“Those who know what the sound means look up and they think: ‘We just got one more person. Someone just had something beautiful happen in their lives,” explains Marie Østergård, director of Aarhus Public Libraries.
“Then maybe they think about their own children being born. The tenderness that comes from that is amazing. But even if people don’t know what the sound means, they still look up and they see each other across the space. They think: ‘Something happened, we all heard it, we had this shared experience’. It’s a way of connecting them.”
The ringing of the bell also means those born in Aarhus are connected to the library from the moment they take their first breath. That seems hugely symbolic in a city - and indeed country - in which libraries are so bound up with the idea of citizenship and democracy.
“Public libraries here are linked to the Enlightenment,” says Østergård. “We have public schools, we have public libraries - all established to create a more enlightened citizenry, which is why funding is directly through the municipalities, with some state finance for capital projects. It is all paid for by tax money.”
Scotland’s libraries are paid for through taxes, too. As in Denmark, there is some national money for specific initiatives, but most funding comes through the local authorities.
But our taxes are significantly lower than those in Scandinavia. Both the Scottish government and council budgets have been cut as a result of a decade of austerity politics. That has impacted on services. Sixty-one of the country’s 480 libraries are still closed indefinitely, months after Covid restrictions were lifted.
Last week, Nicola Sturgeon announced £1.25m to help reopen libraries, particularly those in areas of deprivation. This money is welcome, but it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out £1.25m is not a lot when split amongst so many. Indeed, with the Couper Institute on the city's southside needing £400,000 alone, that sum is scarcely enough to guarantee the future of the five still-closed Glasgow libraries.
Three weeks ago, Scotland on Sunday launched a campaign to highlight the role well-resourced libraries can play in promoting health and well-being, and fostering social cohesion. As part of that, it seemed appropriate to look at pioneering libraries elsewhere. I wanted to know how other countries value them, and to explore what - with vision and ample funding - they can become.
At the start of the millennium, many sceptics were sounding the death knell for libraries. With information moving online, they insisted, traditional book repositories would soon be obsolete.
Yet the opposite has happened. Yes, libraries have adapted to the times, digitising archives, automating check-out and return, offering eBooks. But library providers have become conscious of the importance of the physical gathering space in a world where people are increasingly isolated.
Counterintuitively, the rise of social media - which reduces the opportunity for real-life contact - has fuelled a loneliness epidemic so great supermarkets were at one point being encouraged to set up "chatty cafes" for isolated customers.
The internet has also driven a polarisation of opinion, with people increasingly confined to their echo chambers or social bubbles.
“Libraries are now the only non-commercial space where you meet across gender and age, across political and religious conviction, across educational and family background,” says Østergård. “The fact you can come to Dokk1 and be exposed to or involved with people who are different from the ones you would normally hang out with is something we take very seriously.”
And so, against the odds, the most incredible new libraries are springing up across the globe. Gone are the shelf-lined cathedrals of the past, with their fusty smell and their shooshty staff.
Today’s world-beating bibliotheques are flexible, multi-functional spaces; emporiums of learning in its widest, most socially-equitable sense. They are meeting places, greeting places and sometimes even eating places. They are places of reflection and circumspection. Places to be challenged and entertained. At their best, they help break down barriers and help users navigate a safe course through the white noise of mass information.
Dokk1 opened in 2015. This year’s International Federation of Libraries (IFL) shortlist for new public libraries included Marrickville Library in Sydney and Het Predikheren Library in Mechelen, Belgium.
Marrickville Library is built on the site of a former hospital. Bricks, timber and columns from the original building have been reused to create a complex that includes a pavilion, an outdoor garden and a historic art book collection that was previously not accessible to the public. Het Predikheren is housed in a restored baroque monastery, abandoned in 1975.
But it was Deichman Bjørvika Library in Oslo that stole the prize. Renovated as part of an urban renewal project, Deichman Bjørvika sits next to the Opera House on the city’s waterfront. The architectural masterpiece, which houses 450,000 books, is covered in thin, vertical windows, and has a cantilevered fourth floor that juts out 65 feet above the plaza where the entrance is located. It contains reading rooms, a cinema, a 200-seat auditorium, cafes, restaurants, recording studios, rehearsal rooms and game rooms.
Asked for his favourite, Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP, the UK's library and information service, chooses the State Library Victoria in Melbourne. “It’s a global beacon,” he says. "It is completely connected to the city and is good at welcoming the indigenous population. It’s a democratic palace. A palace of the people.”
