Democracy, digitisation and public libraries

Bo Skøtt (Department of Design and Communication, University of Southern Denmark, Kolding, Denmark)

Digital Library Perspectives

ISSN: 2059-5816

Article publication date: 14 June 2021

Issue publication date: 11 August 2021




The purpose of this paper is to investigate what democratic challenges the digitisation of the public libraries in Denmark has entailed. Using the concepts from a national library professional strategy from 2012, an analysis of 9 librarians’ experiences with digital dissemination in practice is conducted.


The paper is a part of a larger research project called “If digitisation is the answer, then what was the question?”. This sub study builds on the semi-structured interviews with library staff members, case-descriptions of two central providers of digital public library materials, as well as literature studies of missions, vision and strategies from different public library policy institutions. To frame the study, a literature review has been conducted.


The author detects the presence of several incompatible conditions in digital dissemination. These conditions are predominantly of an organisational nature, potentially containing major consequences for citizens’ free and equal access to information, knowledge and culture. Among other things, the Danish public libraries risk substantiating an already existing and problematic polarisation between technologically capable and incapacitated groups of people.


The digital transformation of society has only just begun. Therefore, it is important to examine the consequences of the transition to digital media types for central cultural institution such as the public libraries. The present study is an early and minor contribution to the illumination of a process requiring many more and large-scale studies.



Skøtt, B. (2021), "Democracy, digitisation and public libraries", Digital Library Perspectives, Vol. 37 No. 3, pp. 305-323.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited


Within the past two decades, the Danish public libraries have experimented with various forms of self-service, digital services, etc. (Balling et al., 2014, p. 12). Since 2004, more and more public libraries have entered into increasingly binding collaborations concerning the digitalisation of information, knowledge and culture like eReolen, conveying the public libraries’ digital literary services as full-text down-loan (the lending of digital documents) of e-books, audiobooks, podcasts, etc. (Slots- og kulturstyrelsen, 2020). A lot of resources have been invested in developing the public library’s digital dissemination and more citizens have begun to apply the digital possibilities, although the development has not move as fast as expected (Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014, pp. 20–27). From a library professional perspective, however, the increased use of digital media is neither problem-free nor cost-neutral. In connection with a study of the public libraries’ digital cultural dissemination in January and February 2020, I interviewed 9 librarians, library mediators and section managers who participate in digital dissemination activities, and one of the preliminary sub-results from this study showed how all respondents experienced challenges related to citizens’ use of digital opportunities. One of these challenges concerned the potential consequences of digitalisation for free and equal access to information, knowledge and culture. What the challenges were, became evident in one of respondent SJ’s answers:

We have a right to freely borrow all analogue materials accessible [at public libraries] in Denmark, which means that no matter which municipality has the material, you may borrow it. Databases [on the other hand] are municipality dependent, so access to digital materials depends on whether your home municipality chooses to grant access […] It is a bomb underneath the right to freely borrow materials (SJ, 2019, line 144-148).

The issue, which SJ’s answer addressed did not regard digitisation, but some of its possible derived consequences. Throughout modernity, the public library has been defined as an institution providing free and equal access to content considered enlightening, educational and culturally activating (Act regarding library service, 2001, p. 7) and valuable for society’s general community construction and coherence. This access is a welfare benefit granted without regard to the status or financial capacity of the citizen (Afori, 2013, p. 10ff). On this basis, the public library has accumulated, preserved and disseminated various media types as a sharing economy alternative to commercial media circuits since its establishment in the mid-19th century and is currently regarded as a local hub in a national and internationally cohesive library system. Hence, the public library’s self-understanding is strongly linked to the democratic principles of equality.

Research question

The research question of this paper is born out of SJ’s statement and the considerations this statement brought about. Digitisation generally changes citizens’ relationships with each other, but, so far, the technological innovations within public libraries have largely been articulated positively. Providing e-books, digital articles, or audiobooks, create several intended changes, potentially improving access and use options, but apparently also have several unintended implications. Therefore, this paper will examine what democratic challenges digitalisation of the public library’s digital media types entails in the public library’s practical task solutions?

In Denmark, the public library’s activities are regulated through national legislation (Act regarding library service, 2001). Section 5 explicitly determines who has access to which types of documents:

§ 5. The public libraries are at the disposal of everyone for use on the premises and the loan of materials. The obligation to lend material applies to the items mentioned in § 1 (1). (2) Through participation in the general interlibrary loan service the public libraries must endeavour to provide the users with such material as the library itself does not possess (Act regarding library service, 2001, p. 8).

The items mentioned in §1 include books, periodicals, audiobooks, recorded music and electronic information resources, like the Internet and multimedia (Act regarding public libraries, 2001, p. 7).

Section 5 may be regarded as the welfare state's affirmation of citizens’ democratic right and access to a basic supply of information, knowledge and culture made available by public libraries’ lending activities. This is also how the term is used in this paper. However, the Act was drafted and passed in the late 1990s, where no one could foresee the consequences of the digital development. Digital documents exclusively distributed via licenses for streaming services or subscriptions to databases are thus not covered by legislation why the public library is not allowed to participate in the interurban loan system with these media types (cf. Afori, 2013, p. 14; McShane and Thomas, 2010, pp. 152-154). It is this issue and its consequences, which will be discussed in the following.

Contextual framework

Two institutions are crucial as suppliers of digital content to the Danish public libraries. So far, the public libraries’ digital tenders has been administered by Danish library centre, whose task is to provide joint library solutions to the public libraries and by the Danes’ digital library, a secretariat, which until May 2020, was located under the Palaces and culture agency in the Ministry for culture.

