The digitized future: How libraries are pioneering a cultural transformation

Germany is lagging behind the fast-paced digitization happening in places like the Baltic states, with libraries in Latvia and Lithuania playing a leading role in the digital preservation of cultural heritage.

Some 120 million visitors take advantage of the educational and cultural offerings of German libraries each year. That's one reason why, in September, the German Council for Cultural Education published a study on the digitization of library services. One of the results: Digitization has a very positive effect on both the image, and range of services, of libraries.

Books | 27.05.2015

The national library body has therefore set it sights on a region that is using digitization to revolutionize how libraries of the future can be designed: the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

Designing for community

The Central Library Oodi in Helsinki is a designer lover's dream. The architecture of the three-story building highlights Finland's natural world, with a wood-clad exterior and a wavy shape that resembles snow drifts. With a movie theater and sauna inside, the library built to honor the country's centenary is about more than just books.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

Rising from the ashes

The Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar got its present name in 1991. It had previously been called simply the "Herzogliche Bibliothek" ("The Ducal Library") for 300 years. The building with its famous rococo hall (above) was partially destroyed in a fire, but it reopened on October 24, 2007.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

A football field or a library?

Don't worry if you don't have a student card, the library of the University of Technology in Delft, the Netherlands is worth visiting even without it. The sloping, grass-grown top of the building is particularly striking, and the 42-meter-high cone that pierces the building in the middle hides four floors full of books.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

Tulipwood and ebony

British newspaper "The Daily Telegraph" included the Biblioteca Joanina in Coimbra, Portugal in the 2013 list of the most spectacular libraries in the world. It bears the name of the Portuguese king John V, who commissioned its construction. All bookshelves are made of tulipwood and ebony, and the place is now part of the Faculty of Law.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

The ancient world meets modernity

The Library of Alexandria was the most famous library in the world before it was destroyed in flames about 2,000 years ago. It is said to have contained the whole knowledge of the then world on about 490,000 papyrus rolls. The new library of Alexandria, which continues the tradition, opened in 2002. Its final cost? More than 220 million dollars (€187 m.).

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

Among mummies

Some of the specimens in possession of the Abbey library of Saint Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland are over 1,300 years old, and visitors can see the monastery plan, the oldest building plan in Europe, or an Egyptian mummy. The Büchersaal ("The Book Hall," above) has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1983.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

Rescued by a president

Pay a visit to the Library of Congress whenever you are in Washington, D. C. The library was founded in 1800 but was burnt down by the British just 14 years later. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, sold about 6,500 books from his private collection to fund the $24,000 restoration. The main reading room pictured above was built in the Neo-Renaissance style.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

An oak-ey idea

The double-storey "Long Room" in the old Trinity College Library in Dublin is 64 meters long and 12 meters wide. But the space wasn't always as impressive as it is today. Its flat, plaster ceiling was removed in 1858 and substituted by a new roof made of oak.

Classic and extravagant: The most beautiful libraries in the world

Everything is big in China

With an archive of more than 30 million books and other media, the National Library of China is one of the seven largest libraries in the world. It was built as the "Capital Library" in 1809 and later renamed the "Beijing Library" in 1928 after the People's Republic of China was established. Its current name was approved by the state in 1998.

Making knowledge available to the public

Have libraries lost their monopoly on information? Can't everything worth knowing be found on the Internet? The Baltic states well demonstrate how libraries and the Internet can form a highly fruitful symbiosis, and how the knowledge that is traditionally gathered in libraries, along with the historical data and memory preserved in archives, can be made better accessible to the public.

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Sometimes being small has its advantages. Latvia, for example, with just under two million inhabitants, offers perfect conditions in which to easily set up and manage digital infrastructure. So much so that the country is attracting more and more startups due to its advanced digitalization — including Latvia's exemplary digital preservation of its cultural heritage.

Libraries open up a huge network

The National Library of Latvia in Riga, for instance, has been a beacon of modernity from its founding (see image at top). The Gunnar Birkerts-designed structure is considered one of the greatest new library buildings in the world. In planning since 1992 but was not completed until 2014, the majestic building created by the Latvian-American architect provides space for manuscripts, books, newspapers and magazines —  a total of four million objects.

But even more important than this hard copy archive is the library's expansive digital resources. While a national libraries index gives access to 40 library databases, all 801 Latvian public libraries are connected in a huge intranet network. For many people, this infrastructure has become an indispensable part of their everyday lives. And they can use it throughout the country with a single library card!

The Gunnar Birkerts-designed National Library of Latvia is a landmark of 21st century library design where virtual and tactile information resources meet

From the library to the museum

Via the 7,150 public terminals in the libraries, searches can be started in the various indexes and databases. For instance, people from remote small towns can ascertain whether it's worth going to a particular museum as nearly 20 percent of the some 6 million objects in Latvia's national museum are listed in the catalogue. Furthermore, users can log on to the library system from their home computers to access copyrighted materials.

The spearhead of Latvia's digital innovation is the Culture Information Systems Center. As part of the Ministry of Culture, it aims to open up the nation's diverse cultural heritage gems to the public. Libraries and archives are thereby merged into a state-run digital archive and information system.

