Freiburg and the Liber LAG 2016 conference (part one)

From the 11 to the 15 April 2016, I spent a week in Freiburg (Germany), at the Liber LAG 2016 conference  “Get Involved: Future Proofing your Library through Dialogue”.
I arrived in Freiburg late on Monday evening with my colleague Chris Haddock (Library Services Manager, LJMU) and after a pleasant coach ride from EuroAirport in France, we checked into the InterCity Hotel.

Freiburg was very clean and well looked after and it was clear that residents took great pride in their city. As I walked to the Freiburg University Library (branded ‘UB’ – Universitatsbibliothek) I was astonished by the number of bikes in the city. The nearest to it I’d ever seen previously was Amsterdam – the cycle capital of Europe.

The University Library building was stunning. Positioned close to the entrance doors were four record booths; high quality, brilliantly designed and almost sound-proof. Created by British artist Phil Collins, the installation “My Heart’s in my Hand” had already visited Cologne, New York and Berlin and was now positioned in the Library as part of Theater Freiburg’s ‘Face the Face’ festival. I spent some time listening to the specially created 7” records which featured recordings of voices from Cologne’s homeless shelter and reinterpretations of these by a range of different musicians. These record booths seemed perfectly at home in the Library and added an extra layer of sensory depth in a building which traditionally would be void of any such noise.

The conference opened around midday on Wednesday, the first and opening session delivered by Dr Ulrich Niederer (LAG Chair and Director of the Central and University Library, Lucerne) and Prof Dr Gunther Neuhaus (Vice Rector, Freiburg University). This first discussion centred on the future of libraries and the challenges being faced in making people understand that “libraries are so much more than books”. Ulrich was very passionate in stating that this thinking needs to be applied to the wider agenda around the future of university libraries and for libraries to be proactive in ensuring people continue to use them; to learn, stay and interact.

How best to future proof’ was a central theme throughout the conference and I fully agreed with the idea of libraries changing “from space to place, not only today but for tomorrow” as underpinning any potential solutions to this question. Every academic library is different; they have a different user base, unique specialisms and are positioned in dramatically varied contexts so there is no one secret recipe for such future proofing. Ulrich succinctly closed his speech in a way that perfectly summed up the journey academic libraries had been on and the cornerstone now being reached; “thanks to the immediate past and here’s looking forward to the near future”.

Prof Dr Gunther Neuhaus gave an overview of the newly constructed Freiburg University Library (officially classed as a renovation). It is one of the most modern academic libraries in Europe and one which Gunther proudly stated had not only impacted on the University, but the city and region too. Like many libraries, Gunther stated the importance of a library’s multi-faceted role; as a place for physical and digital information, as a provider of access to and support with this information and to satisfy the ever growing demands for adequate work and study space. The Freiburg University Library is seen as a bridge between the academic and urban space.

The floor was now open for Prof Dr Maarten Hoenen (Vice Rector, Basel University) who delivered the keynote speech ‘Changing Libraries’. Maarten’s took the audience on a wander through his own relationship with libraries. His own access to, and use of, libraries as a child paved the way for his interest in science and more importantly helped him learn the skills to study and interact with others. As he progressed into research, the library changed function and became a laboratory where Maarten suddenly felt like a partner in a guild.

In exemplifying why the idea of ‘changing libraries’ is trivial, Maarten stated that everything changes. Just like the weather, and just as in Great Britain (and probably more so in Manchester’s micro climate of persistent grey skies and glimpses of weather extremes) we understand our own weather system. Therefore we prepare ourselves for the changes, and so too must libraries. “What weather system is your library in?” Maarten asked. He then discussed many of the major changes academic libraries had seen throughout history and the pivotal role they have played in countries, cities and societies across the world. Maarten stated what he believed a library was;

An institution that collects, stores and provides media for use by individuals that belong to a certain group.

More impactful was Maarten’s summary of what libraries are in today’s world;

Products of past centuries that have survived huge culture change.

I was enthralled by his explanation of the library’s role in the development of knowledge structures and, although he stated that libraries in the main haven’t seen much substantial change, they had always reflected the long term knowledge systems created in civilisations. This point was crucial as he addressed the question of “how do we get to where we need to be today?” with the answer “through dialogue”. Maarten elaborated on this with an overview of the direction he believes academic libraries should be heading; “To be not just transmitters of proven knowledge but the public think tanks that must set the goals, focusing on the production of something new which can make the world better, moving from teaching to learning”.

The keynote speech was inspiring; a graceful journey through history, education, political structures and psychology. Although it opened with Maarten’s own story from childhood to early researcher, his message for the future of academic libraries was clear. His belief in a library’s role of connecting people to what they need (content, people, services and knowledge) was also compounded by his understanding that change requires transparency (with control), in order that goal setting be as effective as possible. This transparency was described as a move from discussion to dialogue in order that academic library’s do what’s needed; to not simply rely on the past but take responsibility. “Know your library users and take pragmatic approaches to solve your challenges with dialogue and transparency.” Truly inspirational words to open the Liber LAG 2016 conference.

As I left the conference for the afternoon break, I crossed the road and saw a perfect example of how the Library had bridged the university and urban worlds. A former telephone box had been taken over by books. Was this a sign of the demise of fixed tele-communications and the ever more prominent status of books and the library in Freiburg? Both the library and the city had already made a huge impact on me.

There will be more posts to follow, covering the subsequent seminars and also the inspirational site visits.

Normally at the end of my blog posts I cover a range of events and activities happening in the University of Manchester and across the city. This has slipped in recent posts, but I’d like to make sure as many people as possible take advantage of the Manchester After Hours event on 12 May 2016. There is so much taking place, including events at our very own John Rylands Library.

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