Double Dutch: A Visit to Two New Libraries in Holland

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by Maxine Bleiweis

Originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Connecticut Libraries, a publication of the Connecticut Library Association.

My plans for last summer’s vacation were formulated with frugality in mind. More for less. How about a house exchange? I trolled European cities on Craigslist under house swapping and zeroed in on an intriguing offer in Amsterdam. Several emails later, we had a deal.

Much later, I heard about the new public library in Delft. Two staff members from that library were making the rounds of libraries in the United States, touting the services and philosophy of their 21st century library. I missed their talk at ALA’s annual conference and never had time to research what all the fuss was about before I flew off to Holland. 

Once there, I set out on a train for the city where the Girl with the Pearl Earring was set. Time was of the essence, so unlike most tourists, we skipped the tile factory and the Vermeers and headed straight for Delft’s public library, known to all as DOK.

Wow! In a 46,800 sq. ft. former grocery store transformed into a library, I discovered three floors of lively space, with a huge central staircase and glass all around. Self-service opportunities abound- not just to check out and return books, but to work, play and learn.

Everywhere I turned, people were engaged in activities that are slowly making their way across the Atlantic Ocean. Kids were playing X-Box and Playstation. People were composing music on a piano and taking their compositions home on a memory stick. Others were using computers to hone their language skills. Two “sonic chairs” made listening to music a genuinely sensual experience.

Staff members had sorted the entire fiction collection into genres and used very effective graphics for signage. In the mystery/thriller section, for example, they used the unforgettable image of a screaming Janet Leigh from Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene. The walls of the room holding romance novels are painted a throbbing, sultry red. The children’s room features a low-lit space for babies, with stuffed animals to hug and a cloud motif on the ceiling. The effect on babies, and their parents, is wonderfully calming.

The Dutch are a self-sufficient lot and need less attention than Americans.  Our exchange partner told us that, unlike the typical American college student who is housed in a dorm, Dutch students are expected to find their own living quarters. No coddling housing departments on campus. And I’m sure that riding your bicycle to work in all sorts of weather does something to your expectations for service. So I wasn’t surprised when my library tour guide told me that, if necessary, the entire library could be staffed by only five people.

My real surprise, however, came in the staff work area. Located on the top floor, their space was hardly distinguishable from public space because, well, it was also public space. The public and staff share work areas and even eating areas. While there are some spaces to work out of the public view, the people you serve are never far away.  Rather, they are nearby, available to call in for a discussion about how the library’s new concepts work. Because the library is all about concepts, my tour guide cum human resources director explained, meaning that they may try out ten new ideas but retain only two. That’s okay. That’s life in 2009.

I noticed a table where about 30 cell phones were being charged. There are no desk phones for most staff; most use portable ones with four-digit numbers programmed in. With few exceptions (the most notable being the café!), staff are roving rather than stationary. But there are about five stations where you are pretty sure to find assistance--just not much personal handholding as is usually provided on this side of the Atlantic.

One staff member (on loan from a university) was working on a local history project, using Microsoft’s Surface to create a way for people to trace the origins of their homes in Delft. Another project on the drawing board was recording local history to be played back in a kiosk for everyone to enjoy. The DOK truly is part discovery museum part library. And it works.

My host city, Amsterdam, also boasts a new public library. Soaring seven stories, with views of the water, in an area being developed as a new center of civic activity, the library is the anchor for that new development. The top floor boasts a magnificent restaurant with the best view in the city and the entrance to performance space.

The street-level main entrance features a piano, with an invitation to experienced pianists to play for 30 minutes a day. Like a radio station, you never know what will be played next. And speaking of radio stations, they have one on site and broadcast a few times a week with authors, music, discussions and news from the library. How cool.

In the children’s space, a spiral staircase leads up to a platform with lots of cushy pillows emblazoned with quotes from books. Seats resemble mattresses, and staff report that visitors use them to sit, lounge or lie down. In true Dutch tradition, if it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s okay.

My experience is a recommendation to explore international house swapping. Choose a country and visit some dare-to-be-ahead-of–the-curve libraries.