Rolf Hapel: Toward a Global Instruction and Practice

Rolf Hapel, Director of Citizens’ Services and Libraries in Aarhus, Denmark since 2006, will be stepping into the role of Distinguished Professor of Practice in Residence at the University of Washington Information School (UW iSchool), Seattle.

Rolf Hapel, Director of Citizens’ Services and Libraries in Aarhus, Denmark since 2006, will be stepping into the role of Distinguished Professor of Practice in Residence at the University of Washington Information School (UW iSchool), Seattle. Hapel was a driving force in the creation of Aarhus's Dokk1 library and cultural center, which opened in June 2015 and was named Public Library of the Year by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions in 2016.

Prior to becoming director of Aarhus Public Libraries in 1994, Hapel worked in several cities throughout Denmark as a librarian, deputy manager, and director of public services. He holds a master’s degree in digitization and public administration from Aarhus University.

Hapel succeeds Susan Hildreth, who completed her two-year term as the inaugural Professor of Practice at the end of the 2017–18 school year. The position is funded by a ten-year, $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and will bring up to five professors of practice to the iSchool to offer new perspectives on library instruction.

In addition to his teaching and curriculum development duties at the iSchool, Hapel will serve on the Master of Library and Information Science program committee and the advisory committee for the iSchool’s Technology and Social Change Group, a key partner in the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative. LJ caught up with him before his move to find out more about what he has planned for his time at the iSchool.

LJ: You’re coming into the professor of practice role with a fresh viewpoint not only from outside academia, but from outside of the United States. What do you see as some emerging global challenges and opportunities for libraries? 

Rolf Hapel: Smart cities are a really big thing in Europe now, also in Asia—all kinds of sensors, big data, and the Internet of Things. The idea is that cities will become smarter and smarter, facilitating the citizens. And to me that is a strong concept where libraries have a special role to play. Libraries are the places where digitization data has a human face, where you actually are able to create useful democratic discussion of what is going on in the digital arena—what are the choices that we have as citizens? Libraries are the places that can engage the citizens in that kind of democratic discussion, and ultimately also the choices that are connected to that kind of development. So for me, public libraries are vehicles for democracy, will always be.

I'm also really interested in how digitization and these new paradigms...are impacting the physical library, the library as a physical space—how does that actually translate into physical buildings? I think that is one of the big challenges, that a lot of libraries have been built up through the last century and in the beginning of this [one] that have not really taken that transition in. I've seen so many libraries with enormous collections of physical books that have to be transformed into something else, and that something else is a place for people—not a place for books alone. That transition is extremely interesting, to see how that spells out in physical buildings. What shall that be in the future, and how can we find the economy to actually change them into something more useful? That's a really big thing for library practitioners, and of course library managers, to look into.

It's not only about digitization, it's about whatever goes on in society that librarians can identify as moments where there is a possibility for the library to be a coplayer, or maybe a corrective to an unwanted development. For me librarianship is very much about developing democracy and developing an ongoing conversation around how should our community or our society develop, and in which direction. So in that sense you could say that the public libraries are building social capital, trust, coherence in between the citizens. That is what I hope to bring to the table when I'm engaging in discussion with the students and the faculty members.

How do you think that global vision will translate into instruction for largely North American students?

I feel it's an interesting [opportunity] for me to have that ongoing conversation and be able, hopefully, to facilitate the learning processes of students. I think that my approach will not so much be instruction as it will be facilitating a discussion and to be able to enhance the language, the viewpoints. And also dealing with facts, of course. Hopefully I can use some examples and draw on my own experience, and try to open up their minds [to] what is going on somewhere else. One of the things that I've learned is that innovation and ingenuity are not about physical resources. It's much more about thinking and approach than it's a matter of money. That's one of the discussions I've had with a lot of library leaders. Of course you need to have some resources, but it's much more about thinking and energy and the ability to communicate with people.

Do LIS students in the United States face different challenges than their European counterparts?

It's exactly the same. When I went to library school we had periods of practice in education, and then eventually over years that education changed to become much more academic, which was good—you got much more theory behind your practice—but you lost the practice element. That meant that when you came out [of school] as a new librarian you had to learn how to relate, you had to learn how to work with people, you had to learn from your colleagues. Which is not entirely bad, but I think in Danish library education—and I've been discussing that with the former headmaster of our information school here in Denmark—we need kind of a new element of practice, or understanding of practice, built into the education, because of the transition that is happening in libraries. These transitions that are happening in libraries right now can be hard to put into a teaching frame[work] if you don't know enough about them. So the element of practice, it's really interesting to see how we can build that into the teaching and the learning processes of the students.

In Denmark about half of the people who get [LIS degrees] will be occupied in private companies, often as information architects, and half of them will be occupied in libraries. And not all of those who will [work in] libraries will have physical contact or meet the users of the libraries directly.

Do you see differences in LIS instruction between the United States and Europe?

One of the differences between European university teaching and what I [see] from looking at curricula in [the United States] is that American teaching is much more structured than we are used to in Europe. In Europe, in other words, much more is left to the students to actually find out and do.

Apart from the structure I think there aren't probably that many differences. It [covers] the same topics—design thinking is big all over the place, a much more user-oriented approach in general, the understanding…that libraries aren't just entities that have dropped down from heaven but that there's always a motive and ideas behind [them], the urge to develop…futures for the physical and digital library—I think it's the same as I experience it, not only in Europe and the U.S. but also in Asia. I think the advantage of the library field, if you compare it with so many other subject fields, is that it is a true global thing.... Information moves fast in the field and that means that [librarians worldwide] are, if not aligned, then sort of on the same level.

You were instrumental in helping develop the Design Thinking for Libraries toolkit in partnership with Chicago Public Library and the design firm IDEO. Will you be incorporating design thinking into your work at the iSchool?

I look forward to teaching design thinking methods. [Dokk1] was ultimately created in a—maybe it's too far to say in a cocreation process with the stakeholders and citizens of Aarhus, but they certainly played a big role in a lot of the choices that have been made along the way, and that have ultimately resulted in the success of our library. All the methods and the use cases [are] part of what I can bring [to the iSchool]. So I think we will probably embark in a lot of practice around design thinking, and of course also discussions around what works and what doesn't, and why.

Dokk1 exterior
Courtesy of Aarhus Public Libraries

Has your experience developing Dokk1 changed your thinking about the future of libraries?

Yes, it has, quite a lot. One of the things we learned in this process was that it's extremely important to use the human scale as a denominating factor, and human needs, because they don't change over time. We still have the same needs as we had 2,000 years ago: we would like a good view, we would like some heat, we would like to be sometimes secluded and sometimes closer together with other people, we would like good acoustics, etc. There are so many things that can determine if a place is good to be in or not, and that doesn't change over time, while we don't know if books will be around 30 years from now. They probably will, but not to the extent that they are right now, or even in ten or 15 years' time, and we don't know what technology will look like.

I have been involved in [planning] several library buildings over many years, and I remember times when we had to allocate a lot of space for all the technical stuff, all the cabling, etc. And that's gone now, because we're somewhere else in technical development that doesn't require all that space. We need to be much more aware of having physical spaces that are interesting for people, and to develop different formats for learning experiences that have to do with people being together…not looking at the user as somebody who comes and uses your resources [but as] someone who comes with a lot of resources and who can contribute to other people’s learning experiences. So in that sense, you could say that as I was referring to myself as more of a facilitator than a teacher, then I would also argue that the librarian is becoming a facilitator of these learning processes.

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