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Soft Discipline and Open Libraries in Denmark

Præstø Library, Denmark

Presently, a handful of municipal libraries in Denmark operate with open service models. These open libraries rely on the self-service of patrons and have no library staff present—loans, returns, admittance and departing the physical library space are regulated through automated access points. Many public library users are familiar with self-check out kiosks and access to the collections database through a personal computing station, but few patrons have ever been in a public library without librarians, staff workers or security personnel. Libraries that rely on self-service operation models represent a new kind of enclosed environment in societies of control. Such automated interior spaces correspond to a crisis in libraries and other institutions of memory like museums or archives. Under the guise of reform, longer service hours, and cost-saving measures, libraries with rationalized operating models conscript their users into a new kind of surveillance.

This new form of surveillance is party to a compulsive audit culture where users are continuously traced through access points that create documents through the soft discipline of self-service. We see this commonly in other transactional encounters in our capitalist culture—at the gas station, the grocery store, the carwash, the bank. Now it is possible to visit all these venues and only interact with an automated information system, and one or more machines. However, in most of these places of transactions where an exchange of capital for goods occurs with a service worker close by.

On the other hand, users accessing open libraries in Denmark borrow information resources under the auspices of a public service now encounter the privatization of an “open” space free of service workers. The open library can no longer be a public place. By virtue of its automated openness this service model creates a controlled space of surveillance: access to resources in exchange for the labor of internalized self-regulation. Upon arriving to Danish open libraries, citizen-patrons must use their National Health medical card or a RFID chipped lender’s card that confirms their residency. These state issued documents allow patrons to unlock the building’s doors as they enter (and as they leave), to borrow resources from the checkout kiosk, and to access the library’s wireless internet. Users provide traces throughout each of these given access points with their identification cards, becoming infrastructured into the surveillance mechanisms of the enclosed, panoptic environment of the open library.

Self-service access models encourage publics to embrace to the panoptic effects of internalized surveillance. This soft discipline creates subjects capable, even amenable, to self-censure and surveillance. As circulation desks in libraries are increasingly replaced by automated checkout kiosks they increasingly normalize rituals of self-service, and in turn, these rituals extend ever-familiar regimes of control and rationalization.

The open library disciplines and controls the user by eliminating the librarian, enrolling the user into a compulsory self-service to engage with the automated space. The power of this engagement is derived from a regime of panoptic access points that visualize, capture and document the user’s path and her ability to regulate herself during every movement and transition in the library—from entering, searching the catalog, browsing the web, borrowing information resources, to exiting the building.

Social security cards unlock the library’s door.

The prospect of a library without a librarian provides the occasion to speculate how resisting the rituals of internalized surveillance might be possible beyond simple repudiation of automated service architectures. If we consider how open libraries order dimensions of space-time by orienting bodies through information spaces, it would be productive to turn the concept on its head by considering how the space of the enclosed open library can act as a site for an auspicious (re)orientation of access and rejection points.

The principle of polarity from Feng Shui provides a way of accounting for the compulsory self-service engendered by the open library.  Consider the magnetic dipole, it illustrates the desire to reject and internalize mechanisms of control in a closed loop. Because the loop is constant, the two poles are always already participating in the magnetic moment.

Dipole figure

Currently, this incommensurability can be easily located, identified, and described by users who are unfamiliar to open library models but who interact and have experiences with automated service transactions. For example, many users express confusion (and fear) at discovering that they are locked inside the library until they scan themselves out at the door. People who are undocumented or without proper national identification discover that they are not recognized, they cannot trigger any of the access points in the automated space. They find that the public library that has adopted the open service model is now closed and inaccessible in new ways, a quality of this new openness of constant self-surveillance through access points. We must describe these cases of use and disruption more thoroughly before the service-model of soft discipline in public libraries becomes commonplace and librarians disappear.



Bell, Genevieve and Paul Dourish. “Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11.2 (2007): 133-143.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October. 59 (Winter 1992): 3-7.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1975.

Larsen, Mogens. “Open Libraries and Self Service.” Nordic Public Libraries 2.0. Ed. Jonna Holmgaard Larsen. København: Danish Agency for Libraries and Media, 2010.




An earlier version of this piece originally appeared in Feng Shuing the Panopticon, edited by Katie Herzog and published by The Molesworth Institute in 2012. The book was featured in a group exhibition for Pacific Standard Time. The show, Print Imprint exhibited the book at Cirrus Gallery & Actual Size in Los Angeles from March 10 to May 5, 2012.