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The New Centrale Bibliotheek in Amsterdam: Even weirder than SPL Central?

By Jack Baur
Photos by Jack Baur and Edward Crabbe


front view of the Amsterdam public library (Centrale Bibliotheek)While studying abroad in Amsterdam this summer, I had the good fortune to live right across the water from the brand new Amsterdam public library, the Centrale Bibliotheek. The relocation of this library, which opened the doors of its new home on July 7th of this year (which also happened to be my brother’s 21st birthday, go figure) is part of an ongoing effort to create a major cultural hub in the area known as the Oosterdokseiland, which is immediately to the east of the central train station, and north across the water from the city center. The library shares this area with the NEMO (science and industry museum), the maritime museum, the Stedelijk Museum (specializing in contemporary art), and the new Muziekgebouw (music hall).

The new central library is the work of architect Jo Coenen and cost more than €80 million and, at 28,000 square meters, is the largest public library in Europe. It offers 600 Internet connected computers, 26 self-check-out stations, a 270-seat auditorium, 50 multimedia workstations, a gourmet restaurant and bar, and 2000 bicycle parking spaces. It also has a very distinct architectural style, as you can see from the photographs, and may, in places, get even weirder than Seattle’s own lauded (but undeniably bizarre) public library. I’ll show you what I mean…

Exterior of building

First, there is the exterior of the building, which I find to be almost as inscrutable as the Seattle Public Building, though certainly more organic. A sharp concrete frame surrounds the rich wood and glass innards of the building where the library itself is housed, which seem to burst forth at odd angles. A commentary on how libraries illuminate elevate the human spirit and save us from a drab and cold existence? I like to think so. But explain this to me: Why would a library have pictures of people eating on drinking wine at the entrance? In most libraries that I have seen, this is precisely what they don’t want you to do…

information desk

This is the main information desk at the library, the first thing you see when you enter. It stands in front of a stark white wall with what appear to be moldy cracks. I have no explanation for this, not even a snarky one.

View of childrens section

This is a picture of the kid’s section of the Centrale Bibliotheek. My research partner Edward Crabbe is posing in the reading area on top of the stacks. Above his head are models of butane molecules. Edward recognized them right away and was quite enamored with them.

Another view of childrens section

This is another view of the kid’s section. It’s very cozy.

Multimedia floor of the library

This is the multimedia floor of the library. The large circular shelves are full of CDs and DVDs. The Macs are all wired for Internet access, and have an assortment of multimedia software on them. I assumed that the weird little egg-shaped chairs would be rock hard, but they were surprisingly squishy.

information station

I don’t actually know what this device does, but it has a huge screen, bumpin’ speakers, and a cool neon sign.

reading pod

This is me trying out one of the library’s “reading pods.” Once I figured out that they neither flew, nor traveled back in time, I found them to be quite serene. Half the second floor was taken up by more than a dozen of these pods. Shockingly, none of them were in use during the time of our visit.

squishy egg chairs

Here are the squisy egg chairs alongside the reading pods. In the background you can see the NEMO museum, which looks like a sinking ship. Also note the vertical neon light sculpture. Again, no comment.

stacks with reading chairs

another view of the stacks

These are pictures from the main stacks of the library. These areas are more akin to a normal library, and the palette changes from that mostly washed-out white to richer, earthier tones off-set by deep purple furniture. The area is lush and very accessible, in contrast with SPL’s conceptually interesting but sterile, concrete, and disorienting “Knowledge Spiral.” Multicolored LED lights on the shelves make the spines of books very visible, but also give everything a surreal twinkling glow. The view out the window overlooks the Amsterdam Central Train Station.

another view of the stacks

Edward sitting at one of the chair-desks on the 5th floor. These gave me the impression of Ikea furniture on steroids, with their sharp right angles and spare design. Those chairs are actually surprisingly comfortable, though rather useless if you’re left-handed.

Here is a reference desk. There is one on every floor.

reference desk

Do you notice any problems with this reference desk? First of all, no librarian! Second of all, even if there was a librarian, they are facing out the window and the view of their back is obscured by a wall of computers. I did speak with one of the librarians there who said that the point of this set-up was to encourage librarians to roam, but admitted that since moving into the new space there have been lots of problems getting patrons to interact with the librarians. Also, even though the books are arranged on the floors by subject, they sacrificed subject specialists when they moved into the new building. The goal was to create an environment in which patrons were free to access and interact with information on their own, as opposed to just a storehouse for books. However, it is possible that, in the largest library in Europe, they managed to de-value the librarians. Just like the ongoing policy and flow experiments in SPL Central, it appears that there will be a lengthy process figuring out what the best use of this terrific space will be.

Elevators. They speak for themselves.

library cafe

Now we have reached the top floor of the library, home of the Pathè café. In this cafeteria style area you can order custom pasta, pizza, stir-fry, fresh seafood, sandwiches, smoothies… you get the idea. It was really tasty.

library bar

And here is the library bar. Yes, at the Centrale Bibliotheek, you can check out your books, head to the top-floor terrace, and order a pint. Except they don’t have pints in the Netherlands, so you’ll have to settle for 50 centiliters of sweet, cold beer. Take that SPL!

That’s the end of our tour. I leave you with a view from the dining terrace on the library’s top floor (with the Universiteit van Amsterdam dorm highlighted, our home for a month), and a bit of advice: when you find yourself in Amsterdam and want to visit the Centrale Biblotheek, do yourself a favor and rent a bike! Riding a bike in Amsterdam is without a doubt one of the best uses of your time, and if you don’t have a bike, the walk to the library is a long one…

View of University of Amsterdam form from the library

Doei doei! (That means “good-bye” in Dutch, and is pronounced “doy doy.” Dutch is a silly language.)

September 24, 2007
Vol. XII Issue 1

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