Staffless libraries? Don’t panic!

In recent decades, libraries have increasingly sought opportunities to automate their processes. Self-issue machines, Google-style discovery systems and remote access to digital resources mean that the role of library staff in supporting access and use has undergone fundamental change. In my experience, librarians have tended to embrace technological developments and have resisted any fears of the Ned Ludd variety by seeking to upskill themselves. But I did experience some trepidation when I came across a report on ‘staffless’ libraries when researching a recent MA assignment.

Faced with the familiar pressure of maintaining public library services on reduced budgets, Danish politicians trialled ‘staffless’ or ‘open’ libraries, defined as branches where a proportion of opening hours are un-staffed by paid professionals (volunteers present did not count as staffed). With the 25 libraries involved able to open longer without additional staffing costs, community access to the physical library building, book stock, computers and meeting rooms was increased, resulting in 23% more visits by library users and 14 branches reporting increased borrowing of material. The concept proved particularly popular with younger users, with around a third of visitors aged below 35. Remarkably, and perhaps due to Denmark’s relatively high level of social capital, vandalism to staffless libraries was minimal, with the handful of reports falling far short of predictions.

But don’t start printing copies of your CV yet. The researcher, Carl Gustav Johannsen, points out that the higher visitor numbers reported were ‘not sensational’ when opening hours were increased up to 300%. And crucially, there were no cases where the number of visitors per hour during unstaffed hours surpassed the number of visits when staff were present. On average, there were four visits per hour when libraries were unstaffed, compared to 29 visits per staffed hour. People also borrowed more books when staff were present. Johannsen’s conclusion? ‘This pattern indicates that the presence of staff still is a factor influencing public library performance.’ It seems that, given a choice, people prefer to use libraries staffed by professionals.

Additional research by Johannsen further emphasises the importance of library staff, with mystery shopper data suggesting that knowledge, competence, friendliness and positive attitudes of library staff can significantly add value to the library user’s experience. Proactive approaches to customer support, including making suggestions and recommendations, and ‘floor walking’ similar to The University of Manchester Library’s roving support offer, were highly valued. It would be interesting to compare these experiments in Danish public libraries with experiences in UK academic libraries, especially those such as Manchester with 24 hour facilities available for independent use, but it seems that supportive, welcoming, innovative and skilled library staff are as highly valued today as they have been in the past.

Lucinda May


Johannsen, C. G. (2012) ‘Staffless libraries – recent Danish public library experiences,’ New Library World:

Johannsen, C. G. (2014) ‘Innovative public library services – staff-less or staff-intensive?’ Library Management:

Image credits: Hart, Will (1990). ‘P_36 Cambridge – The Widener Library (1915) – Harvard University – Massachusetts,’ via Creative Commons.


4 thoughts on “Staffless libraries? Don’t panic!

  1. Excellent post Lucinda!

    There are so many areas where technology has a long way to replace a human, even if it’s possible at all. I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything in the supermarket via self-service where I didn’t end up having some issue in the bagging area, waiting for a human to come and save the day.

    Particularly related to Libraries and museums is that computers don’t seem there yet in terms of curation. They can’t make those logical (or illogical?) leaps the brain can. Yet…

    From my, admittedly, technical perspective I do want to drive us to use technology to automate away as many of the repetitive tasks that we can, so we can spend time on the more interesting things where we can actually add value or knowledge to the world.

    But it’s still early doors in many ways. Technology can start off as a barrier, something to be learned. Even with supermarket self-service machines, there’s a process we gradually learn, ‘put basket there’, ‘touch screen’, ‘put item there’ etc. And it doesn’t always come naturally. But things will inevitably change over time becoming more seamless and pervasive. It’s not inconceivable to imagine your groceries will be tagged, like our books are, getting rid of the clunky barcode scanning. Your smart basket will track your items, getting rid of tills entirely. Or why not put your items directly into your own bag and when you leave the store, simply by virtue of the items being close to a smart device about your person the financial transaction just happens automatically? Although by that point your groceries will probably have been flown in via drone once the fridge has realised you’re a little low on milk and eggs.

    Robots are already roaming the supermarket aisles helping out customers (, could the Library be next? On your next trip you could find the hotel is staffed entirely by robots ( This stuff is all happening right now!

    As a Radio 4 nerd, I can suggest the following two programmes as thought provoking listens:

    When Robots Steal Our Jobs:

    Artificial Intelligence – Should we beware the machines?

    Ultimately we’ve not evolved out of our tactility yet and we need the human interactions. But, one hundred years from now, or one thousand, or ten thousand? Who knows? Interesting stuff!

  2. Thanks for so many great links Ciaran! I’m a bit of a hypocrite because I want technology that makes my life easier but not technology that might replace me – the line may become fine! But I completely agree it is pointless to stand in the way of technological progress – just have to hone in on what makes human interaction valuable and maximise this. I like your point about the logical/illogical leap!

  3. I enjoyed reading your post Lucy, it got me thinking!

    The staff-less library is an issue that has particular resonance for frontline staff here in library customer services. We are only valuable to our users if we can keep pace with their changing needs.

    Academic library users are a diverse group extending beyond a familiar undergraduate population to include a wide demographic of learners from school age to sixth form students; graduates to retired staff.

    However this disparate group have a common link, they are more likely to be early adopters of technology innovations. According to Agarwal and Prasad (1998), library users, like our own here at The University of Manchester, can be described as exhibiting ‘Personal innovativeness’. They are willing to try out any new information technology.

    This is clear to see as you move around any of our libraries or the AGLC. The laptop, digital camera and smartphone are even in evidence in the Reading Room at The John Rylands Library where the library user will travel across the world just to see, touch or read a book or a manuscript.
    As our users innovate so must we, but our users are complex, they love aspirational 21st century innovation yet they also appreciate the innovations of the 14th century. To see a digital immersive student studying an early printed book (an incunable), alongside their laptop is a refreshing take on the longstanding technology versus book debate.

    This harmony of paradox whereby the two worlds of text and tech form collaboration is perhaps evidence that archivist, curator, systems developer and web designer comprise a team. A team of staff that is as diverse as our library users, all working together to make a library. A library space filled with people.


    Agarwal, R, & Prasad, J 1998, ‘A Conceptual and Operational Definition of Personal Innovativeness in the Domain of Information Technology’, Information Systems Research, 9, 2, pp. 204-215.

    Incunable – The term Incunabula (also incunable or incunabulum) refers to a book, pamphlet or other document that was printed, and not handwritten, before the start of the 16th century in Europe.

    Recommended reading
    Prensky, M. (2012) From digital natives to digital wisdom: hopeful essays for 21st century learning.

  4. Pingback: This is the end… | Innovation group

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