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Report from Denmark: Designing the new public library at Aarhus, and the People’s Lab

Knud Schulze, manager of the main library in Aarhus, Denmark and Jne Kunze of the People’s Lab in Denmark are giving talks, hosted by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. (Here are his slides.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Knud begins by reminding us how small Denmark is: 5.5M people. Aarhus has a population of about 330,000. [My account is very choppy. The talk was not.]

Now that the process of digitizing all information is well underway, the focus is on what can only be experienced in the library. Before, the library was a space for media. Now the space is a medium. Seriousness was prized in libraries. Now a sense of humor. We’ve built libraries with books and other media to serve an industrial society. Some are truly beautiful, but they’re under-used. Now we’re moving to libraries for networked society.

Three and a half years ago, the Danes wrote a report on public libraries in the knowledge society, and went looking for partnerships, which is unusual for the Danes, says Knud. The new model of the library intersects four spaces: inspiration, learning, performative, and meeting spaces. But the question is what people are going to do in those spaces. Recognition/experience, empowerment, learning, innovation. Knud shows pictures of those activities currently going on in the library.

Two hundred of Denmark’s 500 public libraries are “open libraries” — open 24 hours a day, with staffing only about 12 hours a week. If you have a library card, you can open the door. You can check media in and out, use the Internet, use a PC, read newspapers, study, arrange study circles. “The point is to let users take control.”

A law in 2007 said there had to be one-stop shopping for govt services. Most libraries offer these services. You go to the library for a passport, drivers license, health insurance, etc. Every citizen needs to have a personal account for communication with banks, from the state (e.g., about taxes). Libraries have helped educate the citizenry about this.

Often libraries are community centers that involve public and private sectors and a wide range of services. Sometimes the other services overwhelm the library services. “People ask me, ‘Where is the public library in this?’, and I say, ‘Think about the library as the glue.’”

There have to be innovation spaces in the local libraries.

The Danish Digital Library (Danskernes Digtale Bibliotek) is an open source infrastructure for digital objects, including a resouce management system for the whole country, and to purchase digital content. All its digital services are accessible anywhere in the world. 86 of the 98 municipal library systems have contributed to a shared contract for a new library system based on Open Source. They share operations and development. “There’s a very good business case.”

So, why Dokk1, the new library?

Libraries are symbols of development and innovation in the society. They drive city development. They add new stories about the town. All public libraries are examples of the citizens’ interest in innovation. E.g., the Opera, Munch museum and library in Oslo have transformed the waterfront and brought a new identity to the city. Helsinki, Birmingham (UK), and others as well. “The same will happen in Aarhus, we hope.”

DOKK1 is being built into the harbor, “transforming it into an open sea front.” There’s 200,000 sq. feet of library, parking for 1,000 cars, two new urban harbor squares, a light rail station. Cost: US$390M . It will open in early 2015.

The front of the current library features new programs every few months, rather than the entrance being a way of controlling the users. They’ve run projects like iFloor (social interaction), a news lab (producing TV), AI robots, displays that capture and freeze images of people interacting with it, and much more. The building needs to interact with its surroundings and adapt to it, says Knud.

DOKK1 is “no building with an advanced roof.

“It’s all about facilitating relations.” “The library of the future is all about people.” It will be a user-driven process: “From tradition to transcendence so users can deconstruct their old knowledge about libraries.” Knud shows a photo of children doing searches by interacting with blocks on the floor. They paid no attention to the info on the screens.

They have partnerships with the Gates Foundation, Chicago Public Libraries, IDEO, and the Aarhus Public Library

Another project: “Intelligent Libraries”: how to “work smart” by improving logistics. The project knows where all the books are in all the nation’s libraries, and how often they’re used. They use “media hotels”: “local or remote storage of overflow, slow moving materials.”

The name “DOKK1″ came from a competition. 1,250 proposals. Seven were considered by a jury. “It’s about branding the library.” 90% of all city inhabitants should know about the new project. In August 2013 75% did. In the existing library, users are invited to engage in the “mental construction” of the new one.

Now Jane Kunze talks about People’s Lab. She begins with a sign: “Shut up and hack.”

They’ve been setting up labs for the past two years to test different ways of interacting with users. Innovation is important to the Danish govt. (Denmark was just rated the most innovative country in Europe.) How can the public library be part of this?

They were inspired by Maker culture. Fab labs and maker spaces have been popping up everywhere. There’s also a trend in Denmark to repair rather than replace. And a focus on hand skills and not just academic knowledge. Also rapid prototyping, with inspiration from design thinking (as per IDEO).

