Friday night at the OBA – 2 years later

I am sitting at an internet station in the OBA – Amsterdam’s still newish central public library, which opened in June 2007. I happened to be here for 3 weeks during that summer, and I was a regular at the OBA where I would come each day to sit at a computer and work on a few chapters of my thesis. During those weeks I developed quite an attachment to this library. It’s big, beautiful and stylish in Dutch architecture kinds of ways (promotional video here). It’s situated away from the central city, closer to the train station and more of the tourist routes rather than the local pedestrian / bicycle routes. Big buildings need big spaces and there aren’t many available for this size, in this city’s centre.

When this library opened it was designed and billed as a major cultural/tourist space in addition to providing the ‘standard’ library services. I had many observations at the time and was generally impressed and envious all round. OBA seemed to be library designed for people to come and be for shorter or longer visits – it has many comfortable areas for patrons to read, sit, reflect, talk, meet, eat, compute, and on.

Here I am 2 years later and I want to note some of the changes I see based only on my 2 visits this week. Although I also know that no two communties are ever alike I think there still may be lessons in organizing worth recording. One of the small opportunities for sociality the OBA offers is just inside the front door – an upright piano – I have been tickled each time I’ve seen or heard the piano start while I’m here. It’s available for any patron, any time. Today there are now 2 benches at the piano and a sign about how to use it – the need for a policy, for user guidelines was obviously needed for some reason – leading me to wonder if eventually any places where serendipity and library users meet – institutional policies will finally always be needed. Why is this?

Tonight the library is pretty quiet – people working individual at tables, computers, reading in chairs. A bit too quiet for my liking. So when I heard people talking over at the self-checkout and return bins, I hung around to watch. There is a bank of 4 self-checkout/return machines located along a transparent wall which surrounds the state-of-the art sorting technology – a room sized conveyor belt with bins and a lone person sitting at a terminal. A middle-aged couple was standing at the machine; the woman was depositing her dvds into the return slot, one at a time. Clearly she wasn’t quite sure if the machine was “receiving” her returns because she kept leaning down and talking into the slot – if I was guessing, it would be something like “is it ok, did you get it?” that she was repeating (in Dutch) after each deposit. Meanwhile, the lone staff member on the other side of the wall did not even look up and kept working at his computer. And the other staff member across the aisle at the holds desk, also didn’t even lift her gaze at this person-object conversation. Her husband seemed to be trying to assure her that it was ok as he smiled and encouraged her to continue with the returns. Eventually they completed their returns and headed upstairs for more films.

It struck me as odd (and funny too) however, that here in this beautiful space with loads of room and opportunity for distributed conversation, the only talking to be heard was a patron speaking rather loudly into a thin slot where a very large piece of very efficient library technology is housed. Certainly a candidate for the next “Funniest Public Library Videos” screenings 😉 And no staff member acknowledged or even responded – maybe it happens all the time and they are used to this behaviour. Nevertheless, it’s distinctly anti-social in my view – what do you think?

A couple of other changes noted – where there were piles and piles of bicycles chained and organized outside the front door of the library, there is now an outdoor cafe and a security guard to ensure that all bicycles are parked ‘legally’ in the underground lot. Libraries and restaurants as new partnerships?

At the reference desk, the staff now sit “outside” their attractive but closed pods or desks, much more visible to one and all. And the reference staff member I chatted with briefly noted a little apologetically that the majority of their visitors at the library were still tourists.

These are just a few random thoughts – the clock is ringing and it’s time to go – I still love it – I still feel so at home here, but oddly, it’s just a little bit more quiet than I expected or than I would prefer. Meanwhile, I’m wishing I could still play the piano well enough to go over there and try it out!

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