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Innovative systems for archives, musems and libraries

If someone wants to find out where their grandfather was born, for example, they no longer have to blow the dust off ancient books. Instead, they can peer into old church books at home on their computers, digitally consult maps, or view training documents and other materials.

"We want to unify everything," said project manager Janis Ziedins. "We help as much as we can. We give infrastructure to libraries and museums, archives and administration." Much of the necessary funding comes from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Latvia has one of the fastest internet networks in the world, making it possible for digital film and photographic archive material, or a national archive for personal documents, to be utilized by everyday users. The digitized video and audio archive (DIVA) allows people to watch Latvian movies from their couches via digital library access, or download e-books for a limited time onto their tablets — or even borrow the tablets themselves from the library. 

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Libraries with a social mission

Lithuania's National Library in Vilnius, which was founded in 1919, has also long been devoted to digitizing its archives. When the classical building was reopened to the public in September 2016 following reconstruction, director Renaldas Gudauskas accelerated its digital transformation.

As part of the virtual European library entitled "Europeana," the national library has made Lithuania's scientific and cultural heritage available to the public.

Guided in a playful way: children in Lithuanian libraries

In contrast to Germany, libraries have a major social mission to educate the public. The Vilnius public library has developed a program that tries to strengthen children from socially disadvantaged families. More than simply offering up books or comics, Lithuanian software developers have also designed games that function as communication platforms for children.

Within the platform, a maximum of six children can meet digitally and talk about their problems using an Atavar designed by the children themselves. A trained psychologist accompanies them — virtually, and in real life in the adjoining room of the library. The program has been internationally recognized and copied.

A computer game helps kids and teenagers talk about their problems

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Programs for young people

Even remote regions in the small country are linked in a digital library network. Plunge, a city of some 20,000 residents, garnered an award in 2016 for its library's "successful tourist project," which includes holograms that people can view from home.

Located in a small "palazzo vecchio" in a beautiful park, the library has marked many of the unusual stones, trees and other plants in the area with QR codes that allow passersby to call up additional information. The target group is clear: young people.

With a view to young people in Germany, the German Cultural Council has recommended advancing collaborative projects between libraries and pre-schools and normal schools. According to statistics from 2015, only one in nine schools in Germany worked in tandem with a library.

If the Baltics are any guide, digitization could significantly help to advance that collaboration.

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Stuttgart's municipal library

Designed to be an intellectual and cultural center, the new Stuttgart municipal library was built in 2011, a towering nine-story cube. Outside, it's constructed of pale gray concrete framing glass bricks. Inside, it's stark white. Books that line the walls of the light-flooded five-story gallery hall are the only splashes of color. At night, the library is illuminated in different colors.

From baroque to modern: Germany's most impressive libraries

Duchess Anna Amalia library

The Duchess Anna Amalia Library is a small gem in Weimar that houses books, maps, musical scripts and ancestral registers. It's named after the duchess who saw to it that the court's book collection was moved into the Rococo library in 1766. A fire in 2004 destroyed part of the precious collection. After undergoing restoration, the UNESCO-listed building reopened three years later.

From baroque to modern: Germany's most impressive libraries

Herzog August Library

Bibliotheca Augusta, the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, is one of the oldest libraries in the world that has made it to the present day without losses to its famous collections. An avid book collector, Duke August (1579-1666) made it one of the largest European libraries of his day. Scholars continue to turn to the library for its wealth of medieval literature.

From baroque to modern: Germany's most impressive libraries

Foster Library

Due to its cranial shape, this library in Berlin has been dubbed "The Brain." It houses the libraries for the philosophy and humanities departments at the capital's Freie Universität and has quickly become an architectural landmark. It was designed by internationally renowned architect Norman Foster and opened in 2005.

From baroque to modern: Germany's most impressive libraries

Oberlausitz Library of Sciences

The Oberlausitz Library of Sciences in Görlitz, right on the border with Poland, dates back to 1806. Plain but inviting, it is one of the most striking early classicist library halls. More than 140,000 books document the history, culture, nature and society of the region between Dresden to the West and Wroclaw to the East.

From baroque to modern: Germany's most impressive libraries

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center

The spectacular Grimm Center is a part of Berlin's Humboldt University. Built in 2009, it houses a library and the university's computer and media services. The reading room, above, is at the heart of the building. It gives people "a sense of the outdoors" through its size and tiered, almost scenic design, says architect Max Dudler. It offers "the feeling of reading under the open sky."

From baroque to modern: Germany's most impressive libraries

Bavarian State Library

Collections begun in the mid-16th century have grown to more 10 million books in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, once known as the Bibliotheca Regia Monacensis. The collections found a home in the current building between 1832 and 1843, which was almost completely destroyed during World War II. The library took years to rebuild.

From baroque to modern: Germany's most impressive libraries

Kolumba reading room

Granted, it's nothing like the other libraries in this selection, but the Kolumba Museum's reading room is a gem in its own right. It's a space made for contemplation with a stunning view of downtown Cologne from tall windows, the walls paneled in grained wood. The books? Exhibition catalogues, individual publications and a changing array of novels, children's and art books chosen by museum staff.