Poole says different countries have different models of library governance. “The Netherlands has a strong central national library which provides support, and then has a regionalised structure so libraries can share information and resources,“ he says. “And then there are totally federated library set-ups like Germany where there is almost no centralised control and a lot of local and regional governance.”
He says the extent to which libraries flourish depends on the government’s view on the universal right to an education. “In countries which are invested in this idea - Denmark’s a great example - you tend to see libraries thriving. In countries which aren’t, countries which regard their individual citizens as economic units rather than people with a right to dignity and learning, you tend to see public libraries withering.
“The real issue for us [in England and Scotland] is, do the governments aspire to education and opportunity for all? If they do, they ought to fund local government properly and let them get on with it. If they don’t, you have to ask why they aren’t thinking about the longer term implications of those choices.”
In Aarhus, the belief in a right to a universal education is a given. But the link between libraries and citizenship runs much deeper than just a sense they should be accessible to all.
There, the library service sees itself as an engine of empowerment, helping people to take control of their own lives and shape the development of their communities.
“We hold citizens’ gatherings where things like traffic schemes and architectural politics are debated,” says Østergård. “In other places, such discussions might take place in a city hall, but the city hall is so loaded with signals and culture, it has a high bar for people to enter. We know librarians are trusted and libraries are regarded as safe spaces.”
More controversially, Aarhus libraries are used for party political sparring. Not only do they serve as polling stations but they are the means by which citizens decide how to cast their votes. In the run-up to elections, politicians of different hues will hold meetings in Dokk1 and the city’s 18 district libraries. Opposing viewpoints will be aired and challenged.
This sits a little uneasily in the UK. Here, the expectation is that libraries will be neutral - quiet havens from the cut and thrust of party politics. “I hear that discussion all the time,” says Østergård. “[It is true that] libraries should not take a particular standpoint. But we are supposed to provide information for people to form their own opinions.
“What we can do is to create these debates but make sure we curate them so different political views are represented. The framework needs to be clear so people know this is what they are entering. In that sense the library stays neutral.”
Empowering people to shape public policy is particularly important where division and disenfranchisement prevail. In the last few decades, libraries have been used to promote healing in countries where strife has been bitter and long-standing.
Poole, who used to live in South Africa, tells how sheds which served as warrant offices under apartheid were converted into township libraries and went on to play a role in the country's Truth and Reconciliation process.
The reclaiming and transformation of those once-hated buildings was so successful some of them were used as venues for hearings on reparations for stolen land.
Years later, when the UN was looking to rebuild Darfur after Sudan’s civil war, it asked itself what kinds of institutions would promote harmony. Should it invest in schools or maybe hospitals? Eventually, however, it opted to build “libraries of peace”. “It discovered those are the places where people come together,” Poole says.
Aarhus is not in a conflict zone. Nor does it have areas of deprivation on anything like the scale of Scotland. But it does have the so-called ghetto of Gellerup, with its largely immigrant population, living in substandard housing.
Gellerup, which is blighted by gang violence, is now undergoing a regeneration. At the heart of that regeneration will be a brand new library to replace its small, outdated one.
“It’s been an ambition of the city council to use the library as something that will help lift this area so it can change from being written off as a ghetto into becoming a more diverse society with different kinds of democracy,” says Østergård. “It’s a total rethinking of [Gellerup], improving the infrastructure to link it closer to the city centre and using libraries and cultural institutions to transform it into an attractive neighbourhood for people who would not normally live there.”
Physical ghettos are one thing. But increasingly we find ourselves in virtual ghettos, hurling abuse at one another across cyberspace. Leave v Remain; Yes v No, pro-trans v gender critical. All nuance is lost as people dig themselves deeper into ideological trenches. This process is heightened by algorithms that feed us the opinions we want to hear and by disinformation that makes it difficult to establish the truth.
“I think if we are going to repair our democracy, we need civic spaces where we can debate conflicting viewpoints without it being about destroying the other person’s view,” says Poole.
Aarhus libraries not only bring people together, they aim to furnish them with the tools they need to distinguish between fact and fiction. “Knowledge comes in many forms,” says Østergård. “One of the library’s major opportunities and obligations is to help people decipher fake news, to process the information they are receiving.”
And so, in Dokk1, there are workshops on media literacy and data democracy. The way we consume information may have transformed the way libraries operate, but the spirit of the Enlightenment lives on.
The public library system in Scotland and the rest of the UK was born not from the Enlightenment, but from the reform movement in the second quarter of the 19th century.