Danish library centre (Dansk bibliotekscenter, 2021) is a municipal limited company, owned by the association Local government Denmark, whose primary task is to maintain the Danish national bibliography continuously registering all Danish publications. Besides, the Danish library centre offers several different services, like maintenance and development of a common infrastructure for public libraries’ websites, provision of metadata for library-relevant media and maintenance, operation and development of, the public libraries common national online public access catalogue ( Additionally, the Danish library centre is responsible for the development and operation of Læ (, a website where citizens may be inspired to their next literary experiences and for (, which constitutes the public libraries’ streaming service for documentaries, short films and feature films. Finally, Danish library centre is responsible for the development and operation of (, containing a collection of articles on various social, political and vocational issues aimed at primary and secondary schools, as well as (, which is an online author lexicon of approximate 1,100 living and deceased authors.

The Danish digital library (Danskernes digitale bibliotek) was established in 2012 as a secretariat to strengthen, streamline and make visible: “[…] the overall public library supply and ensures all citizens easy access to selected, qualitative, current and versatile media content via digital platforms”. (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2019b, 2 section – my translation). The secretariat’s tasks were divided into three focus areas: IT-infrastructure, Procurement cooperation and Dissemination, each assigned a professional group.

IT-infrastructure supported the construction and maintenance of a common national library infrastructure to ensure: “[…] a reliable, open and flexible technical infrastructure for the public library”. (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2019c – my translation). A common infrastructure should foster national cooperation and exploit the potential for rationalisation. This initiative was carried out in close collaboration with the Danish library centre.

Procurement cooperation consisted of: “[…] joint procurement, administration and negotiation of selected digital materials […]” for the public libraries (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2019c – my translation) and aimed to rationalise and streamline negotiations with external providers about the prices and conditions for applying library-relevant documents and services. The procurement cooperation had the ambition to ensure a uniform supply of digital media types, as well as the greatest possible discounts and efficiency for as many public libraries as possible (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2018a, 2018b).

Dissemination took care of the development of common dissemination areas for the public libraries, where the purpose was: “[…] to ensure a strategy for digital dissemination, which has clear objectives for the national as well as cross-cutting local dissemination”. (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2019c – my translation). The ambition was to ensure seamless and coherent dissemination between analogue and digital materials across local and regional borders (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2019a; Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2019b).

Also, the secretary developed and managed different digital services, such as Litteratursiden (, a website with inspiration and debate on literature and literary topics, and Bibzoom (, the public libraries’ music website with samples and literature on music. The Danish digital libraries provided support to Biblioteksvagten (, the public libraries’ national query service and (, a portal offering short online courses on information and communication technology in everyday use. Last, but not least, the Danish digital libraries had a close corporation with the association eReolen, constituting a common, organisational framework for the public libraries’ joint supply of digital media types, e.g. e-books, digital articles, audiobooks, podcasts, etc. (EReolen [The e-bookcase], 2021, 2. section). With effect from 1 May 2020, the Danish digital library has been replaced by the association Digital public library, which has taken over the above-mentioned task portfolio (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2020; Bibliotekschefforeningen, 2020).

Literature review

To outline how different theories have shaped the perception of the public libraries’ digitalisation activities so far, I will begin by presenting a brief review of 8 key documents. The publications were identified by searching the Ministry of cultural affairs homepage and by applying the following search queries:

(“libraries” OR “library” OR “librarian” OR “librarianship”) AND (“digitalization” OR “digitalisation” OR “digitization” OR “digitisation” OR “digital transformation”) AND (“democracy” OR “democratic” OR “democratization”).

The searches were conducted 22 January 2021 in the following databases: Academic search premier, Eric and Library, information science and technology abstracts. The databases were selected based on their subject coverage.

In 2007 a Local government reform were launched changing the public authorities’ task management, financing and the territorial structure in Denmark (Ministry of economic affairs and the interior, 2013, pp. 42-48 and 137-138; Kommunernes landsforening, Kulturministeriet and Kulturstyrelsen, 2012). In continuation, a library professional team consisting of representatives from the public libraries and their interest organisations, as well as municipal and state institutions was set up to investigate how the public library could support a positive societal development and exploit digital information resources to create: ‘…an informal, open learning, inspiration and meeting place […] (The public libraries […] 2010, p. 6). The initiative resulted in the report Folkebibliotekerne i videnssamfundet [the Public library in the knowledge society] (Styrelsen for Bibliotek og Medier, 2010; see also the Public library in the knowledge society [2010] for a brief summary in English), which contains five recommendations for the public library’s future work (open libraries, inspiration and learning, the Danish digital library, partnerships and professional development).

Simultaneously, the Ministries of culture in the Nordic countries published a joint publication, Nordic public libraries 2.0, which describes the possibilities of the Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Danish public libraries in a digitalised information society (Lindegaard, 2010). The publication is based on a series of national reports, published in the late 2000s providing an overview of current challenges. The authors of the various articles in the publication emphasises three challenges for public libraries across countries:

  1. to integration public libraries’ services into the citizens’ everyday life and to make them as applicable as commercial products;

  2. to develop new seamless online services, motivating citizens to enlightenment, education and cultural activity and promote searches for credible information, knowledge and culture; and

  3. to develop and promote digital library services relevant to everyone “from cradle to grave” (Lindegaard, 2010, pp. 7-11).

