves with going to the library to work. They make a work day of it: Waiting in front of the library in the morning till it opens, find a good spot to study and finish around 3 or 4. Couldn’t they just do that at home? Sure but we all know that you often rather do the dishes than reading Foucault. To many distractions at home. The library gives them an opportunity to separate their private life from there study so they can be more relaxed while at home.

It can be hard being a student. And lonesome. The social aspects of students life is crucial for there ability to be the best students and human beings they can be. Look at remote students: The drop-out rates are way higher than regular students studying at a physical university with other students. With the decreasing hours in class and supervision students are looking for other places to boost there academic identity as students, as learners. They probably find that in different places but one of the places are The Library. Alone together sure but every time they look up they see that they are not alone. That is important and closely connected with the last aspect of why students come to work at the library: Belonging.

We all need to belong to something; a family, a job, a football team, a nation. If you tell me you don’t need to belong I say you either a psychopath or a liar. Students and researchers at institutions of higher education are no different from that. For many students the study is a huge part of there life and I think it’s crucial for there well being and ability to perform that they feel that they belong. Same go with researchers and teachers. As an open space, not focused on administration or grades, I think the library can help students with the feeling of belonging with stimulating their academic identity and create and facilitate spaces where they can connect with other students (and teachers and researchers).

Looking at disciplines, identity and belonging one could argue that the university or Starbucks could also created those aspects in student life. Maybe, but not so successful as the library I would say. Why is that then? Because the library, as I pointed out in the beginning, is a 100% awesome brand and place. It’s solid, it’s open, it’s there to help you not because it want you money but simply because that’s the job of the library, it’s a place for learning and enlightenment, it’s a space that want you to succeed and don’t give you grades or mark you as a good or bad student, it’s simply a wonderfully place and a very powerful brand. Let’s acknowledge that as library professionals and not try to make the library something it’s not.

Perspectives: Is a library without books still a library and the perfect jungle for social animals 

So we have students flocking into our libraries and I’ve tried to answer why they come with different perspectives as outlined above. That’s nice but so what? Should we just sit back and be happy about our foot traffic stats?

No. First of all I strongly believe that the library as place is a potential cornerstone in students well being and success if we acknowledge that physical spaces is not getting less significant in a world that is getting more digitized – I believe we will experience the opposite. We are human beings and social animals. We need to be around other people to function, explore, develop, be challenged, have fun, be alive, learn, do good. ‘Online’ will not replace that. Ever.  That goes in general and for higher education and research.

I want us to embrace this and actively use the critical mass of working learning minds in our spaces to create value, network, diversity and inclusion in higher education and research. I want us not just to focus on chairs and tables but to take on an active approach to the library as place and facilitate cross-disciplinary activities. When we bring people together from different backgrounds great things happens. People who thinks alike accomplish nothing. Let the library be the social and academic jungle for people of different race, gender, age, political views, cultural and economic capital and subjects of interest, study and research.

At a talk a while ago I asked the question “Is a library without books still a library” and my own answer was yes: If we . Link to blog post: “Is a library without books still a library? Some thoughts on The Library as place”.

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.

Let’s use that space that’s left when the books leave the library to make a jungle to make the wildlife and diversity of higher education flourish.


Final note: Track the behavior

In the above I’m kind of guessing on why students come to the library in 2017 if it’s not to get a book or get professional help. I don’t take a big swing in the dark, I take in what I see, observe and believe and make conclusions from that, but it’s not a study. I don’t have a quantitative or qualitative data set at hand.

It’s important that we don’t just take light swings in the dark when we talk about the use and non-use of libraries and the life of our users and non-users. So my Final note on asking ourselves questions on why and how users use (or not use) libraries is: Don’t just guess and don’t just ask them. If you ask them you only get an answer to what you ask and that might no be the whole picture. If I ask 10 students if they would like 24 hours access to the library they are likely to all answers “yes, sure” but it’s not the same as they would actually use it. User Experience (UX) methods and research holds an important key to understanding our users behavior and needs in the present and developing libraries for the future.

Huge shutout to UX heroes like Andy Priestner and Anneli Friberg and other #UXLibs folks who in theory and practice advocate, support and empower the library community with UX tools, methods and awareness. Keep it up.