Prior to that, there were lending libraries gifted to communities by philanthropists and benefactors. Innerpeffray in Perthshire was established in 1680 when the third Lord Maddertie left his collection of books on religion, witchcraft, demonology and astrology to the local community. Three years later, William Baikie bequeathed his “eight score” volumes to the people of Kirkwall in Orkney. As Maddertie intended his books for the use of the students while Baikie’s books were for more general consumption, Kirkwall claims the distinction of the country’s first public library.
In the 18th century, the impulse to self-improvement brought subscription libraries, such as the miners’ library in Leadhills, where members paid to buy and then borrow books. There were also Mechanic Institute libraries, funded by industrialists who wanted a more educated workforce (or to keep their workers out of the pub) and circulating libraries, which were run for profit.
But, explains Peter Reid, professor of librarianship at Robert Gordon University, not everyone wanted a more informed workforce. Some employers felt threatened by the prospect. “Knowledge could be seen as power and people getting above their station,” he says.
The first legislative move towards a public library system came from Scottish MP William Ewart. He was the driving force behind the Public Libraries Act 1850, which applied in England, and which was followed by similar legislation in Scotland three years later.
But this did not prove to be the catalyst Ewart anticipated. Each burgh had to hold a referendum on whether or not to adopt the Act - a move which required an extra penny on the rates.
Back then, of course, the electorate was made up of men of means. And many burghs stood firm against the Act. “Edinburgh rejected the penny on the tax by a whopping majority,” Reid says. “Some big towns didn’t adopt the public libraries act until as late as the 1880s or 90s.”
In the end, it was Andrew Carnegie who galvanised local politicians into action. The Dunfermline-born tycoon created thousands of libraries across the world, hundreds of them in Scotland.
A self-made man, he was determined to reinvest his wealth in worthy projects and saw libraries as "a never-failing spring in the desert". But he also believed the state should play its part. He was prepared to fund the buildings and the fitting out but he expected the local authorities to cover the running costs.
“Carnegie offered £25,000 to Edinburgh, but it was still dithering so he doubled it to £50,00 and the opposition disappeared overnight,” says Reid.
The growth of the Labour movement in the run-up to WWI and beyond saw Carnegie’s notion of libraries as a social good become embedded in the national consciousness.
“It is both a left-wing and a right-wing proposition,” says Poole. “From a left-wing point of view, it’s about institutions that promote justice and individual freedom and equality, and from a more right wing point of view, it’s about social mobility, innovation and enterprise.”
Carnegie’s long-term legacy has been mixed. He brought a universal state-funded public library service into being, but the buildings he provided, though beautiful, were large, drafty and costly to maintain - a problem many local authorities are still dealing with today.
Modern libraries require a multifunctional functional space that gives flexibility for Book Bug sessions or lectures or IT suites. “Trying to adapt some of these older buildings for 21st century purposes is like wading through treacle,” Reid says.
There have been successful projects. Reid cites, for example, the John Gray Centre in Haddington where a historic building has been regenerated and juxtaposed with “a sensitive, but bold” new extension.
Such projects require investment at a time when money is tight, yet library advocates would argue such investment is money well-spent.
Dokk1 was a major investment for Aarhus. But the number of visits has more than doubled from 1,800 visits a day six days a week to 3,700 visits a day seven days a week. More significantly, perhaps, despite fears the vibrant new building would draw people away from their own communities, there has been no reduction in visit numbers at the district libraries.
In fact, an unexpected consequence of Dokk1’s popularity is that expectations have been raised. “It has opened people’s eyes to what libraries can be,” says Østergård. “They saw what was happening in Dokk1 and started asking: ‘Why can’t our branch library do the same?’"
While opening hours have been cut in some Scottish libraries, Aarhus has also found a way to maximise access. Its opening hours are divided into staffed and unstaffed. People can continue to use the buildings after the librarians have gone home.
In the branch libraries, users can enter during unstaffed hours by swiping their library cards (something that has happened on a very limited scale in Scotland). But in Dokk1 the doors remain open to all from 8am-10pm every day. “People love that when they get home late from work, they can still go to the library," says Østergård.
Isn't there vandalism? "Sometimes," she concedes, "but that doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t be able to benefit. And it's rare. People feel the libraries are theirs, so they take care of them.”
This is the Carnegie ethos writ large. He believed libraries helped create better citizens who would go on to create a better world. Surely that’s a vision worth investing in.