The above publications were followed by a Danish study conducted by Moos-Bjerre analyse and the think tank Future Libraries. In the report Future libraries in a target group perspective (2014), the authors map the Danish population and identify ten different segments of citizens, each expressing a distinct attitude towards and use of the public library. Based on this segmentation, the Danish public libraries’ physical and digital offerings are analysed in relation to the interests and use patterns of the various segments. The report shows how the public libraries have a strong position in Denmark: all citizens know and value the public library and its functions in society. This also applies to most non-users (Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014, p. 3). At the same time, the authors identify several challenges, which must be addressed for the public library to maintain this position. Firstly, there is a big difference in how much different segments apply public libraries. This issue should be a priority since the public library’s societal legitimacy is closely connected with its use. Secondly, digitisation may be interpreted as both an opportunity and a challenge, e.g. in connection with the difficult economic situation. Thirdly, there are still very large differences in what different municipalities apply in terms of finances to their local public library systems (Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014, pp. 12-31).

A fourth publication dealing with the organizational and technological aspects of the digitisation of public libraries is the website Model programme for public libraries (Agency for culture and palaces, 2015a). The site is a catalogue of best practice cases from all over Europe, showing how various public libraries meet some of the above challenges. The purpose of the website is: “[T]o create inspiration and open up the field of possibilities for the public library’s change agents […] who are to contribute to realising new local interpretations of the public library or implement extensive changes to existing libraries” (Agency for culture and palaces, 2015b). The publication is directed at culture politicians, council officers at the municipalities’ technical and cultural departments, library managers and staff.

In the paper Unlocking the potential? (2010), Ian McShane and Julian Thomas conducted a comparative study of the digitisation strategies of 6 OECD countries and show how several strategies, including the Australian one, promote the economic and competitive potential of digitisation. Culture and library institutions are considered from an instrumental rationale with a focus on functions such as content provision, secure access and accessibility and training in the use of digital tools and services (McShane and Thomas, 2010, p. 158). McShane and Thomas argue for a sustainable alternative to the market-oriented direction of the Australian digitalisation strategy, where the constitution, preservation and use of the common cultural memory and introduction to digital literacy, source criticism and access to open source platforms, are key elements.

Simultaneously, Orit Fischman Afori published the Battle over public e-libraries (2013), in which the commercialisation of the British public and research libraries’ dissemination practices through licensing and subscription agreements is problematised. Libraries no longer acquire ownership but only the right to disseminate the digital media made available. To do this, libraries must enter contracts with producers, preventing libraries from fulfilling their statutory obligations. Because the law favours the rightsholders’ interests, many contracts on licenses and subscriptions override the remissions admitted by copyright law enabling libraries to handle collections of analogue media types (Afori, 2013, p. 4). In addition, libraries are funded by the very same people who fund public research and the creation of professional knowledge, but due to the above-mentioned favouritism of the rightsholders, citizens only have access to this knowledge for a fee! However, the libraries fulfil an important societal function, why Afori calls for a showdown with current practice.

In continuation of Afori, Shinjoung Yeo describes how public cultural institutions, for decades, have entered various forms of public-private partnerships with multinational media companies. In her article Access now, but for whom and at what cost? (2020), Yeo describes how these partnerships where negotiated to ensure access to information, knowledge and culture for as many citizens as possible, but, at the same time, were an attempt to mitigate the effects of reduced economic funds. However, private companies do not enter these partnerships to ensure public access, but to secure control over cultural products (books, articles, paintings, objects, etc.). What multinational companies are looking for is to recreate information, knowledge and culture activities in a commercialised form and develop these into new business models (Yeo, 2020, pp. 596-597). Unlike Afori, Yeo has no solution to the problem.

Finally, the article In-between strengthened accessibility and economic demands: Analysing self-service libraries from a user perspective (2016) by Lisa Engström and Johanna Rivano Eckerdal examines citizens’ expectations to the public library as ubiquitous. The starting point for the study is how Sweden, unlike other countries, does not use economic arguments about streamlining and rationalisation to justify the establishment of unmanned public libraries, but articulate self-service as an extended service. Engström and Eckerdal then analyse the citizens’ attitudes to self-service based on three discourses: A book discourse, an economic discourse, and a civic centre discourse (Engström and Eckerdal, 2016, p. 156). The authors conclude that there exists a continuing hegemonic struggle for the right to articulate the services of the public library and illustrate how the public library is too complex an institution to comprehend from a single discursive perspective.


This paper is based on the preliminary results from an interview study conducted in early 2020, were I conducted e-mail interviews with 9 respondents, employed at a similar number of Danish public libraries. The purpose was to study how public libraries have handled the transition from analogue to digital dissemination, so far. In the original study, I took a starting point in King and Horrocks (2012) and Svend Brinkman (2013), who recommend dividing the interview process into four stages: identification of respondents; communication of an interview guide; follow-up telephone interviews; and analysis of responses received.

Using an information-oriented approach (Brinkman, 2013, pp. 57-58), I selected my respondents from the following criteria:

  • The respondents had to have employment at a Danish public library.

  • The respondents had to have knowledge of analogue and digital cultural dissemination in practice.

  • The respondents had to have enough seniority to have insight into the strategies and routines of the parent institution.

  • The respondents should be willing to take part in a research process where their written and oral statements would appear in the results.

Between 20 and 31 January 2020, I contacted 14 selected respondents via email. My inquiry contained a brief presentation of myself, of the study and its purpose. Besides, I attached an interview guide, designed with inspiration from King and Horrocks (2012, pp. 35-41) and Brinkman (2013). The interview guide was divided into three sections under the headings: What is analogue cultural dissemination; what is digital cultural dissemination; and what does the cultural dissemination of the future look like? The individual sections consisted of five sub-questions, where the first two questions concerned concrete and practical elements and the subsequent three questions were more evaluative concerning the respondents’ activities.

