The new Herning Library
Denmark's heathland capital creates new main library in record time
In less than two years, Herning Municipality and its library administration succeeded in creating a completely new main library. From September 2012 to the inauguration in August 2014. Project: New urban development with a library. Read here how the project was handled in relation to the library service and in relation to the library as a building.
By Hellen Niegaard
Photos: Thomas Mølvig
In Herning – a provincial city in the more sparsely populated part of Denmark – they are not shrinking violets: New York in Herning, the locals say when referring to this new take on the design of a main library. This is not the only international touch at the library. The concept for the subject areas has been given English designations. Here, the building's large public areas are now managed by four teams: EXPO, Event, EDU and Flow.
Sheer pretence? Or is there a method to this madness? Well, yes, it definitely seems like it.
Urban development in the city centre
In the city's pedestrian street, within a stone's throw from the Town Square and the City Hall, the work has deliberately been aimed at creating a local version of the library of tomorrow. Forerunners can be seen in other Danish provincial cities such as the libraries in Næstved from 2004, the library in Hjørring from 2008, and the main library at the Culture Yard in Helsingør from October 2010. These are all places where the library has been incorporated as an active urban development element.
The same is the case in Herning, which was faced with a dying part of the pedestrian street and an increasing number of empty shops. A run-down supermarket was emptied completely of internal fittings, and a modern main library was born. Herning Municipality has thereby made a clean break with the familiar Danish public library of the last century – the one that they moved on from, i.e. the former main library designed by architect Flemming Lassen. It was badly in need of renovation. A huge and characteristic 1970s one-storey building, built around two wings and a courtyard. That is why it was placed in an area with ample space at the time, on the outskirts of Herning in an neighbourhood characterised by large housing blocks and light businesses.
Now, the library has instead moved into the city centre, in fact into the very street where 110 years earlier, the Herning Public Library Collection opened. And everything has changed.
What and how?
With its four storeys, one below ground and three above, Herning has dissociated itself from the light and bright Nordic library image. Using carefully chosen colours and materials, the aim has been to create the essence of a trendy, raw New Yorker loft and industry-like, open urban environment.
The trick is: About 90,000 recycled bricks, lots of rough-service lamps, approx. 1,300 metres of ventilation ducts, an enormous winding staircase in concrete and wood reaching up into the building, and a gigantic open staircase with seating reaching down into 'the Deep', where 90 % of the library's collections are found on steel bookcases.
The icing on the cake: A consistent colour choice in shades of grey and steel. That even goes for the BøH-landet area for young children, their parents and kindergartens. Supplemented by furniture and textiles chosen in soft retro blue-greyish green shades broken by orange/golden, e.g. on metal chairs. Does this sound dark and gloomy? Well, it isn't!
Due to its large glass sections towards the street, both at the front facing the pedestrian street and at the back facing the car park and the road to the station, as well as skylights, the entire ground floor stands out as an expansive and attractive drop-in and meeting place, a culture and media centre.
Many approaches have been applied. Let me emphasise three of these:
Culture and community centre with a footpath
The particular approach that realises and supports the municipality's idea about 'a huge, modern community centre, but also a place where the city's students can acquire curriculum knowledge' is: the building's openness and access from two sides. With entrances both from the pedestrian street and from the neighbourhood at the back. You can simply walk straight through the building, following an old footpath, which brings you out into the pedestrian street diagonally across from the Courthouse and leads you on towards the city's upper secondary school and other educational offers. If you choose to turn left, you will come across the Media Company Herning Folkeblad, while turning to the right will take you past the Town Square and the City Hall. A library could not possibly have a more central location.
Integral whole and clear offers
The second approach: The experience of an integral whole in terms of the entire ground floor of some 2,100 m2. Open offers are placed close to the floor's open circulation area. You come across the 200 m2 Café Aroma, a professional café run by external partners. Followed by the almost 100 m2 Platform, which offers newspapers and journals, a living wall, a piano and a stage area for minor events on one side. The other side features a large open lounge-like area from which there is access to the children's BøH-landet, various IT facilities and quiet reading places, as well as stairs up to meeting rooms and a homework café, among other things, on the first floor and administration etc. on the second floor. There is also a staircase leading down into 'the Deep'. A five-kilometre eldorado of bookcases filled with the library's collections (450,000 items) across more than 2,500 m2 – here you will find novels, non-fiction, music, children's books and audio books.
A sorting robot on each floor handles returns. Loans take place as polite self-service – which makes them possible during the many hours that the library is now open without librarian service. Every day from 8 am to 10 am and from 7 pm to 9 pm, though not on Fridays. The library is open a few hours less on Saturdays, but on Sundays, it is open from 8 am to 5 pm.
Customer focus, hospitality and exposure
The third approach: A new organisation and new communication setup.
The former project-orientated organisation has been developed towards a customer-focused model. The three new areas, EDU, EVENT and EXPO, handle communication as regards learning and knowledge, experiences and events.
Each area team consists of about 10 employees. Today, they spend 30 % of all their time creating cultural events, learning activities and exposure/communication of the physical and digital collection, respectively. Thanks to the many hours spent and this prioritisation, the library is able to create a continually attractive and renewed ground floor. In addition, the library obviously offers direct service to the public: four people are on duty during the manned hours. One is simply the host and can be found right next to the café. One looks after the Book-a-Librarian service, one takes care of the children's BøH-landet, and one mans the Info desk. The people on duty are easy to spot and contact, as they all wear special black waistcoats.
The communication at street level takes different forms, both physically and digitally – in addition to the special BøH-land for the little ones – not as in traditional sections, but via 10 exposure spots. These can contain between 30 and 200 material items and are changed regularly. Four are for both adults and children aged 7 to 14. One is for children aged 7 to 14, while the others are a mixture – for instance, one is for new books. A 9-screen wall and similar features are to give the citizens Denmark's best digital library experience. Here, the digital offer is equal to the physical.
What do the citizens and the city say?
The numbers almost speak for themselves. Many more visitors – 119,000 in six weeks. 11,000 more materials borrowed as compared to the same period last year, and 2,155 new active users in six weeks. Whereas some might be concerned and fear that fewer people would be able to find the materials, now that they are located at basement level, the numbers actually indicate the opposite. Or maybe, the new New Yorker building has simply attracted more self-reliant and strong citizens. This cannot be deducted from the numbers, and only time will tell.
Asked whether the users of the old library have also followed along into the city centre, Library Manager Pernille Schaltz nods affirmatively. However, she reveals, obviously a process like this, which has been completed in a very short time as compared to most other main library building projects, has drawn on the resources of everybody at the library. Furthermore, in connection with the new library areas, it was also necessary for the staff to go through a phase of 'applications' for work area assignments. And that was at a time when the library had to cut back six jobs, although two of these were related to the now closed former city branch. "However," she adds with a big smile, "everybody seems pleased with the move. Not least because we meet a lot of enthusiasm for the new building among the citizens, as well as in the city council and among our many partners. To me, this is a clear indication that it was the right solution to move to the heart of the city".
On the November day when I stopped by the new main library, I experienced it as a welcoming library, full of life and with a lot of visitors. There was only one thing about the new library that I found surprising and problematic, and that was the modest amount of space that is dedicated to the slightly older children; whether this is tenable, only time will tell.
One thing is certain. The library in Herning is clearly an exciting proposal for the library of the future, and I highly recommend a visit to all, specialists and culture politicians alike. Congratulations Herning!