The Library Lab

Beyond tables and chairs: The Library as facilitating platform


Text of my talk at the LIBER LAG Conference in Vienna April 18 – 20 2018

Hi all, my name is Christian. I’m with The Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen and is head of Roskilde University Library, Faculty Library of Social Sciences and The Administrative Library. I’m really thrilled to be with you here in Vienna to talk about the library as a place.

I find it a bit ironic that I’m talking in a session called ‘Learning Centers’ when I, well hate is a strong word, but I really have some big issues about the term ‘learning center’ used in library context. To me libraries are very much about learning and about people meeting, collaboration and talking. The library is also about collections for sure but a collection in itself is not the goal, the goal is to support learning, education and research and libraries are great at that so let’s just call it a library.

This is a library architecture conference and I have heard many great talks on library architecture the last couple of days. but I am not gonna talk about library architecture. I am not gonna talk about buildings, refurbishment or where to pick the best tables and chairs. I am not gonna talk about the wonders of having a landmark architectural piece of eye candy of a library building. I am gonna talk about the library as a place for what is has always been about: Learning, education, research and enlightenment and how we can actively empower that through the library as a physical space. I will use our Data Lab at The Faculty Library as a case for this but it is important to say that the idea can be applied in many areas.

What makes a great place? And is a library without books still a library?

But first I like to ask you two questions.

Is a physical library without any physical books or journals still a library? Imagine your library and take away all the books and journals – is it still a library? Is it the books and journals that defines a building as a library. Or is it something else?

[this question gave spark to a lively discussion among the audience most pointing at, that the aim and value of a library building in 2018 were beyond the storage of a physical collection]

In a world that is becoming more and more digital this is not only a rhetorical or philosophical question. It is a crucial question – at least in Copenhagen. And actually also an essential question we should never stop asking ourselves – what is a library and what makes it significant and valuable. I don’t believe that a physical collection defines a library building, it is a big part of our legacy and identity as libraries but the scope and the meaning of the library has always been greater than a book collection.

Next question: What makes a great place? Try to think about a place that you were recently that just made you feel good and comfortable, that made you feel safe and welcome. That is a subjective feeling what defines what one find a great place but I find it really useful, whenever I’m in a place where I really feel good, where I feel that I belong, to think about what it is about that place that make me feel like that. And then I start thinking that about how to take some of that and maybe transfer it into the library space. Chances are that I’m not the only one who feel that way about that place.

[a lady among the audience shared a wonderful story about a pastry café she visited in Vienna the day before were the decor, the smell and the service just made her feel at home]

If we look at the library building historical it has been a place to storage and access information and knowledge bound to physical formats like books and journals. Many libraries don’t need that place for storage and access the same way anymore when our collections are highly digital so do we still need physical libraries? For sure we see students flocking to the library to work and study without using the core library services but does that require a library building? Couldn’t that just be any building on campus? A study hub or a campus learning common? Maybe a so called Learning Center? Personally I think that a library is not only defined by its collection – whether it be a physical or electronic collection. 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 are a people business, not a book business.

In this talk I will, using Digital Social Science Lab at the Faculty Library of Social Sciences, try to demonstrate that a physical library building without books is still a very relevant library if we are true to the original purpose of a library and how an active facilitating use of the physical library room can create new forms of learning and a sense of belongingness among students. In this case the focus is on creating a platform for sharing knowledge and network within data handling and data analysis, digital methods and social sciences but I believe this way of active utilization of the library space can be applied to many areas.

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.

Old white dude with some healthy perspectives on libraries

My context for talking about this is important and might differ from your context: At Copenhagen University Library we use around 10 million US dollars on electronic resources a year and a little over 300.000 US dollars on physical items. At the same time we remove physical collection from open stacks to remote stacks to make the handling of reservations faster and more efficient and to make more room for students in the open libraries. We are only a year or two away from having 100% bookless faculty libraries. We have been forced to ask ourselves what we should do to our open library spaces when the books are not there anymore. There are many answers to that. Digital Social Science Lab is one of the answers.

