Who owns culture? – Impressions from Denmark and Germany


The Danish town Aarhus, which is going to be Europe’s Cultural Capital 2017, is constructing a new waterfront as many other seaports: Huge, modern buildings of cement and glass are going to replace old harbour industries. In many places big office buildings and at the best new opera houses have been raised. But in Denmark people chose libraries to be the new icons of their cities: Dokk 1 in Aarhus is already the second new modern library on the waterfront, after the “Black Diamond”, the Royal Library in Copenhagen.

A country decorates itself with modern library cathedrals. – That underlines, which significance libraries and education seem to have for Danes and the Danish state. During an intensive, three days tour through Denmark and Northern Germany, hosted by the German Library Association, I could see how different the two neighboring countries handle libraries and public education in the digital age. It seems to be consensus in both countries that libraries are financed by the state and that they should give a broad public access to all kinds of media – an important educational task. Having a look at the details, the Danish libraries seem to be at least one decade ahead of their German equivalents.

Radical mind-shift: Open for everybody, pluralistic, digital

The tasks of a modern library in Denmark are not linked to books anymore. When choosing the interior of Dokk1 in Aarhus, it was decided not to display books in the entrance area. Rather, the focus should be on the libraries’ new role in the Danish society: as community centers, democratic places that give access to education for everyone, as think tanks and hotbeds of new, innovative ideas. “This is not about books”, says Knud Schulz, head of the library Dokk1, “Books are only the medium, which is changing.” Accordingly radical this medium is treated in Denmark. The Danish society is one of the most digitized in Europe. Here one can observe developments that will reach neighboring countries with ten years delay. And here librarians decided to remove all books that have not been loaned out in two years. That is to say: to throw them away.

“We are not a museum”, Knud Schulz clarifies. Instead of having the same books in every single library, some books are only stored in the central stock and delivered by the Danish libraries’ internal delivering service within a day. The radical, pragmatic approach of the Danes clears the space for events and meeting rooms, playgrounds and education spaces for children, for more computers, cafeterias, space to live. Dokk1 and the other Danish libraries I have seen during the three days are all open living rooms for everybody, which often can be used after the official opening hours through open access systems, too.

A mirror of society

The development in the Danish libraries mirrors society changes. Not only within this field, Denmark seems to develop faster than Germany, as I described in my little book on every day life “One year in Copenhagen” (in German). Not only digitization seems to be further developed in Scandinavia, but also the inclusion of the citizens, which are supposed to use the libraries later on. In Aarhus the public could not only decide about the name of their new main library, but also take part in the design process of the building – a first for the famous architect’s office Schmidt / Hammer / Lassen, too.

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“Dark matter” in the Black Diamond

Also the Royal Danish Library, called “Black Diamond” due to its remarkable architecture, presents itself as open and modern – in spite of the four integrated museums and the centuries-old collection. Some days ago the library opened its doors and reading rooms for a 10 kilometer run through cultural sights of the city. Every day at 1 pm a new song of the library’s composer Wayne Siegel is played, chosen by an algorithm. Of course they are digitizing their stock – even re-digitizing their first digital books. Everybody in the whole world can order PDF files of books owned by the Royal Library. If the books are not digitized yet, they will be scanned and delivered within three to five days in two versions (one searchable black and white and one coloured picture version) with CC-licence. In this way the users decide, which books are digitized first.

Conservator Mogens Bech, who works with digitization of historical books, described something, which Michael Peter Edson, digital strategist at Smithsonian, CLIR, and Open Knowledge, would probably call the “dark matter” of the internet: an unexpected creativity, a surplus that can not be planned. On a Friday afternoon Mogens Bech put a just digitized book on the internet and went home. Monday morning he found the same book transcribed – by a man from Baltimore. Internet users are not only consumers, they become active, generate and share content and knowledge, and correct each others mistakes. More examples for such wonderful synergies I collected here and here (in German). Read more on “dark matter” and see a video with Michael Peter Edson in Peter Soemer’s post in Tanja Praske’s blog.

In Denmark, the library of the future wants to be an open space, where everybody can get cognitive and infrastructural help to creatively and actively take part in culture and society – for free. In Germany a few libraries have thrown a glance at Scandinavian libraries and take first small steps towards this kind of future library. But as long as there still are no library laws to guarantee a common legal and financial ground for libraries in all German counties, libraries will first of all have to fight for their legitimization in the digital age.

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