Of the 14 respondents, 9 responded immediately and affirmative to my request, while three declined. Two respondents referred to colleagues they rated as better qualified to answer my questions. These colleagues were contacted twice (a reminder was sent out about a week after my first inquiry), but when I had not received any reply after 14 days, I considered it a refusal. Hence, I ended up with a sample of 9 respondents.

Upon receipt of the completed guides, I initiated follow-up telephone interviews with the respondents. The questions were derived from the respondents’ written answers and were maintained through writing down keywords and sentences during the conversation and through thorough subsequent writing through of the answers, while the conversations were still fresh in memory (King and Horrocks, 2012, 44-48).

Then the analytical work began. Because I work from a hypothetical-deductive approach (cf. King and Horrocks, 2012, pp. 149-158) and it is my questions, initiating the respondents’ reflections, I consider the respondents’ answers as subjective constructions of meaning. Without my questions, it is doubtful whether the respondents would have undertaken the intellectual work, resulting in their answers. Thus, it is my questions which designate certain subject areas as significant, while other subject areas with potential impact on the respondents’ practical work, were neglected (Brinkman, 2013, p. 5; see also Alvesson and Skjödberg, 2000, p. 110-111 and 134-135). I identified several key concepts and coded these into categories, I had arrived at through a thorough reading of the theoretical literature. Subsequently, several telling statements were selected illustrating the respondents’ different views. These statements are all translated by me.

During the analysis, it quickly became clear how the respondents did not exclusively relate to digital dissemination as a change in the relationship between citizen and professional. In different ways, all respondents thematised how the development of digital dissemination forms also create major organisational changes in how library staff and managers view and, in practice, handle the public library’s dissemination obligations. When I examined the empirical material from this perspective, I came across respondent SJ’s statements on how right to freely borrow library materials is threatened, because the legislation only concerns analogue materials and because the use of digital materials depends on which collaboration agreements the individual public library’s home municipality has reached with various producers and suppliers (SJ, 2019, lines 144–148). I realised how SJ had a valid argument; that the transition to digital dissemination potentially meant increased access to materials and improved opportunities to use them, but, at the same time, meant a showdown with the idea of solidarity behind citizens’ free and equal access to information, knowledge and culture - at least temporarily. When it comes to digital media types, the free and equal access to library collections seem to be deposited in the individual municipality’s willingness and ability to pay. If I compare this shift in the right to free loan with the municipalities’ level of expenditure per capita (the municipalities expenditure range from 280 kroner to 830 kroner per inhabitant used on public libraries (Andersen, 2020)), SJ has a further point; Digitisation is a bomb underneath the right to freely borrow library materials.

It turned out that SJ just was the one who had formulated herself most clearly. In their responses, all respondents included various considerations about how the development of digital dissemination has changed the conditions for public libraries’ continuing dissemination activities and what these changes will mean in the future. The respondents did not necessarily agree in their assessments of the nature of these changes or what consequences they could/should imply. I therefore decided to make a systematic mapping of these more ideologically based statements and the results of this work are available in this paper as a study of what democratic challenges is posed by the digitisation of public libraries’ dissemination practices.


A well-functioning democracy needs an enlightened and educated population willing to participate actively in society’s social, cultural and political processes and which, at the same time, has confidence in the authorities’ exercise of power (Bennett, 2013, pp. 35-37). To promote enlightenment, education and cultural activity, many democracies have established knowledge and cultural institutions whose mission is to ensure access to and a right to apply a basic supply of information, knowledge and culture. In the Danish welfare society, this happens as a sharing economy initiative making access and use of, e.g. public libraries independent of private financial matters; The cultural institutions are tax-financed, making the maintenance and operation of these institutions a societal task, especially beneficial for less affluent citizens (cf. Lindegaard, 2010, p. 7; Yeo, 2020, p. 589).

Public funding leaves public librarians, intermediaries, section managers and library managers in charge of maintaining and operating an efficient and rational public library business. Over the last 20 years, there has been an increasing political focus on cultural institutions’ ability to do the following:

  1. To solve their statutory social obligations as rational as possible and to expand their tenders without additional costs (Lindegaard, 2010; see also Engström and Eckerdal, 2016, p. 157).

  2. To measure and document how the task solution takes place (Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014; see also Engström and Eckerdal, 2016, p. 147).

  3. To develop the public library’s services and activity and attract new segments (Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014; Lindegaard, 2010, pp. 83ff and 95ff).

This is where digitalisation becomes interesting in a public library context, because with the digital transformation of the public libraries’ media types, completely new rationalisation potentials and opportunities arise, e.g. to reach the citizens where the citizens are. The initial optimism can be attributed to the characteristics of the digital document, which have been studied and defined by Willim (2002). Around the turn of the millennium, he conducted an anthropological study of the new digital economy and its course. Willim developed one of the first definitions of the digital document as a representation characterised by discretion, modularity and automatization.

In its ultimate form, the digital document is a graphic representation consisting of an immense number of pixels, the properties of which create the illusion of a cohesive unit. However, the individual pixel is unique and thus independent and unrelated to the other pixels, which constitute the document and may thus be manipulated without affecting the rest of the document. This is unique in contrast to analogue and electronic media types and is the background for Willim’s characterisation of the digital document as discrete. The discretion of the digital document makes it superfluous to store it as an overall entity. Thus, the body text may be stored on one server, while image material may be stored on another, the references on a third, etc. The digital document is first assembled as a seemingly stable unity when activated. This is the background for Willim’s characterisation of the digital document as modular. However, to maintain the illusion of a stable unity, the digital document must be subjected to continuous adjustments, which is done automatically countless times per second by the software and hardware through which the document is represented. A third characteristic, therefore, becomes the automation of the digital document.

