Open libraries: Self service libraries – The Danish way.

16456027771_09e3f04bf5_kAn “open library” is a library with a combination of hours staffed with professional librarians and hours with self-service.
That combination has proved itself successful because the result is more loans and lots of more visits to the library. In Denmark we have a lot of happy library fans using open libraries. Some are people who now use their local library instead of the main library. We know a lot of people commuting to jobs now have a better opportunity to use the library than they did before. We also know open libraries have reached people who did not use the library before. YAY new library members – How wonderful is that?

You have your own key to the library

My library in Guldborgsund in the southeastern part of Denmark consists of a main library and 5 branch libraries. The 5 branch libraries are open libraries and the main library will be as well from early 2017.
It is easy to use an open library. You simply lock yourself into the library with your library card and a pin code. You can use all the normal services at the library and check out books, music, games etc. at the self-service machines and of course meet with other people, learn, study and have a coffee. The open library is a community space with lots of opportunities.
The “opening” hours are 7 AM – 10 PM. At the smallest library we have 15 staffed hours each week. At the biggest branch library it is 23 hours.

The question people often ask is why do we dare to do this? Is there a lot of people stealing and making other kinds of trouble during self-service hours?
The answer is that there are less problems than we feared. People tend to gain ownership and take very good care of the library so there is very little trouble.
We combine radical trust with RFID technology that can tell us when people “forget to check out an item”. We always know who is in the building, and we use
video surveillance so we can see what has happened in the library – if necessary.

Strategy considerations

There are many things you need to consider when you expand the opening hours of a library and turn it into an open library.
These are some of the questions we have considered in Denmark regarding open libraries:

How can it be aligned with your library’s strategy?
How do you create a safe environment?
How do you encourage people to take care of the library?
How can the librarians be visible in the way they present books and other library materials during self-service hours?
How do you increase usability in order to make the open library attractive?
How can we encourage people to use the library as a local meeting space in the community?

We have used nudging theory in a project to try to be more present during the hours we are not there. Nudging experiments include encouraging people to help presenting books they liked to others and encouraging people to help each other at checkout machines.
We have good experiences with this and it has been a lot of fun working with nudging. (Note to self: Blog about nudging in libraries – would you read that?)


If you only have self-service hours and not staffed hours the use of the library declines (According to a national survey in Denmark in 2012).
One of the reasons we have so many open libraries in Denmark is because the alternative was to close them for good. The open libraries are a solution to keep them alive as  libraries and community spaces.

In Denmark 86 out of 97 library systems have open libraries resulting in 260 open libraries. Danish libraries have 32.000 open hours a year with 61 % being self-service hours. 

The “Open libraries” framework have  made our libraries even more active learning spaces in the community. It has given us a broader reach and thereby expanded our opportunity to do what libraries do everywhere: Make their communities smarter.

Note: I did a keynote on open libraries at the wonderful EDGE conference in Edinburgh, Scotland on 3rd March 2016. Here are my slides: