Transforming Norwegian Public Libraries

by Marit Andersen Somby


In 2014, amendments to the Public Libraries Act of Norway came into force. The revision included an enhanced role for public libraries:

…to promote the spread of information, education and other cultural activities through active dissemination and by making books and other media available for the free use of all the inhabitants of Norway. Public libraries are to be an independent meeting place and arena for public discussions and debates[1].

Of particular significance is the emphasis on the “active” role of public libraries and the use of the public library as a “meeting place”. What does the new approach mean for libraries? How should public libraries respond to new directions? How are any changes planned and implemented? What consequences are there for the design of “library rooms”? How is the rethinking of the design of physical library space undertaken? This blog posting outlines two projects in Troms in Norway, which have proactively changed the role of the library, the first through examining use of library space and the second through presenting libraries as houses of literature.

Proactive Projects

Troms is a county of Norway located north of the Arctic Circle. It has a land area of 26 000 sq km and a population of 164,330, as of 1st January 2016. The County consists of 23 municipalities of which Tromsø is the largest with 74541 inhabitants and Berg the smallest with 914. Each municipality has its own public library. In Troms, support and preparation for responses to the projected changes in the Act regulating public libraries in Norway have been in play since 2012, and specifically through two projects. The two projects, both financed by funds from the National Library of Norway and the County, and operating across the County, are:

  • Library Space in Troms (2012-2014) and
  • Public libraries as Houses of Literature (2014-2017)

The Library Space programme emphasised developing change-oriented library spaces to meet the needs of the local community of each municipal library. The focus has been on the library as a centre of knowledge, culture and literature, as well as a local meeting-place and centre for multi-faceted activities.

The House of Literature project highlighted new uses for library space including competence enhancement, active dissemination of ideas and knowledge, public discussions and debate. The Troms County administration has been responsible for coordinating the activities and events within the various libraries and leading a joint working party of staff from across the libraries. In the last three years, there have been 101 events in 20 libraries, with approximately 3200 participants.

Lenvik Library
Lenvik library. Writer, musician and readers meet. Photograph by Arne- Harald Steilbu

Thinking Locally

Most of the libraries in Troms are small or medium in size. It has been important to work together across the County to meet the challenges of serving a mixed population and creating thriving communities. Through the Space project, changes for the future use of libraries in fifteen municipalities have been implemented. The initiative has had a huge impact on local communities. Knowledge of the changes required has been gained and the ability to change enhanced. The visibility of the libraries in their communities has increased and new spaces developed and equipped for all kinds of activities.

Libraries must ensure they meet the needs of their communities through a constant examination of how their collections, services and physical and digital spaces are functioning. As David Lankes has stated: “Librarians are empowered by their communities to make decisions, to prioritize and to use their professional skills, experience, and values to maximize their communities´ investments” [2]. With responsibility comes accountability and librarians must measure their performance to ensure goals are met.

The Four Spaces

The project used the Danish model of the public library in the knowledge and experience society[3] [4] as a structural tool for its work, both theoretically and practically. The model defines the role of the library in terms of four spaces:

  • the inspiration space
  • the learning space
  • the meeting space
  • the performance space

During recent years, libraries have become active spaces for experience and inspiration and local meeting points and the model pays attention to this phenomenon. The research underpinning the model found that libraries were moving from “collection” to “connection”. The new paradigm is that libraries are moving from ”collection” to “creation”. Both “connection” and “creation” are important goals for the library.

There is an increased number of activities in libraries which are initiated by users, and which involve a broad range of users from children to senior citizens. There are activities focusing on creativity of many kinds with varying themes, topics and interests. Programmes involve collaboration and inspiration in a safe environment, with participants learning, getting to know each other and building relationships and community connections. The Troms libraries incorporate the four kinds of space.

The Inspiration Space

In several libraries, specialised furniture and fittings have been provided so that the space can easily be reconfigured according to the activity, accommodating reading alone or small events.

Gratangen library
Gratangen library. A place of my own can easily be changed into one for many. Photograph by Fotojegeren Rune Jensen.

The Learning Space

Different user groups with differing needs must be able to work, act and thrive together in libraries. There are clear challenges to be met in accommodating a variety of learning styles and needs. Some want quiet spaces. Some wish to work together and discuss topics. Salangen library (Salangen bibliotek) has been redesigned to meet challenges with noise and collaborative learning spaces by designing special alcoves for reading, silent study and “skyping”.

Salangen library
Salangen library. Furniture made for talking and quiet learning. Photograph by Fotojegeren Rune Jensen.

The Meeting Space

Berg library (Berg folkebibliotek)  is situated in a small fishing municipality on Senja Island and offers the opportunity for various activities. People come from different places throughout the world to work in the fishing industry and the community includes refugees from several countries. The library works as an active arena to bring people together. The library has been refurbished to become an activity space and a meeting place. The library has received a lot of attention nationally through winning the award of Norway’s Library of the year in 2015 and a film about the work they do [5].

Berg library
Berg library. Young and old, some born locally and others just moved in, listening to a speech. Photograph by Berg library.

The Performance Space

In the performance space, children come together to play games; women meet to knit and listen to texts read by a librarian; and creativity blossoms in “the makerspace” meet-up for families on Saturdays. A group of youths from the high school is marketing their new play; the local history association is offering a course of genealogy; and the children from the kindergarten combine Friday fairy story-telling and lunch at the library.

These are some examples of what happens in Troms´ libraries. The words of S.R. Ranganathan still live: “The library is a growing organism”[6].

Nordreisa library
Nordreisa library. It is always a good time for children and grown-ups listening to Gunn-Lill telling a story. Photograph by Nordreisa library.

Using the Four Space Model

The model has worked as an effective tool for setting goals for Troms libraries, finding solutions to practical problems and developing new ideas and concepts for an active outgoing role for public libraries.

The thinking behind the model has supported the libraries as they work to create strong and independent citizens, both individually and as groups. The goals are described in four words that embody the vision for all engaged in developing the importance of libraries in society:

  • Innovation
  • Experience
  • Empowerment
  • Involvement

Final Words

While changes in service delivery and design can be achieved with large projects and substantial funding, much can also be achieved by way of improvements through incremental small steps and projects. The project “Small Scenes”, headed by the County Library in Sør-Trøndelag County, and supported by funds from the Norwegian National Library, demonstrates the effectiveness of modest proposals. The county has been working with architect Anne Lise Bjerkan  on changes in the physical layout and furnishings of fifteen branch libraries. Creative and practical physical solutions to accommodate activities and events have been implemented. Following the Troms philosophy and approach of “small is beautiful”, various areas have been repurposed to multiple and alternative uses. Innovative thinking about the various uses of library furniture for different purposes has provided an exemplar approach to others to ensure that libraries are able to adapt to new roles and varied types of use. Flexibility is the keynote. Library spaces must have the capacity for simple reconfiguration to multiple roles. Spaces must be functional and inspirational.

Alternative uses for library space, Løkken library
Alternative uses for library space, Løkken library.Anne Lise Bjerkan  (


[1] Act Relating to Public Libraries (The Public Libraries Act) Norway. Ministry of Culture Last amended: LOV-2013-06-21-95 on 1 January 2014…/4297-EN-%20nasjonalbiblioteket.pdf. Viewed 18th July 2017

[2] Lankes, R. David. 2016.  The New Librarianship Field Guide (Cambridge: MIT Press) p.100

[3] A search containing the phrase “The four spaces of the Public Library” leads to several articles about the model written by the researchers Henrik Jochumsen, Dorte Skot-Hansen and Casper Hvenegaard Rasmussen from the Royal School of Library and Information Science at the University of Copenhagen.

[4] Baker, D.& W. Evans. 2017. The End of Wisdom? The future of Libraries in a Digital Age. (Amsterdam: Chandos Publishing)

[5] Distriktssenteret – Kompetansesenter for distriktsutvikling Inkluderingsnavet Berg folkebibliotek. 2016 Viewed 20 July 2017

[6] Five laws of library science. No.5. Viewed 20 July 2017

Author details

Marit Andersen Somby, is the Librarian and Councillor at Troms County Library in the north of Norway. She was formerly the Project Manager for the project “Library space in Troms”. Marit trained as a librarian at the University of Tromsø and previously worked at the University Library of Tromsø and the Tromsø Library and City Archives. She can be contacted at:

Further information on the projects described can be found in: Somby, Marit Andersen “The cultural anchor: the library as place-maker, catalyst and cultural anchor” in Hafner, Joseph and Diane Koen (2016). Space and Collections Earning their Keep. Transformation, Technologies, Reetooling. (Berlin: De Gruyter) . IFLA Publication Series no. 175 pp. 95-119


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