DENMARK: Libraries provide space for people to interact

September 08, 2013


Julie Lund Christensen brings up a portrait of a person on her laptop.

"Is this suitable for job hunting?" she asks. Three people answer: "Maybe it's a bit too artistic."

All are gathered in a room at the Rentemestervej Library in a northwestern corner of Copenhagen to participate in a new program for job seekers held every Wednesday that enables them to exchange information.

"If we stay at home, we only get depressed. Talking with other people in the same situation helps us relax and cheers us up," they said in a discussion.

The program started after about 30 people who met one another on Facebook decided to meet in person and talk face to face. Christensen, a 30-year-old graphic designer with a distinctive mop of curly red hair, sent an e-mail to the library asking if the group would be able to use one of its rooms and got immediate approval.

"It's free, and it's easy for anyone to enter. You can also use the Wi-Fi network freely," she says. "The library lets us publicize the get-togethers via their website as well, so I've got no complaints."

The Rentemestervej Library is one of 20 municipal libraries in the city of Copenhagen. Completed two years ago, the three-floor structure is instantly recognizable due to its shape of three unaligned boxes stacked on top of one another and an exterior that features illustrations by local artists. There is even a cafe where books can be read, a sewing classroom, and a studio for a local radio station. It is also known for the diverse range of events held there that attract many local residents.

On the day after the job seekers' get-together, the library is filled with elderly folk. They are there to take part in a computer class. The 10 seats that had been set out are already taken. Three librarians guide them as to how to enter the city's website. Kirsten Moselund awkwardly taps on the keys with both of her index fingers.

"I'm here because it's free," says the 85-year-old. "The library is run by the city, so I've come here to get a return on all the tax I've paid."

Ninety percent of loans and returns at libraries in Copenhagen are automated. This gives librarians more time to devote to events like this and selecting books to recommend to users.

Denmark, which has a population of about 5.5 million, has around 500 public libraries. A total of 36 million people visit them each year, and 45 million books and CDs are loaned out. This represents 8.2 items borrowed per year per capita, one of the highest rates in the world. All municipalities are required by law to provide a library. This is founded on the concept that citizens' right of equal access to information must be protected. On the other hand, the world's first system in which the government pays compensation to Danish authors based on the number of library loans of their works was introduced in 1946, and has also guarded their rights ever since.

In the past few years, structural reform and information technology have brought about considerable change to this leading library nation. Its 275 municipalities were amalgamated into 98 local bodies in 2006, and the number of libraries also decreased from 681 to 550. The nature of their usage also shifted as loans of books, CDs and other physical items shrank, and downloads from library websites increased. Two in three Danes may still be library users, but concerns have arisen that the number of people who actually make visits to libraries will go down. Hopes had been placed on libraries for acting as bulwarks against growing information inequality along age and class lines that has accompanied the IT revolution.

The slogan the government came up with in response is "From collections to connections."

"Libraries do not just loan books," says Danish Agency for Culture director Trine Nielsen. "They connect people to information who have no other means of acquiring it, and help people of differing ethnic backgrounds to become part of the wider community. They serve a diverse range of functions."

Jakob Heide Petersen, director of the Copenhagen Main Library, stresses the need to create value from information.

"There is a glut of data in the digital realm," Petersen says. "But in order to turn that data into knowledge, it's important to come to a physical space, meet people and engage in discussion with them."

The Rentemestervej Library is open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. There are not staff or security guards on the premises prior to 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m., but it is possible to enter and use the facilities if one has an insurance card and a password. This system began on a trial basis five years ago in regional cities. The relative absence of theft and other negative outcomes led to it being introduced nationally, and its implementation has expanded to 177 libraries as of May this year.

After the summer solstice in Scandinavian Denmark, people head to the seaside to soak up the sun. Along the waterfront on the outskirts of Copenhagen, there is a surfboard acting as a makeshift sign that bears the word "strandbibliotek," meaning "beach library." Baskets containing books have been placed on the sand.

"Books borrowed from here can be returned to your nearest library," says trainee librarian Terese Norskov. "Hopefully it will encourage people to visit libraries."


As libraries store large volumes of books, they require a large amount of space. For architects, they represent valuable opportunities to test their skills.

Yoshiki Hori, a professor in architectural history at Kyushu University Graduate School, says that architectural style has changed together with libraries' shift in status from authoritarian institutions lending valuable books to places that a great number of people can make use of freely.

In the authoritarian era, there was a preference for large pillars and domes as well as symmetrical shapes. A typical example is the British Museum Reading Room built in 1857, where books line the walls of a massive circular dome.

Hori says the recent trend is toward designs that give a sense of being in a "maze of knowledge," such as the Brandenburg University of Technology library built in 2004 with its cloud-like curves, and the Free University of Berlin's egg-shaped Philology Library, built in 2005. The Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City, completed in 2006, suspends its books in midair on shelves hung from the ceiling.

The characteristics of a society also have an influence on the shapes of its libraries according to Sadao Uematsu, author of "Kenchiku Kara Toshokan o Miru" (libraries from an architectural perspective) and Atomi University professor. In his view, life in the harsh natural environment of Scandinavia produces a strong community spirit, and library books are thought of as shared assets. Libraries also act as an extension of the average home, and they are often located on shopping streets.

In the United States, libraries spread partly due to institutional attempts to enlighten the public. Uematsu gives the example of the roughly 1,700 libraries built with personal donations from U.S. steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), which share a somewhat authoritarian design.


It has been said that the history of libraries began with the invention of the written word. However, the modern-day system of collecting and classifying huge volumes of books is thought to have originated with the Library of Alexandria that was built in ancient Egypt in the third century B.C. Books were apparently collected from ships that entered port and stored in the library, and only copies were handed back to their owners.

From the Middle Ages on, Christian churches and monasteries, mosques, Buddhist temples and other places of worship operated libraries that mainly stored religious writings. Some are still known the world over for their beauty today, such as the library at the Strahov Monastery in the Czech Republic.

After the Industrial Revolution and French Revolution, books that had been treated as rare and valuable and kept under strict security were made available to the general public, and libraries began to welcome outside visitors.

The country that gave birth to the modern library system is the United States. The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, is said to be the first subscription library. The Boston Public Library, established in 1848, became the forerunner of the modern public library with its mission to make books available to all users free of charge.

In Japan, there were "bunko" (libraries) with collections assembled by people of influence, such as the Kanazawa Bunko in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and the Momijiyama Bunko during the Tokugawa Shogunate, but their use was restricted to a privileged few. The Meiji government set forth an ordinance in 1899 that brought about the building of libraries, but most were fee-based. After World War II, the Library Law of 1950 fostered the establishment of modern public libraries across the nation.

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At Amager Strand on the outskirts of Copenhagen, a makeshift library has been set up on the beach. (Atsuo Hirata)

At Amager Strand on the outskirts of Copenhagen, a makeshift library has been set up on the beach. (Atsuo Hirata)

  • At Amager Strand on the outskirts of Copenhagen, a makeshift library has been set up on the beach. (Atsuo Hirata)

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