These characteristics provide the digital document with unprecedented reproducibility, minimised resource consumption in the reproduction process, significantly increase the speed at which reproduction takes place and make the quality of reproductions indistinguishable from the original (see also Afori, 2013, p. 4; Yeo, 2020, pp. 596-597). The digital document has an inherent sharing economical potential surpassing all earlier media types – and it is this potential which appeals to the public library and its stakeholders. Discretion, modularity and automation have the potential to significantly expand citizens’ access to and use of public libraries’ different media types.

In a library professional context, the term democratic accessibility covers citizens’ free and equal access to the media types found in the public library, regardless of form and content. The unique reproducibility of the digital document has the potential to significantly increase accessibility, but different business models are crucial for the realisation of this potential, as the analysis will show (Yeo, 2020; Afori, 2013; McShane and Thomas, 2010). Accessibility is a prerequisite for the citizen to be able to applicate the information, knowledge, or culture contained in the document in question to enrich their everyday lives, privately, as well as vocationally, and commercially.

The publication Folkebibliotekerne i videnssamfundet (Styrelsen for Bibliotek og Medier, 2010) has five suggestions on how citizens’ access to and use of the public library may be promoted. All recommendations include various technological solutions as key elements. These five recommendations regard the development of Open libraries, emphasis on Inspiration and learning activities, the establishment of The Danish digital library, the development of external Partnerships with associations and corporations and intensified Professional development of current library staff members. The first three elements relate to citizen-oriented activities, while the last two elements relate to internal organisational matters. Therefore, the first three elements will be included in my model (Figure 1) as a starting point for an analysis of how digitalisation has affected the public library’s work to improve accessibility and application. The last two elements are the subject of the analytical framework in the article Digital dissemination skills in public libraries accepted for publication and will therefore not be touched on further in this context.

Open libraries refer to the ambitions to create an alternative, physical library spaces, to integrate the public library with other (cultural) institutions and to create flexible library services. The alternative library spaces are to be created through new interior and design and by establishing varying library services, such as manned and unmanned opening periods (Engström and Eckerdal, 2016), whereas integration with other (cultural) institutions aim to create innovation. Both parts are to ensure greater accessibility for more people and preserve the public library as a physical accessible public space. Flexible library services refer to the possibilities for collaboration with organisations or user groups on activities or events to create greater local anchoring and use (The public libraries […] 2010, p. 9).

Inspiration and learning activities refer to the ambitions to create informal learning spaces in which citizens can engage in various types of lifelong learning. The Danish public library does not carry out formal teaching activities, but offers various non-formal learning courses, like campaigns to promote the desire to read, expand citizens’ information and communication technology skills or provide guidance in self-service solutions (Engström and Eckerdal, 2016, pp. 154-155; McShane and Thomas, 2010, p. 159). It is these functions the committee propose intensified and expanded in collaboration with various educational associations (The public libraries […] 2010, p. 10).

The Danish digital library is the committee’s proposal to create a common library professional institution to coordinate the public libraries’ digital efforts. The institution’s tasks are to handle the establishment and development of an infrastructure for digital dissemination and to negotiate with publishers and providers about licenses, subscriptions, etc. A basic prerequisite for the public library’s presence on the Internet is relevant and attractive library offers, which the Danish digital library was designated to realise and coordinate. Additionally, various forms of creative commons are to be established where the citizens may unfold their digital creativity freely. In the development of the Danish digital libraries, there is thus an expectation of creating a truly cohesive Danish library system through digitisation, which ultimately include the public research libraries. (The public libraries […] 2010, pp. 10-11).

All, except one, of the above-mentioned recommendations have been implemented to a greater or lesser extent. Many public libraries today are designed to handle both manned and unmanned opening hours and are flexible regarding the needs of local communities. Similarly, public libraries offer various types of lifelong learning and inspiration, often in collaboration with other institutions or organisations ( [], 2021), while The Danish digital libraries until May 2020 worked as a secretary coordinating the digital infrastructure, procurement and dissemination activities. The one exception is the creative commons, which never realised.

Analytical approach

Against this background, it is now possible to establish an actual analytical approach (Figure 1). My analysis model consists of a matrix whose vertical column contains the three citizen-oriented recommendations from The public library in […] (2010) – open libraries, inspiration and learning, and the Danish digital library – because these three recommendations have been prominent pivoting points for the development for the public library’s digital dissemination activities in the last decade. The horizontal row consists of the concepts accessibility and application, because these concepts are the starting point for citizens’ democratic access to information, knowledge and culture, and because §5 of the Act regarding library service (2001) refers to these activities: Without opportunities to access a basic supply of information, knowledge and culture, citizens cannot apply it in their everyday activities.

The analysis model is used to identify the respondents’ practical experiences with digital dissemination and their attitudes toward opportunities, limitations and challenges.


Although the starting point for all respondents was the citizens’ free and equal access to information, knowledge and culture, it quickly became evident how the 9 respondents had different perceptions of what dissemination is. Five respondents (EK-LB, LJ-P, SB-H, SG and SJ) all referred to the Act regarding library service and the parent institution’s obligation, like EK-LB who stated how the public library should: “[…] promote information, education and cultural activity” (4 March 2020, lines 13-14). The remaining four (AV, BF-J, CA-RA and MS) described dissemination as a kind of marketing, like BF-J who defined dissemination as a matter of: “[…] spreading knowledge about the library’s offerings”. (20 March 2020, line 12). This difference is pervasive and helps to nuance how the different respondents experienced the increasing use of digital media types as enriching and challenging, respectively, to the dissemination work concerning to open libraries, the public libraries’ learning and inspiration activities and the establishment of the Danish digital libraries.