An remember: “The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water, and food” – Dean Ornish

Comments on this matter is highly appreciated





  1. If I may share a piece of personal anecdote to emphasize your point of belonging? When I came to Aarhus University to study in the early nineties, there was absolutely no tradition for studying in the library – at least not at my Department of History of Ideas. From the beginning, I settled in one of the desks and obtained keys so I could come and go as I pleased. The reason was partly that I was used to this way of studying from Norway, but it also meant a place I could belong to – new in town, you can stand the loneliness of your room for only so long. Now, the library was lonely too – but staying there helped me feel connected to the purpose of my stay: the academic studies and the intellectual environment, which truth be told was represented only by the books and theses on the shelf. Every once in a while a faculty member would lock himself in (yes, at the time they were all men…) and, surprised to see me reading there, ask me with grave concern if I didn’t have a place to live.
    As a foreign student you always talk to a lot of other foreign students, and as I told them about how to get library keys, we were soon a small group spending our days and evenings there. The Danish students starting noticing what was going on, as we all hung around after lectures (yes, daily lectures in a Humanities Department; this was the nineties). Many were attracted to the academic discipline we imposed on each other (come at 10, lectures and short breaks, read till 21, only then head to the bars), the intellectual discussions of each other’s’ work and the social atmosphere as we stepped out into the corridors for a smoke (again, the nineties). In fact, it got so popular that the keys and library desk had to be rationed, and when I came back to teach at the same place a couple of years later, they, were obtained after application only. This last development was not ideal; hopefully the increased demand was met by University and Library management. Anyway – what this nostalgia-dripping trip through ivy-covered halls shows me is exactly how the library work environment can foster a community of peers without much institutional orchestration necessary. The enabling of space and access was enough, the more it was up to us to build and maintain the study environment, the more we felt that we belonged there. Obviously, this need for belonging may be particularly acute for foreign students, but I wouldn’t underestimate the value this can have for students of any kind. This is not to say that the library should not create activities, hold classes or arrange workshops – only that it is vital to keep at least a part of the library as open, unrestricted and free as possible for the students to make of it what they see fit. Also, at my time, a desk, an ashtray, and a set of keys was all we needed; I’m happy to see that institutions keep up with the demand for accessible, flexible spaces, and are alert to what enables students to make the most of them. One particular example I saw this spring was the learning centre of the KU Leuven, which among many other features had installed pick-up boxes for mail purchase deliveries (see https://twitter.com/knanton/status/847383178415230977 ). This was based on studies showing that one of the things that kept their students from using the learning space (and reaping its benefits) was their having to wait home for mail deliveries. One of a myriad simple ways of enabling students to use, enjoy and develop their academic environment. Best of luck with the continued work, Christian!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is truly a wonderful story, Knut. Thank you so much for sharing. I really like your point with keeping parts of the library open, unretricted and free for students to use and create to whatever they like in order to foster a feeling of belonging.

      The KU Leuven case underlines the importance of libraries not only thinking about the core business but tries to understand the whole life of the student


  2. Really interesting article and thoughts. I believe there is definitely something in the legacy of the term ‘library’ – in conversation with students they have indicated that, although there are other places on campus and at home to study, the behaviour in the library is different. They are quieter and more studious. Perhaps it helps being surrounded by others who are focusing in the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The legacy of the library” – it got a nice ring to it doesn’t it 🙂 I think you are spot on that being surrounded by others focusing and working in the same way is very helpful and stimulating for students

      Thanks for the reply

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for a good read, Christian. I think you are pretty accurate in your thinking, especially the part about belonging (as the reply from Knut exemplifies in a brilliant way). Also the part about the library as a brand. Maybe it’s not the brand we need to re-shape but the content (our library instructions/user education, library services, library spaces etc.)? That’s what we should be re-shaping, re-thinking and re-inventing – in order to better meet our users changing needs and behavior. I do agree with this: “our main assignment in my opinion is to support research, education and learning”, although I usually think about it like this: “our main assignment is to help our users (students, researchers and others) to get from A to B (to complete their tasks/assignments/research) by making their user journey as smooth as possible”. Also, maybe we need to think differently about branding? How do we communicate the value of the library’s brand? Finally, thanks for the shout-out! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It was so timely that I read your article today. I am a teacher librarian in a senior high school in Australia and our year 12 students are currently studying for their final exams. They have a week study break before the exams but many are still coming to the school library to study alone together rather than stay at home. It makes me happy that they value the learning environment and also feel connected within the library.


  5. I have a library located directly behind my home. When I found out New York was cutting back on funding and looking to close down a few libraries, I was annoyed. Luckily our community, voiced an outrage. In the day of technology where books can be rented and bought online, it is a bit intoxicating to move up and down an isle of Hemmingways, Jamaica Kincaids and Mya Angelous. My guilty pleasure, has to be within paper pages and large quiet rooms


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