by Shani Davis
CILIP Career Development Group study tour participants at Peace Palace, The Hague
Attitude and architecture are two things that came to mind when I thought of the Netherlands. I was once told that an overriding attitude in Amsterdam was that people can do as they wish as long as they do not cause harm to themselves or others; hence the seemingly relaxed attitude about certain matters. In a recent documentary that berated the poor standard of new buildings in Britain, it cited many dazzling examples of well-thought-out ones in the Netherlands. When I saw an opportunity to discover some Dutch libraries on the Career Development Group International Study Tour, I was keen to discover whether these attitudes and quality of building applied.
The programme devised was enticing, and included visits to the medical library of Academisch Medisch Centrum, Universiteit van Amsterdam; the Amsterdam Central Public Library; the Library and information service of the Koninklijk Instituit voor de Tropen (KIT) (Royal Tropical Institute); the Peace Palace Library: the international law library; and the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The National Library of the Netherlands). In Amsterdam, I joined the study group, which comprised of a good mix of representatives from different library sectors: public, academic, national and cultural. All the visits proved to be rewarding and inspiring in their offerings. As a new professional, I took in as much as I could. By the end of the tour, I had been presented with leading examples of libraries adapting to the challenging economic climate and the shift towards digital information provision. Also apparent were great examples of architectural design and innovative services.
The medical library of Academisch Medisch Centrum, Universiteit van Amsterdam
AMC Medical Library, Amsterdam – sculpture encased in journal articles
We began our tour programme at the medical library of Academisch Medisch Centrum, Universiteit van Amsterdam, located in the university’s hospital where the principal users are the 2,000 doctors working in the hospital. The library service seemed to focus on providing remote access of the collections in order to better support this user group. This shift to electronic resources had allowed for the provision of thoughtful study spaces, such as having different types of seating to suit different methods of study.
Our host provided insight into the development of their digital library. He raised the concern that their digital library resembled a print library and that consideration needed to be given to developing digital libraries in their own right. A key feature of their digital library was the “Pyramid of Information” which illustrated how to conduct research. Other notable features included their well-designed institutional repository database. Our host believed that developments in digital libraries would open the way for cooperation between libraries and information centres. I was impressed by how this library had developed its digital library without neglecting the physical one.
Amsterdam Central Public Library
Exterior of the Amsterdam Central Library
The Amsterdam Central Library was a prime example of a ‘new’ library. Located in a prominent place on an island near Amsterdam Central Station, the library is five years old, covers 28,000 sq m, and cost €75 million to build. The library attracts an impressive 7.000 visitors a day on average. Resembling a well-known popular technology store (think of a fruit…), the library has an awe-inspiring design, and also boasts a theatre, cinema, music listening posts, an art gallery, a restaurant and bar; however first and foremost it retains a strong identity as a library. There are constant reminders of this throughout the building, such as the literature-filled lampshades dotted around the restaurant. The architect believed that a public building should be iconic and he aimed to feature reading in the architecture.
The well-stocked library covers a staggering range of subjects and formats, and has access to the vast Rotterdam Library’s online music database. Members of the library are spoilt for choice with 600 public access computers. They are also well-served with information desks on each of the six floors with two members of staff.
Amsterdam Central Library – Children’s area from gallery
It was the finer details of the library that struck a chord with me. A clear and light atmosphere, marked by the main colour scheme of white, creating a calm environment; LED lighting illuminated the collections; a soft, almost natural lighting was created by having the fittings located on the top of the shelves so that the light reflected off the white ceilings. The children’s area was divided into spheres with different themes such as adventure. Their space was like a fantasy world with ‘castles’ and tipis, allowing children to explore and play while reading or being read to. The music section features a radio studio which broadcasts shows – I caught an acoustic performance on TV the next day and was pleased to see the library in the background. Study pods, with wallpaper themes, create a tranquil work space, also had no doors on them to discourage inappropriate behaviour. Although within reason parts of the library design gave people the freedom to use the space in a way that suited them, such as moving chairs to more comfortable places. I was amazed that for such a large space and with lots of people (for a Tuesday afternoon) at how quiet it was.
The attention to detail and awareness apparent in the design of the Amsterdam Central Public Library left me wanting to pack it up and bring it home. It seemed evident that thought was given to what a library is and how people engage with the space and collections. To anyone designing or redesigning a library I would strongly encourage they find out about the Amsterdam Central Public Library. This place is truly a celebration of libraries.
Library and information service of the Koninklijk Instituit voor de Tropen (KIT) (Royal Tropical Institute)
Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam – the entrance
Koninklijk Instituit voor de Tropen (KIT) is an independent centre of expertise on international development cooperation. The institute is housed in a stunning neo-classical building erected in 1926. Its core activities focus on health, culture, knowledge management, and sustainable development. These are delivered through research, training, an advisory service, a museum and publications. In addition to these activities the institute runs culture exchange programmes delivered through its theatre and museum. Currently the centrepiece of the museum is an extremely sensitive and moving exhibition about death and culture. The institute also offers languages training and diversity management; these are often taken up by football coaches.