Open libraries

The physical accessibility to public libraries was reduced and became more complex as a result of the Local government reform in 2007. The reform led to several mergers of hitherto independent public library systems into fewer but larger physical and organisational units creating a need to reorganise the branch structure, existing until then (Engström and Eckerdal, 2016, pp. 153-154). Today, most public library branches are open to the public from 07:00–22:00 on all weekdays but may only be manned by staff 10 or 20 h a week (Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014, pp. 12-31). Nevertheless, all respondents agreed that the physical library, the analogue materials and the personal service continued to play a significant role in the public library’s efforts to ensure democratic access to digital media types. EK-LB stated how:

Personal service is available at least one of the municipality’s four libraries every day of the week except Sunday. The design of the physical space has been thought of, so that users […] may easily navigate around the collection. The control desk is visible, and the staff greets and offers help. […] Audience computers are available and the library pays for several relevant databases/licenses which may be used by the patrons (4 March 2020, line 32-39).

According to several respondents, the public library’s increased focus on digital media types had had some interesting consequences, e.g. regarding the personal encounter: “[…] the personal communication has gained momentum again […]. Meeting a librarian is so exotic that it gives momentum. And that’s the only thing you cannot get online!” (AV, 4 February 2020, line 92-104; see also Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014, pp. 95-100).

CA-RA had made similar observations and presented a possible explanation for why this was the case. According to her, many citizens appreciated the personal service of library staff because access and information search are still difficult tasks:

[…] young people (asks for) physical communication […]. Several things are easier now […], but when it comes to searching for information or subject areas, it does not matter. Then you get a little stuck and maybe, even more, when you are young because your reference framework and your vocabulary are smaller. […] They [young people] do not show up and are self-reliant (CA-RA, 18 February 2020, line 100-107).

Several respondents (among others MS, BF-J and SJ) expressed an implicit understanding of how digital and analogue media complement each other, also because some databases have a very specific content only appealing to citizens a few times in life span or in certain life periods (MS, 5 March 2020, line 57-63; Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014, p. 23).

Despite the above, many public libraries have experienced massive declines in the lending of analogue materials (books, films, music, etc.) in the recent 10 years, but have in turn experienced a slightly increased number of visitors to the physical libraries (Public Libraries in figures 2019, 2020, pp. 9 and 38). This development has led practitioners, political observers and researchers to consider, whether a change in the way citizens use the public library is about to unfold (Audunson et al, 2019, pp. 774-775; Moos-Bjerre analyse, 2014, pp. 3-4). The respondents experienced this development while ensuring citizens free and equal access to digital media types and supporting citizens’ application as a change in the dialogue and the relationship between citizens, staff members and the public library. LJ-P thus described how: “The reference interview has been product developed (as) a sales channel where users are ‘forced’ to hear about digital offers”. (19 February 2020, line 46-48).

Learning and inspiration

Danish public libraries never engage in formal teaching but are often involved in non-formal learning activities (Jarvis, 2010, pp. 42-43) such as lifelong learning (Skøtt, 2018) or inspiration activities (Björneborn, 2017). According to SG public libraries: “[…] strive to make their digital technologies and services self-explanatory […]” (10 February 2020, line 113-121), but as shown in the previous section, many citizens were not familiar with the digital solutions despite widespread assumptions about generations of digital immigrants and digital natives (Seychell and Dingli, 2015, pp. 9-22):

The patrons browse the shelves and pick up the physical edition, even though there are several, newer magazines without limitations online. So, the patrons do not absorb online offers as fast as expected (LJ-P, 19 February 2020, line 140-145).

One of the major challenges in the transition between analogue and digital media is the additional skills, required to increase the availability and usability of digital media types. Good reading, writing and arithmetic skills are prerequisites for good information and communication technology skills why several respondents were involved in various reading campaigns (e.g. EK-LB and SG), while others were in charge of non-formal teaching courses (e.g. LJ-P). However, teaching also took place in personal service:

[We] always bring a mobile phone or are always at the computer (and) may therefore tell about the digital offers online […]. The goal is to make patrons familiar with the entire digital library, which they have access to 24/7, so it is part of the staffing to tell about the digital offer […] (LJ-P, 19 February 2020, line 42-46).

At the same time, many citizens did not realise how information search and retrieval is a demanding job. Several respondents (e.g. LJ-P, SB-H and BF-J) explicitly referred to high school students’ difficulties with information retrieval and source criticism: “[…] because they google by far! The library’s challenge is that students do not grow up with a sense of having to try to seek information. They just search the web!” (SB-H, 20 February 2020, line 17-19). Besides, citizens often came up with specific needs which they tried to solve by contacting library staff. These citizens were not necessarily interested in acquiring new skills to meet possible future needs. (SB-H, 20 February 2020, line 216-219).

The respondents’ teaching activities were primarily aimed at making available and inspiring the use of digital media types as a focal point for free and equal access to information, knowledge and culture, while guidance in the use of the physical space was only mentioned sporadically. Citizens’ free and equal access to digital media types was further challenged by the seemingly intuitive accessibility of digital documents and information retrieval and hampered by the fact that certain offers are only of interest to citizens during certain periods of life (see the previous section).

