Rolf Hapel on the future of libraries and library education

By Maggie Foote Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Rolf Hapel joined the iSchool this fall for a two-year term as Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, focused on the future of libraries. An internationally known library professional, Hapel had served since 2006 as Director of Citizens’ Services and Libraries in Aarhus, Denmark, where he was instrumental in the development of Dokk1, a 300,000-square-foot, innovative library and cultural center. In addition to his teaching and curriculum development duties, Hapel will serve on the MLIS program committee and work on projects with the iSchool’s applied research center TASCHA [Technology & Social Change Group].


Q: You are teaching Management of Information Organizations this autumn quarter, a required course for all residential and online MLIS students – how it is going?

A: I’m learning so much! For me, working on a course has been a novel experience, especially in the online space. Luckily, I’m co-teaching with Chance Hunt, who is a great guy and brilliant lecturer. He has been incredibly helpful. I’m contributing primarily my expertise and experience in participatory design, change management and innovation.

My goal is to help students learn how to work within an information organization’s culture to bring about change. It’s not about resources, money, or the size of the project. It’s about mindset. How do you create engagement to build trust, create programs and services, and influence policies? These questions don’t just apply to libraries, they’re universal, making this course applicable to all MLIS students regardless of their career plans. Today, every organization is an information organization! It’s become so obvious.


Q: What are some of the challenges you think you’ll face working within academia?

A: Students are often more conventional than those that have worked in a library. They think often they have to sit there and read lots of books. People might occasionally approach them to ask for recommendations, or for help finding a piece of information, but, man, that’s not how it is!

Many U.S. students were fortunate to visit a library regularly throughout their childhood and these experiences and memories have shaped their understanding of libraries and the role of librarianship. But, the fact is that libraries have evolved faster than people’s perceptions of them.


Q: You have spoken about the role of librarianship in engaging and guiding civic engagement. What do you mean by this?

A: Within society, it’s so important to have physical spaces that are public and owned by everyone. This is one of the greatest assets of libraries. For students who hope to work in the public library space, it’s critical they be open to society and societal needs. The library can only be relevant if it can be about the problems society is facing.

For example, I believe books will be around for a long time, but now information is dispersed in so many other formats. We should be more selective about the physical materials we keep in the library. The stacks are so costly to maintain! If we remove some of the shelves, we can create savings while also opening up space that can be used for many kinds of programs and learning methods.

This particular topic is of great interest to me, and my hope is that I will be able to work with the brilliant researchers of the iSchool’s applied research center TASCHA to explore not only how data and technology can generate engagement and create dialog – bridging disparities and separating fake news from evidence-based knowledge – but also explore how this can be done in a library setting regardless of the availability of space. How do you adapt a library program of that nature successfully to an area that doesn’t have a place like a library? It’s my belief that space should not be a constraint.


Q: What are some of the programs and learning methods that you would like to see explored in public libraries today?

A: I plan to speak about this topic in my keynote address at OCLC’s Regional Council conference later this month. The theme is “Change the Game,” so I will focus on some of the novel areas that I see being important for public libraries of the future. One is the role of play within a library. Play helps people – kids – develop social skills, learning capacities, etc. But we have learned from the research that play is so much more than an instrument, it’s also valuable in its own right. It’s something comparable to your experience with art or good literature and I think should have the same stature in the way we organize the library. How can we create spaces and programs that encourage parents and kids to play together, have mutual experiences? Parents know something about play, but kids know different things so they can learn from one another.

I also see a huge role for libraries to play globally in smart city development. Specifically, I think libraries can add a human component. There is so much innovation around the internet of things, 5G, transportation, health care, etc., but where is the democratic component? As we move toward an increasingly digital society, we ask citizens to do more and more self-service, especially as it relates to public services. But there’s a fairness element at play. When you ask so much of citizens, you must also be able to hand over more power to them. It’s only fair that they have influence and have the opportunity to be part of the decision. Not only at the ballot box, but actually in the ongoing democratic process. Libraries have a great space to provide these pieces: dialog, hands-on experiences and public commentary, for example.


Q: You’ll be in Seattle for two years. How are you hoping to spend your free time?

A: Honestly, I’m not sure how much free time I’ll have – this is a demanding job! And, I will be traveling back to Denmark regularly to visit my wife, our three adult children and three granddaughters, as well as my mother. My wife was not able to join me because she has a job of her own, and generally keeps the social fabric of our family together back home. She is planning to come out next spring for a month or two and I’m sure we’ll do some traveling. I would like to see the countryside and the San Juan Islands as well as both Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, B.C.