Monday, May 26, 2008

Public Library Heaven

All my professional life, I have believed that Ohio was public library heaven. I may have been, to quote Rick Blaine, misinformed.

I'm writing this from the OBA, the public library in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This building opened less than a year ago, on 7 July 2007 (7/7/07). In its first six months, it drew one million visitors, more than twice the number who had visited the old facility. It now averages 5,000 visitors a day, with 8,000 to 10,000 visiting on weekend days. The strikingly beautiful building sits on the Oosterdokseiland, the Eastern Dock Island, close to the city's thrumming transportation hub. This is a redevelopment area for the city, and new cultural attractions and housing are following the library in moving here.

But it isn't simply the new facility that has drawn attention, it is the new attitude. The director of OBA, Hans Van Velzen, said that the library has moved "from a lending library to an adventure library." He said that one of the major drawbacks of the old building was that there was "no invitation to explore."You came in, you got books from one section of the library, and you departed. You never knew what else was in the library." That is not the case in this building. Your eye is constantly drawn to new spaces, interesting places.

This is a library by the people, for the people. The first thing that surprises you is the operating hours, 10:00 am to 10:00 pm (excuse me, 10:00 to 22:00), seven days a week. Mr. Van Velzen said that the point is to be open so that anyone can use the building on his or her own schedule.

The next thing you'll notice is a stroke of architectural genius: from every floor, you can see at least two other floors. You never feel like you are isolated in one section; rather, the whole library seems to open up to you. The judicious use of windows and skylights also makes the building bright and airy, while being fairly green.

There are 600 internet PCs available, open to anyone (including this visitor from the States). They were all busy as I wandered around, but it didn't take long for one to open and for me to take a turn. No sign-up sheets, no 30-minute limits, just people quietly checking e-mail, playing chess or blackjack, listening to music or watching videos (with headphones), and reading the news or other websites.

The government has made a major effort to teach every resident, especially Holland's large immigrant population, the Dutch language. So the library offers a large and apparently well-used collection of what we would call hi/low materials: high interest, low reading level materials for adult new learners.

There is a theater that offers 25 programs or events a month, all of which are tied into library collections or exhibitions.

The library has a fairly small staff for an operation this size. They can do this for several reasons. They buy all (I repeat, all) their materials shelf-ready through a national buying service for Dutch public libraries. Their technical services department, for the central and 27 branch libraries, has 12 workstations. They use self-service check-out, renewals, and returns almost exclusively. And they have a mechanical sorting system for return books which I don't understand but which seemed to work amazingly well. (Rube Goldberg came to mind.)

There are a few things that would seem out of place in a US public library. There is a €24 fee (about $38 at today's exchange rate) annually to become a member of the library. The fee is waived for those under 20 years old, and cut in half for those over 64. You must be a member if you want to check out books; anyone is free to use the collections and services free of charge onsite. You are limited to having 10 items checked out at a time, with a three week circulation period, and charging out CDs or DVDs will cost you €1 each. The library has 175,000 members, and the membership fee only represents about 10% of its budget, so you can see this is a well-funded institution. Also, the library has covered parking for twice as many bicycles as cars.

Mr. Van Velzen noted that the change in attitude has been to become "a combination... information/education/culture meeting place." From what I've been able to see, he and the staff here have accomplished that objective in spades. I wonder how long it would take me to learn Dutch and apply for a job here...?

1 comment:

Chris said...

I *love* it! If only libraries in the US understood this concept of participation and service! It's great to know that at least *somewhere* a public library is genuinely serving its intended community : the public.