The Danish digital library

Contrary to the situation 10–15 years ago, where digital media types were considered the successors of analogue media types, all respondents agreed on assessing digital media types as a complement to analogue media types – at least for the time being. SJ put it this way:

[…] I think one may say that the digital activities are a complement to the analogues [media types]. The purpose is to expand access to culture and knowledge, and to provide offers where the analogue materials are not enough. In recent years, there has been a considerable decline in the publication of non-fiction books (SJ, 11 March 2020, line 68-71).

The changed conditions for the commercial book market had major consequences for the public libraries’ ability to acquire certain types of non-fiction. There had been a sharp reduction in the publication of handbooks on almost all subjects, but also in certain subject areas like nature science and mathematics some respondents experienced increasing difficulties in obtaining new and library-relevant analogue literature (SJ, 11 March 2020, line 75-83). Therefore, digital media types served as a supplement. In SJ’s parent institution, approximately 1/3 of the material budget was used to finance licenses and subscriptions. EReolen and Filmstriben had sound utilisation rates, while other licenses were used far too seldom regarding the expenses: “It is a challenge in many libraries and we are several [institutions], who have not broken the code yet”. (SJ, 11 March 2020, line 128-130; McShane and Thomas, 2010, p. 159).

The transition from analogue to digital media types meant an exposure of the public libraries to various consumer-oriented business models, which, subsequently, had major consequences. Public libraries are often offered access to digital media types in one of three models: flat rate overdrive or pay per loan (Grøn and Balling, 2016, p. 55). The flat rate model is a subscription scheme where the agreement provides access to larger collections, e.g. to a publisher's back catalogue. The overdrive model simulates the agreement for public libraries’ access to analogue media types. Public libraries purchase access to one title at a time and to a fixed number of down-loans. If several citizens are interested in the same title, the public library must invest in several licenses and renew their agreements – or let patrons wait in line! Pay per loan is a pure consumption model, where the public library pays for every down-loan a citizen makes. Another issue concerned the way digital documents were gathered and sold in bundles. BF-J mentioned how it was common to bundle one popular title with several less popular or library-irrelevant titles: “If you want the one, you have to take the other 9 along!” (BF-J, 20 March 2020, line 146-147; Afori, 2013, p. 14-15).

Another issue concerned providers’ restrictions on use. Because the digital media types are reproducible, the respondents experienced especially the Danish providers as even very restrictive in their licensing conditions. Respondents described how providers as part of their business model imposed technological barriers on public libraries making accessibility unnecessarily difficult. LJ-P explained how: “Several Danish publishers have a very restrictive approach to what libraries may have access to and how”. (19 February 2020, line 165-166) and MS supplemented:

[…] for many users, (the public library’s supply of digital media types) are too difficult to access. This has something to do with the seamlessness one […] expects from digital media. It is probably missing in many places. Using the library has always been a challenge: There is a threshold when you have to borrow a book and you have to go down to the library with [the book] again when you have finished – and this (also applies) to the digital (documents). Otherwise, the library would never get an agreement with the publishers (5 March 2020, line 48-53).

Due to the licenses’ consumption-specific character, most public libraries in Denmark have restrictions on how many down-loans of e-books, audiobooks and movies citizens can make per month. However, such technical obstacles are counter-intuitive to the citizens and were perceived as hindering the citizens’ use of the public library’s digital media types. The respondents’ dissemination activities is made more difficult because the seamlessness, which exists in commercial products and is sought by public libraries is hindered by the same commercial interests (MS, 5 March 2020, line 53). Besides, some respondents explained how certain public libraries recently had begun to refrain from promoting the most popular offers:

“EReolen is such a great success that in some places it is no longer marketed, which is the reverse situation. The problem is that too much use becomes too expensive (for the public library)” (MS, 5 March 2020, line 154-162).

The analysis shows how Open libraries and the Danish digital libraries are dissemination initiatives, which necessarily have to be followed by learning and inspiration activities and how the use of digital media types, is both promote and prevent the establishment free access and usability for citizens. Based on the respondents’ answers, it is now possible to discuss how citizens’ free and equal access to media types has changed with the transition to digital media types.


The local government reform implemented in 2007 entails a Danish library system with larger but fewer units, weakening the hitherto free and equal access to information, knowledge and culture (Ministry of Economic […], 2013, pp. 42–48). Therefore, public libraries develop several compensatory services in the pursuing years. One of these services is differentiated manned and unmanned opening hours, and an extended self-service made possible through the redesign of the physical library space and increased application of technology (Danish agency for libraries and media, 2010; Engström and Eckerdal, 2016). However, the citizens’ willingness to acquire and use technological possibilities does not increase in proportion to expectations. Some citizens do not have enough information and communication technology skills, while others find the use of digital documents uninteresting because they harbour urgent and specific needs (SB-H, 20 February 2020, line 216–219). Still, others have situation-specific needs, where technological solutions only affect citizens in certain phases of life, e.g. as pupils or students (MS, 5 March 2020, line 59-61) – and some consider the public library's offers to be cumbersome compared to commercial offers.

Despite these challenges, citizens’ opportunities for self-service are prioritized and several non-formal teaching and learning initiatives are initiated, to teach citizens to access digital media types and use new technology (cf. EK-LB, SG and LJ-P). The reference interview is further developed to also include promotion of and introductions to different digital media types. Thus, occasional a discrepancy between the solution model proposed by public libraries (e.g. to acquire competencies targeted solution of future tasks) and citizens’ immediate desires (to solve current needs) appear.