Case: Digital Social Science Lab

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. And I am not talking about the bookless libraries here. 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. What we were seeing was students and faculty members turning to other resources than books and journals when they wanted to get insights on the world and carry out studies and research. The started collecting digital data. Students and researchers of higher education has always used data in there work; Collecting rocks, doing interviews, observing human behavior is all collecting data. But we experienced that they also started to deal with other kinds of data; harvesting social media data and use open data sources like Airbnb location or digitalizes maps of Greenland. They also started asking us if we could help them, for instance visualization of data or analyzing of huge amounts of text. So we moved on that and created Digital Social Science Lab to support data literacy in social sciences.

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.

 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 is not what is important 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. Again, this is just context and is not really important to my actually points with this talk.

Digital Social Science Lab is a huge success, we do around 80 events on data wrangling a year and the space has been nominated to the University of Copenhagen’s Yearly Study Environmental Award. I give credit to these 4 things: The facilitation, peer-to-peer learning, belongingness and the space.

How to fail at fostering learning

I’ve seen many attempts at creating new spaces at libraries to facilitate learning; Fab Lab’s, Makers Spaces, Data Labs, Learning Commons. Some were great and some failed and I really love failures, we should embrace failures and learn from them. When we fail we take a room and fill it with some nice furniture and some state-of-the-art hardware and software and stand back, excitingly waiting for people to start learn something. What happens in those cases is that students come with there own lab-tops, sits down and stats working like they have always done.

The most valuable asset of any great library place is the library staff. We need to take ownership of the library space, we need to facilitate learning processes, we need to tell stories about the library and the learning that we want to support. Architects can do the buildings but it is our responsibility as library professionals to provide the content.

So one way we take ownership of the space and the learning we want to support is to facilitate education and events to support data literacy, we are not the experts, we set a scene where people meet and learn together. 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.

Another facilitating activity is Data Sprint’s. A data sprint is a time-limited 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.

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 meeting 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 we can meet, talk and share.

Peer-to-peer learning

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 worker be course they are more often to use it on tasks in their academic life and not only as an instructor.

Then there is the actually learning situation. What we are doing right now is a pretty traditional learning setup: I know something, I talk and you listen. Not much interaction going on. When we as library professionals teach we 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 great 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 I think that students who learn from other students are more likely to think “hey, if Joe from sociology can do this Gephi data visualization for his paper so can I”.

When we set up our facilitating events 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. Small thing, we always serves a glass of wine and some snacks at the end of our sessions because we want them to stay and talk and network. Peer-to-peer learning seems to be really great at that.


I believe the facilitating platform also brings another really important need to the table: A Sense of Belongingness. It is a human need that has a great interest with me. 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’ll 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 their life and I think it’s crucial for there wellbeing 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 belong in many ways. The community we have created with DSSL is bridging students with digital tool but it also makes a number of students feel like they belong to something. They will connect with peer students and scholars, they will form study groups, they will help each other, inspire each other, challenge each other. They will feel that they belong. And they will do good. In general I like academic libraries to be more aware of the social role they can play on campus.

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.

Also, this is a picture from a regular reading hall at The Faculty Library of Social Sciences and some of you might remember me saying that we didn’t have any books no more. But what is that? Library shelves filled with books. That is true, we still have a great amount of books in the library space but they are all dead books that can’t be found in no catalog or be checked out. They are there because the book might be the single most significant symbol of what we are all about: Enlightenment, knowledge, education, research and learning. Everybody likes to be surrounded by books, it makes you feel good. And also they have a very excellent effect on the acoustics in a room.

Why do they come?

Storytelling and alternatives to the traditional learning setup

Some final notes on working with the actual room. We wanted the room to tell a story, a story about learning, a story about being curious, a story about travelling. So we went hunting for that story and stopped by our neighbor in Copenhagen, The Botanical Garden, the library itself is placed in the old Botanical Laboratory and we thought it was great that we were creating a Data Lab in a Botanical Lab. And it was a kind of magical place, like being in a Wes Anderson movie or something. And it was about things growing and people getting experiences and getting wiser. In a bit of a spooky way but still. So we tapped into that and created a story though the décor.

On practical note we wanted it to an alternative to the traditional learning environment on campus. This is what 90% of the learning spaces on our campus looks like. They are build for one-way communication and not for collaboration. The physical setting of the room is hindering your ability to learn in certain ways. So we made everything on wheels and mobile so we could have a traditional lecture but quickly turn it into a workshop setting.

Digital Social Science Lab two hours before the opening

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 then a library without books is still a library. 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.

Libraries are a people business, not a book business