The People’s Lab is a result of a collaboration among the library, community, and partners. Partners include public libraries, Aarhus School of Architecture, Moesgaard Museum, Roskilde festival, Orange Innovation, and more.

When they began, it was about kick-ass technology. But , while tech is fun, it’s really about people and community-building. “Don’t wait to involve people until your grand opening.” People will see your imperfections “but that’s part of what will make them committed to the place.”

The six labs:

  • TechLab: having a maker in residence is powerful. See Valdemar’s hovercraft:

  • Guitar Lab. Use local people and their passions.

  • Dreamcity: A maker space at the Roskilde rock festival. “You have to put yourself into play. You have to be there with your whole personality, and not just your professional side.”

  • WasteLab: Trash from dump “spiced up with specially selected trash.” “Creativity comes from chaos — stop tidying!”

  • Magentic Groove Memories: cut your own vinyl records and fix up old radios

  • The first maker faire in Aarhus will be 2014

They’ve been building a ladder of involvement, so people can come in for something basic and find themselves increasingly engaged — “small steps that make it possible for people to become more and more free in their thinking.”

They’ve learned that when the community already has hacker spaces and maker spaces, maybe the library should just be a gate to this ecosystem, opening them up to a broader public. Maybe the library is a place where people are introduced to making and working more creatively with their hands. “You can work with maker culture without having a makerspace.” You don’t have to have a room dedicated to machinery, especially for the smaller communities.

Q&A [with six of the Danes responding]

Q: Is this like a library plus the SF Exploratorium

A: Yes.

A: We’re looking at how to create relationships among the patrons, staff, the media…

A: We want to make a place where people get involved in different kinds of competencies.

Q: Many of the other libraries you showed are on the edge of the city. Are you trying to make the library a destination? In Boston I wouldn’t let my 14 yr old grandchild go down to the harbor by himself.

A: In Aarhus, children move through the city at 10-12 yrs old. They can get to the new library by public transportation or bike. But we are trying to transform the city so that it is looking out, not in.

Q: We’re seeing more random innovation in library spaces in this city, as opposed to your carefully planned and articulated change. (1) You’re designers, but it’s about designing the interaction. (2) How can you bring unique, local materials into this interactive environment. (3) At archives, people are now curating their own memories, with a community collective approach. (4) We have generations of professionals, so just building new locations may not change things.

A: In Denmark we have a long tradition of tcollecting of local historical materials. E.g., we have lots of photos of cattle and farms, so we crowd-sourced geolocating them and put on Google Maps. We have a lot of materials that could be used.

A: We have a new project. When you get your grandparents’ old documents, you digitize them and load them on a national server. You’re in control of how open they should be. That’s in test now.

A: We have lot of projects that focus on seniors.

A: At the WasteLab, one of the most active participants was a 70 year old woman. She made herself into the welcoming host. One day she came in with a smart phone she had won. People at the WasteLab sat with her and helped her learn how to use it; she’d found a community to ask. Creating a variety of offers — from more traditional to the newer — involves everyone.

A: We see the library as a space for that kind of relationships.

Q: Are you getting any support from the Royal Library?

A: It has no relationship to public libraries.

Q: Design is crucial. It can signal to people that there’s more here than you expect. Modern libraries send a signal that it’s not only a place for research or study. Putting up those popup labs in your lobby is one of the most useful devices; people are in the experience without having to look for it. It’s the best of what Disney is trying to accomplish. The popup libraries are the gateway drug.

Q: How might this fit into an academic library space?

A: We collaborate with a couple of universities, but they’re two different worlds. University libraries generally see users as people to whom they provide services, rather than as people who can contribute to the library. It’s a question of what the academic libraries want students to do in the library. To read? To learn from other students? You might experiment with a common space to bring together these different communities.

A: You have a lifelong relationship with your local library, but only for a few years with your university library.

Q: Ultimately all libraries are shared resources, whatever those resources are. That’s a great argument for sharing access to all the tools we’ve heard about. Not every library needs its own 3D printer, but they could use access to one.

A: In Norway, a particular university library is divided into five areas, but with big shared spaces with tables, chairs, and menus. Then they put in empty shelves. The room was totally over-crowded and totally re-arranged.

Q: At Tisch Library at Tufts they’re renovating and creating group study space for people working alone but in a public space. Also, they’ve installed a media lab. At the Northeastern U Library, it felt like I was at an airport. There were fixed spaces and terminals, but there must have been 500 students in there. It was like a beehive. At the Madison Public Library they have The Bubbler, media lab and performance space. These are blurring the lines.

[Loved these talks. These folks are taking deep principles and embodying them in their spaces.]

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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