Additionally, the technology, applied to mitigate the consequences of the reductions in free and equal access to media types, changes the entire basis of public libraries’ dissemination activities (Willim, 2002, pp. 79-93). The publishers’ major focus on the production and distribution of digital documents has changed the market, making certain parts of the non-fiction literature disappear while others are published in ever-smaller editions (SJ, 11 March 2020, line 75–83). At the same time, the agreements public libraries can enter into with publishers are based on the rightsholders’ conditions: License agreements regard packages of titles, so access to single, popular titles means investment in access to repositories of more or less library-relevant collections (BF-J, 20 March 2020, line 146–147) and often the public libraries right of use are associated with several restrictions counter-intuitive to citizens’ use of comparable commercial products, e.g. waiting lists for popular titles (MS, 5 March 2020, line 48–53). Licence packages and waiting lists have preventing effects on the general, digital education of especially vulnerable groups of citizens (Afori, 2013, pp. 15-16).

In the case of public libraries, the business models are a balancing act between honouring their legal obligation without consumption running rampant, because: “[…] in principle, all resources can be thrown at the digital (library) […]” as stated by MS (5 March 2020, line 136; see also Yeo, 2020, p. 592). When analogue documents are acquired by public libraries, the ownership is transferred from the producer to the public library and with it, comes several rights and obligations regarding lending opportunities, reproduction, handling, etc. These rights and obligations are regulated via the Act regarding library services (2001) and include the purchase of documents on market terms, payment of compensations to authors, illustrators, etc. for lost earnings (a public lending right fee) and the right to have the documents included in the public library’s collection and participate in the interurban loan system.

Digital media types are different. Due to the discretion, modularity and automation of the digital document (Willim, 2002, pp. 79–93), no transfer of resources occurs when public libraries purchase access via licenses or subscriptions. What the public libraries buy is access to repositories from where citizens may recreate accurate representations of the contents of the desired documents to which the license grant access. Since neither digital media types nor the use of licenses is mentioned in the public libraries’ legal basis, access to and use of digital documents becomes a question of what business model can be negotiated: “[…] the negotiation of license agreements must [in principle] take place for each title!” (MS, 5 March 2020, line 186; see also Afori, 2013, p. 15) and access only applies to the institution, who have an agreement whether in the case of flat rate, overdrive or pay per loan models. So far, the Danish digital library has been negotiating on behalf of all public libraries to create common, national repositories of documents, considered most relevant and with the greatest public appeal, e.g. to eReolen (Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2018a; Danskernes digitale bibliotek, 2018b). Despite this effort, the above-mentioned situation means, that the individual citizen’s accessibility to digital, library-relevant media types is indirectly determined by the municipality’s financial situation and opportunities – which is contrary to the intention in the legislation.


In this paper, I set out to investigate what democratic challenges digitalisation of the public library’s media types entails in the public library's practical task solution. The respondents’ answers show how they agree with SJ when she addressed the public libraries’ increasing use of digital media types as problematic. From a library professional perspective, the citizens’ free and equal access to a basic supply of trustworthy information, knowledge and culture are under pressure. The public libraries’ range of digital media types provides strong citizens, who have or can acquire information and communication technology competencies with significantly more and better opportunities, due to the possibility of online access. However, public access has several technological restrictions making the application more complex than equivalent commercial products, e.g. through consumption-specific pricing models, deliberate packing of library-relevant and irrelevant titles in repositories and restrictions on public libraries’ lending per license. The producers’ business models thus short-circuit the potentials of the sharing economical basis, which is the pivoting point for the public libraries’ legally determining activities and thus effectively restrict the free and equal access to media types. Consumption-based pricing models leave no opportunities for public libraries to enter the interurban loan system with digital media types and make it increasingly difficult to anticipate the financial consequences of opting in on licenses. Ultimately, this means that the free and equal access to information, knowledge and culture becomes a question of the individual municipality’s – or citizen’s (private) – economic capabilities.

For vulnerable citizens who do not have or are unable to acquire information and communication technology competencies, the public libraries’ transfer of financial resources from analogue to digital media types means an immediate reduction in the free and equal access to and use of different media types. This is due to the shifts which the producers’ reorganisation of production means, for library-relevant physical materials and how resources have become concentrated on the dissemination of digital media types. But it is also because the availability and use of digital media types depend on information and communication technology skills, whose prerequisites are good reading, writing and arithmetic skills. From a library professional perspective, the public libraries’ focus on digital documents inadvertently run a risk to contribute to greater polarization between citizens who have information and communication technology skills and those citizens who have not, and thereby substantiate the digital divide.


Analytical fixpoints and findings

Figure 1.

Analytical fixpoints and findings


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Further reading

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Digitaliseringsstyrelsen (2016), “Et stærkere og mere trygt digitalt samfund: den fællesoffentlige digitaliseringsstrategi 2016-2020 [a stronger and more secure digital society: the common public digitisation strategy]”, Digitaliseringsstyrelsen. København, available at: (accessed 20 November 2020).

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Læ [Reading compass] (2021), “Dansk bibliotekscenter”, available at: (accessed 20 November 2020).

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The author wishes to thank employees at public libraries in Southern and Central Jutland. Without their benevolent participation this study could not have been conducted.

Corresponding author

Bo Skøtt can be contacted at:

About the author

Bo Skøtt is an Associate Professor at the Department of Design And Communication of University of Southern Denmark, Kolding. He holds PhD in Library Science. His major research interests include public libraries and their societal and social values. He specialises in target group studies, cultural dissemination and informal learning activities regarding the introduction of digital media in public libraries.

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