Challenged but not dying, the public libraries are more relevant than ever


By Madalina Paxaman, photos by Guki Giunashvili

As you stroll through Aarhus harbour, a majestic building immediately catches your attention. Known as Dokk1, Aarhus’ pride and joy is, among others, home to Aarhus Public Libraries.

A construction that is more than your average place where book collections can be found, Dokk1 defies the traditional way in which we think about libraries and the services they provide. It is more than just a repository. It is an innovative, inclusive space that continuously interacts with its very diverse beneficiaries.

Every two years, Aarhus Public Libraries organizes at Dokk1, NEXT LIBRARY® – an international conference that has managed, in the past ten years since its inception, to build a community of more than 1600 library leaders and innovators from more than 90 countries.

At Next Library 2019, organized in Aarhus in June, Jutland Station had the opportunity to discuss with one of the leading voices in evolving library service and wholehearted practice for librarians. Dr. Michael Stephens, award winning Associate Professor in the School of Information at San Jose State University helped us understand some of the challenges faced by the public libraries in the current environment, the role of technology development and how conferences like Next Library can support the work of librarians.

“Libraries can push back against fear with the power of free information and a space that says no matter who you are, you are welcome.”

JS: In your opinion, what are some of the challenges faced by the public libraries at the present time?

Michael Stephens: One [challenge] that continues is the public perception of the library. We are sitting here [ at Dokk1] in one of the most amazing libraries in the world, but there are also many libraries that are doing programing and services for their own communities in their own special ways that maybe, more traditional folks might say: “What are you doing? That’s not what libraries are for! Libraries are supposed to be quiet reading places with the rows of books everywhere, with stacks and stacks of books.”

Dr. Stephens has delivered keynotes, papers, and workshops throughout the US and internationally on topics related to creative and open uses of technology to support and drive library services and learning (photo: Guki Giunashvili).

The challenge, I think, is getting our message out and bringing in our funders, and our governing bodies to make them understand that the library is not just what it has always been. It is always going to do those things but then there are community partnerships, learning programs that libraries are experimenting with, going way beyond just the community. It hurts my heart a bit when you see an initiative shut down because someone is afraid. We’ve seen that happen with diversity of programming, or reaching out to diverse populations in the community with unique services, etc.

So, I think that the most important challenge we are facing in libraries now is ensuring we are open and welcoming for everyone. The world has changed so much in the last few years. We need to make sure our services meet the needs of those who might visit the library to feel safe. Those who need access to information and services that may help them get on solid ground in their lives. The underserved and the invisible should feel welcome and encouraged in our spaces, both physical, virtual and across the community itself.

And every voice should be heard. Every story told.

In the States, so many things are driven by fear right now. I hope that changes. Libraries can push back against fear with the power of free information and a space that says no matter who you are, you are welcome.

“The public library, really all libraries, should be a place to access knowledge but also to learn about what’s happening in the world.”

JS: At the Next Library 2019 conference you held a talk about the new technologies and how these can help all of us achieve our goals. However, at the same time, these can be, for the librarians, a friend and an enemy. How do you see their role in the libraries nowadays?

Michael Stephens: To me it is a continuum. One library’s emerging technology is another library’s “we have been doing that a long time”. We have to be careful not to think that “oh, we don’t need to worry about all that stuff way out on the edge because our people don’t need to know that yet”. We can’t make that decision. We should be asking them what they want. The public library, really all libraries, should be a place to access knowledge, and also to learn about what’s happening in the world: if it is podcasting because, as we said in our session, podcasting is having a golden Renaissance or if it is augmented reality or virtual reality or makers spaces, 3D printing – all these things that we’ve talked about in the last few years and all the stuff right there on the edge. If we are not giving an opportunity to expose our users to that thinking as well, I think we are doing them a disservice. So, we can’t just say: “Oh, we are just showing people how to get an email address”. We can’t just stop there because the libraries role shouldn’t go any further. No, I think it does go a lot further. There are newer technologies and newer networks to explore. I think you can do both. You have to find that balance with the time and stage you have  but you should be prepared for the wide range of what’s out there – I will help you get an email address, I will show you how to use a mouse, but I will also show you how to 3D print your own toy…or help you create a virtual world.

“I think it is good to be pushed out of your comfort zone and as they say ‘to expect surprises at Next Library’ “

JS: How can a conference like Next Library support the libraries in this ever-changing environment? 

Michael Stephens: There are some really wonderful things going on here. One of those things is, to varying degrees, pushing individuals out of their comfort zone. Kudos to the librarians that came here because they have always gone to the typical libraries conferences. They want something different or they are trying this to see what it is like. They’ve been rattled a little because it [ Next Library 2019] has been different and you have to stand up and sing or talk or dance or make music…and yell out “Yay! I made a mistake” when something goes wrong. I think it is good to be pushed out of your comfort zone and as they say “to expect surprises at Next Library”. So, I think that is a really important aspect to this. I have actually written about that myself, when I attended the first time, in 2017. I like the challenge this conference offers.

Another thing that is happening is, as you said, a chance to network (…) way beyond what many people might ever get to experience in their profession because they have come to an international level meeting. We heard yesterday that 43 countries were represented. So, you might be in a session (…) with people from all over the world and exchanging stories and talking about childhood memories. We are learning about those individuals and learning about how they do their work. I think that is incredibly important. And just being exposed to all of this: the innovation, the thinking beyond the way we might do at home in our own libraries, all of those things gave us that little push. What I hope happens, is these folks take these things back to their libraries and implement their own ideas based on what they have discovered.

At Next Library 2019 participants experienced co-learning, co-creative, participatory, engaging meetings, parallel and wildcard sessions, demos/exhibitions, and many other “surprises” (Photo: Guki Giunashvili).

“We will find even more ways to meet the needs of our public in whatever way we can, where we are ‘the everything and anything’ place”

JS: How do you think the libraries of the future should look like?

Michael Stephens: It is hard to know exactly what the next big “thing” is. I think we are sitting in a library that is very much at the edge – a future space. Collections aren’t going away. The collections are always going to be there as long as words are printed on paper, but that does not mean that we can’t also offer community spaces, flexible spaces. They can be anything from an art gallery to a concert hall, to a meeting space, to a debate space, all the things we’ve heard about that happened in this building and others, a space for people to create, a space for people to be challenged. What I would say about the library of the future is we will find even more ways to meet the needs of our public in whatever way we can, where we are “the everything and anything” place. That does not mean we have to do it all ourselves. That means we know how to find a way, how to create the partnerships, how to bring various institutions, various experts in to work with us to help people have better lives.

If you are interested in Dr. Michael Stephens work, please visit:

More information about Aarhus Public Libraries and NEXT LIBRARY® can be found at: and

You can find out more about Dokk1 at:


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