Conveniently situated next to my hotel and a short jaunt from the busy tourist district and main train hub where everyone seems to wind up, I encountered Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (OBA).
An intriguing concrete structure with short open passageways on each floor providing views, its seven flights tower above the metropolis. This is the central facility so it’s open until ten every night (except for a few holidays) and has eleven levels accommodating its 28,000 square meters (a whopping 301,000 square feet).
OBA has solar panels on the roof and uses renewable elements. Underneath, free 24 hour covered parking can shelter 2,500 bicycles, the preferred mode of transportation here. Out front an umbrella shaded café and a sunny plaza offer relaxing places to watch the movement of the cranes and ships at the port.
Entering via a big revolving door I found a very modern building with gleaming wood floors and sparkling silver elevators. Escalators are set off by glowing pillars and multicolored light panels on the ground.
Free up to age 19, a variety of memberships are available, from 20 euro to 100, depending on what resources you desire, though even the most inclusive pass charges 1 euro for each AV unit, game or hold placed after the first ten. Cleverly, the most expensive card includes a yearly donation of an additional 45 euro to support the library. Though usually materials are borrowed for 21 days and can be renewed twice, in summer patrons can take ten things for six weeks so as not to interfere with a wonderfully long vacation. They have self check and you can go to any location or items will be sent to your home branch for 50 cents.
Snake lamps draw attention to old tomes in attractive glass displays trimmed in shining pine. Changing TV screens embedded in the sides of these variously shaped pieces catch the eye.
Other exhibitions reveal dolls in mountainous black dresses from a young fashion designer, photographs of kisses taken all over the planet, miniature handmade books and innovative cooking implements.
The teen area on the second floor has video games, comic books, audiotapes and CDs, but Children’s is at the bottom and is overlooked by higher balconies and corridors strewn with paintings. Lit by radiant abstract mobiles, phantasmagorical paper mache creatures watch over the round stacks.
A see through storytime room is brightened by a multihued vine creeping around its white walls. Two tiers of cushions face a grand chair obviously meant for the tale teller.
The Kinderlab, where classes are brought, has rolling silver stools stowed under a transparent ledge hosting juvenile artwork and a red secretary in a corner houses a listening station. One side of the space holds a long, recessed glass-fronted cabinet presenting a colorful array of suggestions.
A nook papered with Jip en Janneke (a popular Dutch series) cover illustrations has scarlet pillows and vats for books. From here, steps lead up to a raised stage with illuminated pamphlets and titles on parenting and at the other end, a huge polar bear gives Winnie the Pooh and Tigger too, a ride on his back.
Nearby, adults can stroll through a small exhibition then gossip at a booth or sink into fat red sculptured forms surrounded by ubiquitous marshmallow blobs perfect for diminutive behinds. I like the idea of a youth area striving to please both guardians and their charges.
Chinese dragon kites and drawings from a classic picture book about a crocodile deck the walls. A teepee inspires play and a wavy oversize cubby hole decorated with tree branches and Janneke crawling in invite the smallest to explore this dark cave.
I was mesmerized by this marvelous mouse mansion. With more than 100 recesses stuffed with tiny old fashioned furniture, it attracts all ages – my favorite scene is a messy study so chock full of volumes a ladder is needed to reach many of them.
Recommended books are arranged face out on a Smart Car facsimile and spine out in a container that evokes a tall Amsterdam dwelling.
The shelves here form numerous alcoves, each with its own theme. In the biggest one, a red and white circular metal staircase leads up to an overlook – big people are discouraged by steps made for petite feet. In a second, a teal ring envelops a big black puff and you can push a matching ottoman over if you want to use one of the workstations.
OBA has twenty five branches not counting an outpost at the airport that we stumbled upon on our way to South Africa last year. Other ingenious sites include a tram depot and a gigantic church.
Some of the locations have features like courtyards or specialize e.g. one focuses on information on Suriname and the Antilles, has a three hour tech skills clinic on Fridays and an infants and toddlers collection. Another concentrates on youth and has software to help with elementary school courses while a third has 25,000 graphic novels. Buitenveldertbaan has a computer for those with reading challenges.
