Monday, August 2, 2010

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.)

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?

Larissa Kyzer is finishing her last year in the MSLIS program at LIU's Palmer School and is an assistant organizer with the New York Librarians MeetUp Group. She is starting the New York Librarians Book Club, which will meet every other month (starting in September) to discuss non-professional, library-related books. The first book that the group will discuss is Marilyn Johnson's This Book is Overdue! For more information or to join the group, see the MeetUp page, here:

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