The Netherlands Win at Libraries. Again.

I recently posted about the Centrale Bibliotheek in Amsterdam, a truly innovative library which functions as a public space, cafe, theater, research center, (etc. etc.) and also has these awesome little study pods which I’d happily nestle down in for the winter. As it turns out, the Dutch have all sorts of creative (and well funded) ideas about reaching patrons, wherever they are. Such as the 5th largest airport in Europe: Schiphol, in The Netherlands.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, The Schiphol Airport Library “has 1,200 books in more than two dozen languages, all by Dutch authors or on subjects relating to the country’s history and culture.”

The library plans to offer e-books and music by Dutch artists and composers that can be downloaded, free, to a laptop or cellphone. The library also is equipped with nine Apple iPads loaded with multimedia content, including photos and videos, that is likewise devoted to the theme of Dutch culture. A digital guest book invites visitors to jot down their musings or leave messages for wayward companions.

It bears mentioning that the library is entirely staffed by volunteers and has no special security on the books in the collection, but since its opening this summer, only about a dozen books have been stolen. And apparently, there is talk of opening a similar library in the central train station in Haarlem. Perhaps they’ll need a full time librarian?


Biblio-Touring: The Centrale Bibliotheek, Amsterdam

When traveling, some people want to be sure that they see all of a city’s famous landmarks–centuries-old cathedrals, statues commemorating famous leaders, sites of famous battles, proclamations, or historical moments. Some people want to see great art, take part in the nightlife, or eat local foods. And while these all have some (often great) measure of attraction for me, one thing that I really get a kick out of when traveling is visiting libraries. Whether expansive and sophisticated cultural institutions (like the Black Diamond in Copenhagen), private membership libraries (like Another Country in Berlin–which is also a bookstore), or just really lovely local branch libraries (like the Oro Valley Public Library in Tucson), it’s always interesting–on both a professional and patron level–to see the sheer variety of manifestations that this one institution can claim.

On a recent visit to Amsterdam, I had the chance to go to the Central branch library of the city’s public library system: The Centrale Bibliotheek (the largest public library in Europe, according to Wikipedia). It was amazing–I had been inside for less than 15 minutes when I started envisioning myself dropping everything, moving to Amsterdam, learning Dutch, and pretty much living in this exceedingly spacious, beautifully designed, inviting, and well-organized information temple. It sounds like a lot of hyperbole, but I’m not exaggerating. It is (currently) my favorite library in the world.

So what’s so great about this library, you ask? Short of visiting it in person, the best way to answer that question seems to be through a small photographic tour. (Photos embedded as links.)

Here’s the entrance:

The library is located very near to the Central Train Station on an island–Oosterdokseiland–that is being developed into something of a cultural center.  From the entrance, which faces a harbor, you can see the rather stunning floating Chinese restaurant (The Sea Palace) and the awesome, ship-shaped Nemo Science Museum.

When you enter the library, you find yourself in a lovely, naturally-lit atrium. It’s wonderfully open, but still draws you into the space. And oh, the signage!

As you look up, you can easily read what part of the collection is housed on which floor. Even better, as you go up the escalator, the signs are continued on the underside of the stairs. The excellent signage is continued throughout the library. I particularly liked those on the edges of the stacks.

As the Wikipedia page notes, there are about 600 seats in the library which have internet connections (there are around 1200 seats total). These are spread about comfortably–when I was there, several teens were checking their Facebook pages on couches with computer consuls, and many others were working at computers on small tables near the windows. By far my favorite nooks for research and writing, however, were the study pods: surprisingly cozy-looking fiberglass wombs with small windows on each side. These are set up by the windows facing the harbor and were all filled with students when I visited.

While there was definitely an atmosphere of studiousness, each floor had a really dynamic energy–in part, I think, because people were neither going out of their way to be silent or excessively noisy. The study pods occupied the same floor as the DVD collection and music section. A computer station was set up in the music area playing rotating tracks from several different CDs that users could sort through and listen to like in a music store. The volume wasn’t terribly loud, but you could hear it from the escalators. And from what I could tell, the audible hum of music wasn’t detracting from anyone’s work/study experience. Rather, it made the space feel inviting and casual. Another interesting aspect of this area was that the DVD shelves actually formed the walls of a small viewing room with bean bags spread all over the floor. The stacks curve in on themselves so that the backs form a sort of screen where movies can be shown from a ceiling-mounted projector.

The literature sections were divided by language, with collections in English, Dutch, German, French, and probably more. In keeping with the rest of the library, the stacks were also broken up by visually interesting, multimedia displays–even some with screens playing short movies. The books themselves had library bindings, but original covers had been laminated over the binding, which I thought was a really nice touch.

Some other great aspects to this library (which I don’t really have pictures of):

1. It’s open from 10 AM – 10 PM every day.

2. It has its own cafe on the ground floor, which shares the space with a huge magazine collection.There’s also a restaurant.

3. There’s a 50-seat theater.

So, in summation, this is the library of the future. I don’t know how they fund it, but it is amazing. Anyone want to weigh in on their own favorite libraries?

The Twin

The Twin is currently one of the only Dutch novels I’ve read (although I plan to bone up before my trip to The Netherlands this summer). It was a lovely novel, and was nominated for 2009’s Best Translated Book Award. You can read my original review on Three Percent, here, or the full text is below.


Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.

On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.

There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.

By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.