The library and information service supports KIT’s activities. The collections include one million titles and electronic resources covering culture and colonial heritage as well as international development cooperation. In these difficult economic times, the decision has been made to obtain new acquisitions in digital format only due to budget cuts. The library holds an impressive collection of 15,000 maps, which is matched by an equally impressive publicly-accessible database of the older maps of the former Dutch colonies. Other key resources noted were their portals and research papers, including on the subject of “Librarianship in the South”. The library also produces a magazine “Exchange” which covers issues on HIV and AIDS, sexual and reproductive health.
The library’s international activities attempt to address the problems of information access in parts of the world where barriers to this exist. The projects include partnerships with universities in Mozambique and Ghana, and give attention to automation and digitisation; open access and open source software; common cultural heritage and the preservation of historic collections. The library offers training on information literacy for students and provides access to online resources. It also works with similar organisations in Portugal and Brazil to get advice on sourcing relevant material such as on health information.
I was most taken by the library’s international projects as they highlighted fundamental concerns about information provision and access, and how much of a divide exists between different parts of the world. I was impressed in the way they have been addressing these issues.
Peace Palace Library: The international law library
Royal Library, The Hague – from gallery
The Peace Palace Library in The Hague covers all aspects of international law and jurisdiction. The library serves the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and The Hague Academy of International Law. People around the world are also drawn to the library via its website to research local interests and bibliographic references.
Here too was another stirring example of architecture. The library and academy building was designed by British architect, Michael Wilford who, it was explained, tried to find ways of merging the two buildings together. Rather cleverly the reading room formed a bridge between the old building of the Peace Palace and the new building. Our host extended the tour into the highly-decorative Peace Palace, which was truly a palace fit for royalty. Although the reading room was a more sober affair, it did not lose any of the grandeur with its tiered floors, columns and sleek wooden furnishings.
We were presented with an excellent example of a digital library. Development of their web 2.0 resources focused on context, quality, and usefulness such as good keywords and purposeful hyperlinks. The library has produced topical research guides, designed to enable users to find relevant information quickly. Other features of their website include blogs, news, new titles, more visible searches and a newsfeed.
I believe they have developed an effective way of providing access to information about the collections covering complex subjects.
The Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The National Library of the Netherlands)
The Koninklijke Bibliotheek concluded our tour of libraries and was like a chocolate box selection offering a little something for everyone in our group. The library was founded in 1798 from the personal collection of William V, Prince of Orange. In 1974, it became a national depository and the collections now contain some six million publications. Currently, collection development is geared towards digital publications.
The first taste of the library was the locker room that used a PIN system and was a test of our levels of intelligence to operate. The reading rooms gave a sense of great minds working in an industrial style setting. The closed access stores impressed me as I was convinced they were large enough to fit a whole village in them. Intriguingly we were stopped by a metal partition with a highly secure door, and were informed that the collections behind it were extremely ‘special’ magazines. Visitors are only allowed to consult these magazines under close supervision to ensure that they are being used for research purposes only. To finish off the tour, we were shown to the library’s exhibition space where on display were many of the “treasures” from the libraries collections. The current exhibition focuses on the historic relationship between the Netherlands and Turkey. The space was beautiful, calming and the exhibition showed a wonderful way of displaying books.
I went to the Netherlands with a fascination for the country and more specifically Amsterdam and a real keenness to discover their libraries. I am glad I took the opportunity to go on this tour, as I gained a comprehensive insight into leading examples of digital libraries, stunning buildings and facilities, and impressive services. Also it proved to be opportune to be able to meet inspiring colleagues with whom to share experiences. As a new professional, all of this has made me feel hopeful for the future of libraries and information services.
Amsterdam Central Public Library:
www.oba.nl/index.cfm?vid=BC638BCA-3FFA-497D-9CA1C74A819C832A (English language page, which also features a video tour with subtitles in English)
Library and information service of the Koninklijk Instituit voor de Tropen (KIT) (Royal Tropical Institute):
The map database can be viewed at the following website: www.kit.nl/-/INS/12227/Royal-Tropical-Institute/KIT-Information-and-Library-Services–/KIT-Information-and-Library-Services—KIT-Library/Collections/Dutch-Colonial-Maps (Try search term: Java).
A short documentary about their projects can be viewed online:
Peace Palace Library: The international law library:
Koninklijke Bibliotheek (The National Library of the Netherlands):
All photos by Simon Green (tour group member).
For more images from the tour, see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/77971196@N05/with/7001946024/ or search Flickr for ‘career development group Netherlands tour’.