Transition tales #20: Bring back the books

In Cologne, the public library is redefining its place in the city, as a centre of culture and learning for residents, refugees and asylum seekers. This is a lesson more European cities should follow.

Social inclusion one book at a time – this seems to be the motto behind the ‘Sprachraum’ (The language room) project at Cologne’s Public Library. Acting as an educational and social space for refugees and residents, the library is becoming a key part of the city, reclaiming its lost visitors and customer cards. Through ‘Sprachraum’, we are reminded that libraries are more than just dusty shelves and old books. They are spaces for creative exchange, knowledge sharing and community practices. Time to look for that lost library card!

With the number of libraries declining in cities, many voices argue for their lack of functionality in the time of e-books, eReaders and Kindles. With technology increasing the availability and access to knowledge information, libraries started to become places of the past. Labeled as old-fashioned and perceived mostly as book-lending spaces, it is becoming obvious that they are eventually going to disappear. However, this is not the case in Germany, where this trend seems to have been reversed, as more libraries are taking an active part in refugee inclusion projects and community building programs. As Deutsche Welle noted, between 2013 and 2015, the number of visitors in public libraries increased by 5 million people. What appears to trigger this shift is the transformation of libraries into community integration centres, maker spaces, and overall their adaptability to the 21st Century technology.

©Martin Meissner/AP

Many integration projects have started in Germany, after the massive influx of refugees arriving in the country since 2015. In between improvised living conditions, training programs for the labor market and bureaucratic paperwork, public libraries emerged as alternative spaces of knowledge for the refugee community in the German society. They offer free library cards, language courses and computer workstations for learning German which, coupled with books from the library collection, provide the basic conditions for individual and collective learning. To this ‘basic’ format, the library in Cologne added the ‘Sprachraum’, a more dynamic program, constructed around community and digital engagement through workshops, events and meetings.

“I was seeing a lot of people who were coming to the central library for language lessons, who were asking if there was any additional space where they could go for extra classes. At that time, we didn’t have anything.” – Hanne Vogt, Cologne Public Library director (source: The Guardian)

Community meetings with incoming refugees ©Sarah Dudek

The ‘Sprachraum’, in its physical form, is a large room located opposite the main library building, and serves both as a learning spot for the migrant community and meeting point for local community events. Besides the language courses that are carried out by 15 teams every morning, the place hosts afternoon meetings on other living services (sponsorship, mentoring, job application) and events (cultural exchanges) together with 55 local volunteers. With the hopes of creating a more active environment, while at the same time keeping up with the new technological advancements, the library included community ‘maker spaces’. In these spaces, residents can experiment with 3D printers, or virtual reality apps and accessories.

‘We as a library see our role in providing the space, the media and the infrastructure, and we get things rolling’ – Hanne Vogt, Cologne Public Library director (source: Deutsche Welle)

The Cologne Public Library represents a clear example of how libraries have to adapt to the transformations happening in cities, on both social and economical perspectives. They have to become active spaces, strongly engaging the local communities while at the same time accounting for their place in the city. In an interview with The Guardian, Hanne Vogt, the director of the Cologne Library, talks about the ‘Sprachraum’ project as a solution story which could and should be followed by other cities in Europe. Read the full article here.

Stuttgart City Library opening

The Cologne Public Library is only one of the examples happening in Germany. “Coming to Leipzig”, “Someone is on the Move”, “Overcoming Strangeness”, “Dialogue in German, “With Open Arms” – more and more libraries are redefining themselves as community spaces which want to ease the cooperation of refugees and local residents by offering special services. Germany is setting the precedent for community activation and integration through this new typology of public libraries.

Want to learn more about the projects happening at Cologne Public Library? Watch the video below.

Transition tales

The stories we present reside at the intersection of planning, culture, politics and economics. We introduce a series of weekly uploads from a number of sources (conferences, interviews, summits), that offer a better image on the way cities are changing and what are the ideas behind this transitioning.

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