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Literature

How libraries in Germany are fighting extinction - and winning

Haven't libraries gone the way of the dodo bird? In Germany, they're securing their future by expanding opening hours and campaigning for better access to e-books. And it appears to be working.

Is an e-book as much a book as a "book book"? Libraries in Germany would say yes. It seems they're coming to grips with what many readers take for granted. "As a customer and user, I expect today to find the latest bestseller as an e-book in my local library," Klaus-Rainer Brintzinger, chairman of the Association of German Librarians, told news agency dpa.

This week in Nuremberg, Brintzinger and some 4,000 of his colleagues are discussing the future of libraries. There are 10,200 of them in Germany, 106 of which are mobile technical libraries which travel from place to place. These libraries on wheels are still very popular, especially in rural regions where it's not possible to borrow books anywhere else.

Municipal libraries, however, are faced with massive budget cuts. Many of them have been closed in recent years, others drastically reduced and opening hours shortened. "The costs are a real problem," said Frank Simon-Ritz, chairman of the German Library Association. Maintaining a current book inventory, which has to be updated regularly, has to pay off, he added.

Sunday library visit?

One of the main issues on the table at the librarians' conference may seem unusual to those outside of Germany: Not digital media, but Sunday opening hours. Shop hours in general are regulated in Germany, where retail stores and supermarkets remain closed on Sundays. So far, only academic libraries have been permitted to open their doors on Sundays.

Young woman reading a book, Copyright: Fotolia/raeva

E-book usage seems to have reached a plateau in Germany, even among young readers

"That seems to be obsolete and outmoded," commented Simon-Ritz, who advocates the right for all libraries to open on Sundays. Successful pilot projects in Bremen and Mönchengladbach have shown that Sunday "is a very good day for libraries to be open," he added.

However, even in Germany where books hold special cultural status and fixed prices, the days are long gone when libraries used to be pure lending stations. Now many contain cafés, play areas for children, relaxing zones with comfortable arm chairs.

Despite the widespread use of tablets and e-readers, libraries as such are not yet extinct, the librarians believe. And since e-books only make up roughly six percent of books sold in Germany (compared to well over 20 percent in the US), they may very well be right. In fact, library usage in Germany has actually risen over the past two years.

Cologne's municipal library has by far the most visitors, in part due to its intensive schedule of readings. More than two million readers visited the Cologne library last year, while Dresden's library came in second place with 1.7 million visitors. In total, more than 215 million visits to German libraries were registered last year - that's five million more than in 2013.

Students reading in beanie chairs at the University of Bielefeld library, Copyright: Universität Bielefeld

The library is still a place to get comfy with a good book

"Both college libraries and municipal libraries are more attractive than ever," said Simon-Ritz.

E-books still too pricy

There's just one problem when it comes to building on this success: Acquiring e-books can be very expensive for public libraries, and sometimes it's simply not possible. Publishing houses in Germany fix a price for each book, which is then binding, and when it comes to e-books, they can decide whether they want to sell licenses to libraries or not. Many refuse, fearing that users will simply read for free at the local library rather than purchasing their own copy online, according to a spokesperson for the German Publishers and Booksellers Association.

In addition, e-books don't yet receive the same tax break that paper books get. A mere seven-percent levy is added to traditional books, while e-books are subject to the standard 19 percent that applies to most other retail items. If e-books were taxed like their paper counterparts, say the librarians, then libraries could afford to include more of them in their inventory - thus attracting the next generation of library users.

Do you visit your local library? What do you use it for? Join the discussion on Twitter: @dw_culture.

Dutchess Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar, Copyright: Martin Schutt dpa/lth

The Dutchess Anna Amalia Library, founded in 1691, is one of the most famous in Germany

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