Open libraries in Aalborg A great success

Since 2008, the Aalborg Public Libraries in North Jutland have been concentrating on accessibility in the municipal libraries by establishing a sensible mix of serviced and self-service opening hours. With small steps to begin with, later with bigger gestures – to the obvious delight of the citizens. 

Early morning reader in the ‘cave’. Photo: Aalborg Public LibrariesJust before the summer of 2008, the local library in Vodskov opened with a new design, new library services and radically different opening hours. Opening hours were increased from 33 hours to 66 hours a week, meaning that you could be serviced 23 hours a week and for 43 hours a week, you had to serve yourself.

Vodskov is a ‘delicatessen’ with all that is new in books, film, music, games etcetera. The library is a pivotal point and coordinator for cultural and association activities in the town. The new library service was very well received by the people of Vodskov, which became apparent when visiting figures increased by nearly 9 percent.

Since then, Aalborg Public Libraries have designed all 12 local libraries as open libraries, i.e. with long opening hours from 9 am to 9 pm, 7 days a week, which means open 84 hours a week. Most of the time, patrons have to serve themselves, but you can meet the staff 21-23 hours a week, distributed on 5 days a week.

Important part of cultural life 

The concept is extremely popular, and for the most part by far, the self-service is working very well. However, there is quit a lot of pressure on the serviced opening hours, and many library visitors really appreciate the staff ’s help and competences.

It is important to stress that our ambition was to offer a new and different library service: we defined the materials collection so that it contained exactly what was new and inspirational, and we discarded about 50 percent of the books. It was also important to us to make the library space more inviting, surprising and with a better layout.

Open libraries in local areas are an important part of the citizens’ local cultural life, knowledge and learning options, and the library services are much sought after both during the serviced and the selfservice opening hours.

The central library in Aalborg 

On October 8 the central library offered the possibility of self-service between 8 am and 10 am for the first time. From the very first day, these morning opening hours were welcomed by the visitors who flock to the library. Before that, you had to queue to get in at 10 am, now the queue already starts to pile up before 8 am. Statistics showed that more than 300 people visited the library during those two hours in the morning.

However, visitors to the central library did wish for yet longer opening hours, so we quickly began to discuss the possibility of opening without service in the evening. The decision was made and the library got an extra grant towards the establishment of access control and video surveillance. On February 17, 2014 the central library was open until 10 pm for the first time.

Quite an ordinary day

The central library opens the doors at 8 am and a lot of visitors with various reasons for coming to the library rush in. Many students meet just inside the door and quickly find a space where they can work together.

Young fathers and mothers move into the ‘fantasy room’ or the ‘cave’, which are specifically designed for the youngest children and their parents. They play, read and have a good time together, often with a group of day-care children and a kindergarten or two.

Other guests are hurrying across to return borrowed materials or collect books they have ordered etcetera. There is a lovely, cosy atmosphere, and the day gets going in a measured tempo. Between 8 am and 10 am, we play quiet music to empha size the fact that this is a different, self-serviced time. Meanwhile, the staff get the library prepared, check requests and deal with various ‘backstage’ tasks.

At 10 am, the staff enter the scene properly in their green shirts and are ready to serve the many visitors, who are waiting to get guidance and inspiration.

Serviced opening hours end at 7 pm. A jingle then announces that the library is offering self-service. To begin with, having to leave the library, while there were still many visitors meant a major change for the staff. Now it is the most natural thing in the world that many students are still there, hard at work, others are reading the papers, some are searching out materials they want to borrow.

Friday night we often see a group of young people gathering to start their evening out on the town by playing Fifa or some other game. We also arrange activities in the library in the evening. These may be poetry slams, film nights, author evenings or for example expat dinners. The evening passes quietly and orderly, and at 10 pm it is thank you and goodnight, and the janitor can put out the lights and lock up.

Accessibility – alpha and omega

The long opening hours is a conscious, politically approved strategy for the Aalborg Public Libraries. We wish to provide the greatest possible accessibility, and we can do that by offering a differentiated service, with self-service part of the time. We have hit upon a trend, and that is part of the success of the open libraries.

We live in a 24/7 society where people’s daily lives and consumption pattern, including culture consumption, is structured differently to what was previously the case.

People want their needs and expectations to be fulfilled spontaneously and individually. This is particularly true of families with young children with busy lives and where the chance of quality time between children and parents do not necessarily match a library’s opening hours. We see many such families at weekends; often the library is a meeting place for several families with children on a Sunday.

And people are far more resourceful than previously, just as expectations are not only related to service, but accessibility. Much of what we are doing at this time can be seen as a way of giving back the library to the citizens.

Faith not abused

Before we started with open libraries, we thought long and hard and worried a great deal. However, we decided to start as unprejudiced as possible. That is to say with very few limitations. The citizens gain access via their medical cards, there is video surveillance, and in the central library also a library janitor on duty.

Happily, our faith in the library’s guests has not been abused – there have been very few problems. Some visitors have proved a nuisance to other guests, which, of course, we have had to deal with. But these instances have been few and far between, and the problems have been solved without us having to resort to tough restrictions.

In our experience, open libraries is a sound service improvement, which all citizens are happy to embrace; A library service, which together with professionally manned opening hours, contributes to strengthening the importance of the library to citizens and community. The library has become a much bigger focus point for the citizens, and this is also true in relation to the political and administrative level in the municipality.

There is no doubt at all that we have gained great respect and appreciation for venturing along new paths.

deputy city librarian at Aalborg Public Libraries
  • All citizens, children as well as adults, have access to the library via their medical card
  • All libraries use video surveillance during self-service hours, and there is a phone with direct contact to a member of staff at the central library
  • All libraries are designed with a view to self-service
  • Aalborg Public Libraries have been working with sound and various mediation experiments etcetera to make the library space suitable for self-service
  • Opening hours are now from 8 am to 9 pm.
  • Aalborg municipality, population: 205.809
  • Visitors at the library: 1.896.984
  • Active patrons: 61.191 (borrow minimum one book per year)
  • Total lending per year: 1.526.061
  • Staff total about 156