Joke van der Zwaard

2011-2021. Over the past ten years or so, I’ve been compiling a folder with newspaper clippings on the topic of libraries. One of the items is a story about a ‘dusty, boring old warehouse’ transformed by ambitious architects and eventually reinventing itself as an uplifting popular attraction for the masses. All’s well that ends well?

Redundant branches
2011. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession, municipalities are forced to cut back spending on culture. Libraries are a favourite target. Opening hours and collections were already shrinking considerably before the start of the recession. Now, 300 of the 1,000 libraries in the Netherlands will be closing their doors. Rotterdam takes this trend to the next level. The plan ‘Rotterdam Library Looks Ahead!’ includes the closure of 19 neighbourhood libraries, leaving only the central library and five newly planned mid-sized branches, including a specialised youth library in South Rotterdam. The stated goal – which doesn’t sound very convincing – is that fewer branches will lead to a higher quality of service. In the meantime, a steady decrease in the number of book loans has been the cause of much internal soul-searching about libraries as ‘repositories of dead trees’. Do physical books still have a future? Are book readers a species on the brink of extinction? Half of the top 100 titles on loan are children’s books – but children can also get their books through school collections. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science will no longer be requiring municipalities to provide a comprehensive library service. The Minister wonders out loud whether the library might better fulfil its public function through the digital domain.

Not everyone agrees. According to a report by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, widely cited in the media, most Dutch citizens are opposed to budget cuts for libraries, while newspaper articles report nationwide outrage and protests. Dissidents include regular visitors of libraries in affected neighbourhoods such as the Oude Westen district in Rotterdam; the author Abdelkadir Benali, who cites the library in the Oude Westen as an important influence in becoming a writer; and citizens generally concerned about illiteracy, loneliness and knowledge deficits. One resident of the Spaarndammerbuurt district in Amsterdam writes an open letter to Princess Laurentien, patroness of the Dutch Reading and Writing Foundation: ‘Our library has just been completely renovated, and now they’re telling us it needs to close!’ This resident isn’t worried so much about her own grandchildren, as she is about the children of her Moroccan neighbours. The Cohen Committee, tasked by a national association of public libraries to anticipate the position of the library in ten years’ time, is sceptical about the digital utopia envisioned by the Minister. According to this committee, the library of the future should remain a physical space, an ‘agora’: a portal to art and culture, a place for meeting and debate, for creativity and social connectivity.

The nationwide protests do not lead to any tangible results, except in Amsterdam. There are also a number of initiatives for reclaiming libraries: residents who take over their village library, or an archiving company that uses the decreased budget to maintain a chain of slimmed-down libraries. Public bookcases, which became famous in England as the Little Free Libraries, start popping up on street corners all over the Netherlands. There are also a number of experimental alternatives, such as Leeszaal Rotterdam West and later Leeszaal Vreewijk, ‘reading rooms’ where people can donate and lend books. The books are selected and sorted by volunteers, who are also responsible for creating and maintaining a pleasant public space, and for providing information to visitors.

Library as city branding
The remaining central locations of libraries are targeted by ambitious architects and city branders, who point to the success of international prestige projects by Dutch architects, for example in Washington and Seattle (USA), or Birmingham (UK). ‘Take a nice big shopping mall, add some luxury apartments, and wrap the whole thing up in a landmark building by a famous architect, which hopefully will help everyone forget the negative image of the location.’ This is how ‘De Boekenberg’ (literally: Book Mountain), the new library in the Rotterdam suburb of Spijkenisse, is introduced. Near the glass-walled main entrance we indeed find plenty of books; further inside, an auditorium for film screenings and lectures, spaces for exhibitions and social events, and a café. ‘The architectural response to the identity crisis of libraries’. Writers of newspaper articles on the topic of libraries have become architecture critics. They describe the library as a ‘forum’, a ‘town square’, a ‘public interior’, a ‘high-traffic area’, a ‘people’s palace’, a ‘living room’, a ‘hotspot’. The library has reinvented itself as a new public space – perhaps to make up for all those that have been lost: the post offices, the churches, the train stations before access gates were installed. Not a word on the role of librarians in all this. Library managers are pleasantly surprised to observe that libraries are regaining some of their lost popularity. ‘Do we really need all these study desks?’ the manager of the new library in the town of Almere asked himself when he first visited the building. Three years later, the number of visitors had doubled, thanks in no small part to the users of these study desks: schoolchildren, students and freelancers. ‘They could just as well work at home, but here they can meet each other, which is also important,’ he learned. And what about the books? ‘Ultimately, our intention is for De Boekenberg in Spijkenisse to go completely digital. The rows of bookshelves will then mainly serve as decoration.’ In 2015, two years after opening its doors, Birmingham’s new ‘people’s palace’ is appealing to local citizens to donate books, because the budget has been spent on other things. Paper books simply refuse to disappear, even after being declared dead so many times. ‘The books should be located in the heart of the building, so that activities can take place all around them,’ is the story we’re hearing a few years later – which is already a huge step up from being mere ‘decoration’.

Reinventing the library
Back to Rotterdam. In 2015, the new library manager decided to stop closing branches. By then, ten neighbourhood libraries had already been closed. Nothing has come of the five planned mid-sized branches. Book loans and membership continue to decline. This ‘innovation manager’ will now introduce ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ into the library. The ‘content’ will have to be embedded in a broader ‘context’ of internal cultural programming and outside commercial partners: a bookshop, a travel agency, educational institutions, and out-of-school care and recreation facilities. All of this in that one central library. Two years later, yet another new library manager announces a ‘presence plan’. The mid-sized branches will become neighbourhood libraries again; more importantly, there are nine new dots on the planning map: large dots (branches) and small dots (service and pick-up points). Libraries are expected to seek out partnerships with retail shops, schools, and community centres. Not only for pragmatic financial reasons, but also to keep in step with global trends. ‘The library co-exists in between other functions,’ writes one reviewer, excited about possibilities for ‘cross-pollination’. The focus on presentation (the visitor should see more than just book spines) continues to increase. People should be seduced into grabbing a book while they are in the library doing something else. We’re also hearing a new story, or perhaps an old story in a new shape: ‘Our goal is to get as many Rotterdammers as possible to use the library, which will help them become stronger, more active citizens.’ The library is expected to make people more resilient and more independent; to reduce inequality; to increase self-reliance and health; to foster talent development, participation and integration. If that’s not ‘uplifting the masses’, then what is?

All’s well that ends well?
And so, in the end, the library has successfully reinvented itself. At least, that’s how the fairy tale ends. There is a renewed and widespread recognition of the library’s cultural and social significance. And yet, in October 2020, the municipality of Amsterdam once again announces significant budget cuts for its libraries. The Amsterdam Public Library immediately designates four neighbourhood branches for closure – including, once again, the one in the Spaarndammerbuurt district. At the same time, a link to a petition appears on the Amsterdam Public Library’s website. Strategy? Whatever the case, it works. Two months later, the municipal council postpones the closure – at least for the time being. The expected economic aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis is likely to keep things interesting for the near future. I’ve already started compiling a new – physical –
Central Library as Hotspot, Neighbourhood Library as Small Change -
Ten years of newspaper clippings