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 former library in Guldborgsund in the southeastern part of Denmark consists of a main library and 5 branch libraries. The main library and all 5 branch libraries are open libraries.
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. [Stats from 2016]

Updated stats December 2019:
From 2017 to 2018, there has been a considerable increase, so another 44 libraries now have this service. Thus, in 88% of the country’s libraries, it is possible to access for selected periods outside of the staffed opening hours. In 2018, only four municipalities did not have one or more libraries with the option of access outside of staffed opening hours.
In total there are 97 main libraries in Denmark and 315 branch libraries. Furthermore, 18 mobile libraries (bookbuses) and 92 service spots.
Due to the significant increase in the number of open libraries, the total opening hours per week at the public libraries have never been higher. On average, each library is open 90 hours a week, which equals 12 hours every single day. However, only the unstaffed business hours have seen an increase in 2018. The total number of staffed libraries has decreased by 494 hours, which is a decrease of just under 5%. In contrast, from 2017 to 2018, the unstaffed business hours increased by 13%, corresponding to 3,087 hours.
[Based on “Folkebiblioteker i tal” published November 2019 available in Danish at

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:

19 thoughts on “Open libraries: Self-service libraries – The Danish way.

  1. This is very interesting. From what you wrote it looks like the open libraries move was in response to funding cuts – “One of the reasons we have so many open libraries in Denmark is because the alternative was to close them for good.”

    Has there been any further impact on library staffing as a result of this?

    1. Thank you for this question. I will update the post with this answer:

      On a national level the answer is yes. Some municipalities have cut staff and staffed hours. The concern is also that it becomes much easier to do just that. The research suggests otherwise – but that is no guarantee that hours will not be cut.

      At my library we have also had budget cuts and staff has also been cut – but we still have the same number of staffed hours at the open libraries – but with fewer staff members at the same time.

  2. This is indeed a radical approach to funding cuts and one that I think presents a much better alternative to cutting services completely. I am particularly interested in how you are able to create a “safe environment” more so for your users than for the collections.

    1. When creating a safe environment we work with low shelves and making it easy to very quickly register if anyone else is in the library when you enter during self-service hours.
      Also big open spaces where you enter (if possible). We also moved some of the gaming activities to the entering area in one of the libraries so people entering can see what is happening there as soon as they arrive in the building.
      Light goes on automatically when you unlock the door in all parts of the library at once.
      We have also considered soundscapes 🙂

      1. How would you use the soundscapes? Also, I know that many public spaces have CCTV though I am unaware of any inside a library. Was this ever a consideration?

  3. We do use a lot of CCTV – but only during self-service hours. I might make that more clear in the post.
    Soundscapes could be used to signal when someone enters / leaves the library but there are a lot of other ways it can be used too and we haven’t gone further with research, tests etc (yet 🙂

  4. Great piece Jan! I wrote about responses from the UK RFID market to this initiative in 2014 – contrasting the national (almost interventionist?) approach taken by Denmark toward service provision with the UK’s reliance on the market to deliver solutions. I mention some of the obstacles the UK will have to overcome – and the role RFID might have played had we followed the Danish example and adopted data standards for RFID. It’s at if anyone is interested.

  5. Very interesting piece Jan! And it is heart-warming to see how honestly you interact in the comments section.
    I would be very keen to learn a bit more about the nudging tricks you employ in the library. Even if it does not make it into an entire post I would be very happy if you could share one or two techniques that proved to be successful here in the comments section. Carry on the great work!

    1. Thank you for the wonderful feedback.
      In the nudging project we simply painted a book cart green and asked people to return the good books to the green one – thereby selecting recommendations to other library guests.
      At the libraries in Bornholm they experimented with different signs and locations for the signs urging people to help each other at the self service desks. Their first test did only show limited success, but when they moved the signs it showed a big difference. So it is very simple stuff making a big difference. I will share more examples later.

      1. Thank you for the teaser of the nudging interventions you implemented!

        I came up with two other ideas – not necessarily about nudging but rather about engaging people even more in libraries – I am eager to hear your thoughts on them:
        – maybe one might showcase books recommended by library visitors in one shelf with a short handwritten recommendation (the recommendation section by librarians at home seems to be very popular, why not have customers recommend certain books?)
        – one could “bundle books together” (e.g. curate 3-5 books for families – everyone will have a book that fits their reading level/preferred genre etc. but still all books fall under one theme (e.g. immigration); put a selection of books that are referenced to/alluded to in one ‘signature book’ together to create a kind of mental map of the book)

  6. Hi Jan,

    I read your article with interest, thank you.
    Please can you explain how Danish Libraries manage Open Library access for children?
    I too am interested to know more about the ‘nudge’ strategies you have employed so look forward to reading about them soon

    1. Hi Katie
      I am glad you like the article.
      The answer to your question about how we manage Open Library access for children is… It’s complicated 🙂
      At my library everyone can access the library if they are 15 years old or older. If you are under 15 years old you need your parents permission to access the open library on your own.
      There are different rules in other libraries in Denmark with Open Libraries.
      Technically we manage a “whitelist” with the login info for children who are allowed access and that list communicates with our library system.
      Feel free to ask further questions.
      Also. Thank you for the reminder about the nudging post.

  7. hello jan, i am a bbc reporter interested in what denmark is doing with self-service and long opening-hours libraries. could we talk?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s