March 18, 2018

Dream. Explore. Experiment. | Office Hours

msapplestorenyc-170x170Not bound by rules. Changing daily. Filled with life, sound, art, and inspiration. A vision of the public library woven with experience, involvement, empowerment, and a healthy dose of true innovation brought gasps of joy, a few tears, and much more to a standing room only crowd at the Public Library Association conference in Denver. The planning process and insights from the creation of Dokk1, the public library in Aarhus, Denmark, shared by Marie Østergård, project leader, Dokk1; Aarhus Public Libraries; and Pam Sandlian Smith, director, Anythink Libraries, Thornton, CO, can inform library planning of all types, shapes, and sizes and should be considered seriously by those of us teaching and developing LIS ­curricula.

A model library

“We designed our libraries for people, not books,” Østergård said. The collection remained the same size, about 325,000 items, but the new space is much larger. It’s based on the Four Space model developed by Danish Royal School of Library and Information Science professors: inspiration space, learning space, meeting space, and performative space that overlap and intersect. Action words for each sector of the model: Excite. Explore. Create. ­Participate.

Do a deep dive into The Model Programme for Public Libraries and you’ll see intriguing and thought-provoking results in Denmark and beyond. Libraries become the center of urban development and incubators of community knowledge, bringing together multiple functions in a centralized hub and open, evolving learning spaces. Dokk1 includes access to literature and information, a children’s theater, a playground, a family space, creation rooms, a quiet area for reflection and reading, and the Transformation Lab, an area for ever-changing, interactive art projects. Images Østergård shared brought the library to life. ­Applause, exclamations, and “oohs and ahs” filled the room.


Creating meaning

What the staff of Dokk1 learned after the new library opened is telling. An average of 4,000 people visit each day, many staying for hours, working and socializing. Others attend programs in meeting rooms and flexible spaces related to learning, community art, and self-expression. “If you build for people, people will come,” Østergård said. Dokk1 promotes open dialog between citizens and encourages the exchange of ideas.

I can’t help but reflect on how this model would look in U.S. libraries. Consider those in your community, seeking answers to big or life questions. What answers could you provide not just with resources but with connections to other people, groups, or service agencies within the building or nearby? Partnerships, Østergård noted, are a cornerstone for keeping Dokk1’s vibrancy going.

The seeds are there in many of the notable libraries we read about in these pages. I’d be most interested to see the concepts applied to the academic setting. What does the Four Space model look like in a university or school library? Performative spaces for students and teachers might lead to some interesting and unexpected learning.

Breaking the rules

A librarian asked about keeping order within the space, sharing that her library board had many rules. Østergård’s answer drew applause: many arbitrary rules and procedures had been thrown out to make things easier for the community to use the building and its resources. Staff gave up trying to put all the chairs back in order every day and let the space ebb/flow with the crowds. Straightening would be done as needed. “Eliminate restrictions,” she said, and introduce some back as necessary.

Dokk1 did not add new staff although the building grew in size. And staff are expected to be visible, engaged, and present. “We don’t hire for librarians or nonlibrarians but based on competencies,” Østergård said. “You must be ready to work hard and meet people all day.” Perhaps emphasis is in order for LIS grads on what it means to work in a ­performative/learning/inspiration/meeting space, one steeped in community interaction, technological skill sets, and managing group interactions.

Dreams unwind

The result of a thriving, busy library had its beginnings where all good library planning should begin: with the people who will be using it. “If you are creating a new library…you need to start by asking what kind of place you want to be in the community,” Østergård told me after the program. “What does your particular community need and how can you meet some of those needs? And the best way to find out is to…ask people!”

Østergård cautioned about asking people not what they want in the library but instead about their dreams and vision, about what a good life would be for them. It is our job to turn those visions into the foundations of the library. Her words resonated: “Great libraries are libraries that dare to experiment together with [their] users.”

This article was published in Library Journal's May 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA