The openbare bibliotheek stands on the fresh earth of the Oosterdokskade. As the local people say:
God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.
The Oosterdokskade is an example of the created land of the Netherlands: before the buildings that are spread out along it were built, the land itself had to be reclaimed from the sea.
The Bibliotheek is the central library of the OBA (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam). It was designed by the eminent, and increasingly popular, architect Jo Coenen, and opened on the 7th of the 7th of the 2007. According to the library’s website, more than 2 million visit the central library each year, consulting historical records, borrowing books, films and music, attending seminars and workshops, watching films, attending live broadcasts of the library radio station, dining in the 7th floor cafe. The Bibliotheek, like many contemporary libraries, is more than a storehouse of printed material.
I visit the library with family: my cousin, her two-year-old son, and her mother. Max is keen to visit het muizenhuis (mouse house) produced by Karina Schaapman.
Schaapman created the mouse mansion after she retired from a life in politics, and has since published two books set in the rooms made of cardboard boxes, papier-mache and found objects. The books have been enormously successful in Holland (rivalling the popularity of Dutch children’s super-successes in children’s literature: Dick Bruna’s Nintjes (Miffy, in English) and Jip en Janneke (written by Annie M.G. Schmidt and illustrated by Fiep Westendorp).
Het muizenhuis is housed in the children’s section of the library, which is to the left of the entrance and comprised of an open space divided up by a series of circular bookcases.
Despite the many delights of this comprehensive library, it is the children’s section that really excites me. The space is enormous, stacked with books and book-related ephemera, beautiful and inviting. It’s close the entrance, relatively close to the bathrooms and locker rooms, and laid out like a book-lover’s fantasy of a library. Even better, the children’s section, like the rest of the library, is not just a place to come and borrow books. It also includes a workshop space specifically designed for children’s writers and illustrators to run workshops with children: a room designed for making a mess (and cleaning it up), complete with worktables, comfortable chairs, displays of children’s artworks produced in the workshops, and boxes and boxes of materials. The day we visit, the librarians are hanging a display of original artworks from Nog 100 nachtjes slapen by Milja Praagman, part of the suite of dozens of events in the library in support De Nationale Voorleesdagen (a national festival celebrating and promoting reading to children).
We also see a storytelling session in progress in the dedicated storytelling room. A delightful space, with tiered seating for the children, all the glittering digital bang you could wish for in terms of acoustics and staging, and a beautiful storyteller’s chair. All housed in a room that sits nestled beside the children’s section of the library.
There are, however, seven more floors of wonder in the Bibliotheek. Each floor presents new wonders. The day we visit there is a photography exhibition being installed, and a static display of antique and artisanal calendars and printing equipment. We go up and up, through two floors of novels (including a comprehensive collection of English-language works), multimedia, conference rooms, study spaces. Spaces for listening to and mixing music. A recording studio. A film studio, and a theatre (the library screens a program of adaptations/boekverfilming – as well as a comprehensive program of literary events called the Theater van ’t Woord).
I’m introduced, once again, to one of the demi-gods of the Dutch cultural scene – Herman Brood (1946-2001). Several of Brood’s artworks hang in the library: stunning, strong works bursting with colour and fury, heavily influenced by the post-war Dutch art movement known as Cobra, though more commercial or ‘pop’ in execution. Brood was famous – or notorious – for his work as a rock musician, actor and poet, for his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and for committing suicide by jumping from the roof of the Hilton Hotel. The Nick Cave of the Netherlands.
The library also supports and promotes living writers. One of its many programs is the poëzie op zondag (poetry on Sunday) program. Every Sunday, a one hour program featuring a local poet. During January, the program includes Luuk Gruwez, Jana Beranova, Peter Swanborn, Emma Crebolder and Erik Lindner.
Oh, and did I tell you about the top floor? When we finally ascend into the cloudy heights of the seventh floor we find the cafe. The cafe is part of a chain, but it’s by no means ordinary or bland. There’s a wide variety of fresh, delicious food on offer, including the ubiquitous cheese sandwiches. The view is astounding. Although the balcony is disappointingly small and close after the large, open spaces of the library proper, it does offer an astonishing view of the city of Amsterdam.
I’m glad of a warm coffee and a nibble of delicious cake. The cafe is humming with activity as people of all ages swirl around us. Families and groups of friends, business people taking meetings and scholars hunched over books and laptops.
The Amsterdam central library is monumental, but it has a warmth and user-friendly quality that belies that enormity. It offers a wide array of activities associated with writing and literature – far more than this tiny blogpost can cover. A rich hub for the 28 libraries of Amsterdam.
Oh, and one last tip? If you’re planning to be there a while, don’t forget to take some change to pay for a visit to the bathroom!
Opening hours: 10:00 am until 10:00 pm every day
Where: Oosterdokskade 14, Amsterdam
Signing up: Although it’s free to visit the library, you have to pay for membership to gain borrowing privileges (membership is free if you are under 19). Adult memberships start at €15 per annum for a gebruikerspas.
Visit the website: www.oba.nl