Over in Periodicals I talked to cheery and helpful Margie, whose title translates as information services employee. She told me that she went to library school, which is usually two years, and that everyone who works here must have a library certificate.
The building has two radio studios they rent for long periods that provide income, as do the leases for the café outside and the terraced restaurant and the 260 person theater on the seventh story. Audiences are welcome at the live broadcasts from the first and fourth levels – OBA airs a daily interview and Public Amsterdam FM covers culture. The penthouse auditorium is currently staging a musical version of Stephen King’s Misery and a play derived from the kid’s book The Gruffalo.
I took a winding set of stairs up to an enormous media area where customers flip through racks loaded with audiovisual materials and scan curvy partitions full of films near clusters of shimmering tubes sticking straight up from the tiles.
Users can choose from 500,000 CDs, 300,000 LPs and 30,000 music DVDs owned by OBA. Online, use MuziekwebLuister to pick from six million free music tracks and find info about your favorite genres and groups. A separate room being constructed where you can watch videos should be ready by now and under a wall adorned with gold textured strips, an upright piano stands ready to entertain.
Though I didn’t get the names of all the staff who answered my many questions, they have my profuse thanks. Everyone seemed to speak English fluently – Riet and I chatted for a bit and she was so nice.
OBA acts as a depository for EU documents and has dedicated references spaces devoted to Amsterdam, libraries of the world, gay literature, the piano, sheet music and Hispanic youth. Tell the Wall has oral histories and tales of the city.
Residents who can’t make the journey in can get home deliveries and the library charges 7.5 euro per hour for tutoring in primary school subjects. There are poetry contests, literary festivals, political forums in advance of elections, guest authors, weekly movies, reading clubs and you can volunteer to help seniors learn about their tablets and laptops. Recently they gathered landscaping professionals to advise on garden construction and held a workshop to help freelancers increase their business.
In the multimedia section, a display of album covers and a pink neon sign direct you to a stand up terminal with speakers. People perch on cubes of piled 33 rpm recordings at other computers with headphones and chrome keyboards or on high chairs at angled Apples resembling cyborgs.
The library has five conference spaces for rent and study rooms. The Gerard Reve Museum on the second floor honors one of the country’s most famous authors and has manuscripts, first editions, personal possessions and even relics like a wisdom tooth and fingernails.
Five thousand people come daily and Centraal has had well over ten million visitors since it opened in 2007. The system has at least 700 PCs and 200 iMacs and travelers can use wifi or search the internet on one of the 490 terminals here for one euro per half hour. Outlets for powering your devices are everywhere and a computer area is festooned with abstract art.
Foreign language items come in Arabic, Russian, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Urdu, Turkish and Frisian (one of my brother’s favorite sayings about that obscure language is Es hat eigenskip das de Fryske bydrage ta da Americanske literateur ta bienske is. (this may not be a totally accurate spelling…) which means “It stands to reason that the Frisian contribution to American literature is a modest one.” ;)
The cream cases in fiction are bordered by orange (the color of their royal family) and white fairy lights. Large letters announce categories and end caps hold tastefully positioned volumes enclosed by glass. By the English books, boxes showcase vibrant jewelry assortments and square cushioned benches afford city vistas.
OBA’s web site links to a Twitter feed and gives you the chance to win prizes if you agree to answer quarterly surveys to improve services. Pages highlight energy, sustainability, music, cuisine, religion, design and the heritage of Brabantish speakers and there’s a selection of 5000 downloadable ebooks and eaudiobooks. Databases cover a wide range of topics from data for immigrants, language learning and grants to Dutch journals and tutorials on basic skills and browsing. Creative sessions to develop children’s imaginations, summer reading suggestions and tips on how to avoid web bullying and harassment are here as well, and other links let you know about events in the region.
As this wonderful and monumental place confirms, Nederlanders obviously know how important libraries are to their communities.