Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cool Libraries in Amsterdam


If you’re a library person like me, you feel at home the moment you step into a library. Besides the books, picture the other familiar indicators: posters announcing educational and cultural events in the auditorium or lecture hall; little pieces of paper with wireless instructions; signs outlining what is and is not allowed, the next library closure, how much printing and photocopying cost. Then there are the other sensory stimuli: that classic smell of musty books which mixes with the new aromas of soy ink and thick, glossy paper; that hushed rustle of patrons turning pages and shifting in their seats, and the delights of graphic design including the signage in the library as well as the covers of the books themselves.

I find all this deeply reassuring no matter where I am in the world, and despite the specialty of a library, I am always drawn towards it and can find something stimulating within its walls.

Then it comes as no surprise my usual haunts in Amsterdam consisted of libraries. This time my approach was unique: the library was no longer a place to make a living or a place to pick up some books or a place to do my homework. I needed the library to give meaning to my day; it was a destination; it was a place I could dig into my writing and research without being bothered to purchase something. I was continuously amazed at that last part: a free place to go, every day. And the best part: everyone is invited to the library.

Kelci’s Top 3 Libraries in Amsterdam


1. Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam / The Amsterdam Public Library


The Amsterdam Public Library works much like San Francisco Public Library: the central library is a beautiful new building in the city center (opened on 07/07/2007), and smaller branches sprinkle the city’s neighborhoods. I’m a bit of a night owl, so the central branch is my jam: it’s open 10 am – 10 pm every day!


The library is open to everyone, but to get online or take out materials, you must join the membership by purchasing a library card. The rates vary from free (children and youth) to 100 euros (super-duper patron status!), which is a stark departure from the free library card at SF Public. Once you’re in possession of a library card, check out your selection at an automated kiosk (located on every floor). These machines are crazy! You don’t have to scan a barcode— the machine senses the books, then generates a list, which you confirm on a touch screen. (I’m still not sure how the machine telepathically knows what books you have, although I suspect it has something to do with the large magnetized insert adhered to the cover.) It prints out a receipt and you’re off! Returning the books is similar: use the return kiosks on the main floor to check your books back in (again with the magical telepathy!), and then a little window opens, a conveyer belt turns on, and the books are sucked into the fortress-like sorting area.


 Bright illuminated pillars, large space-age chandeliers, escalators, and a recessed children’s area greet you as you enter. As you move through the brightly lit center of the structure, you notice there are directories located throughout each floor in Dutch and English, which are quite handy since the library spans 9 floors, and has extensive collections of multimedia and novels in English in addition to a public library’s normal collections.

Sunset view from the front of the library.

You will also notice there are lots of young people hanging out in the library; up in the cafeteria on the 9th floor, you’ll find University students camped out with their notebooks and netbooks, some surrounded by empty coffee cups and others by empty wine glasses. I discovered you can get a hearty slice of Dutch apple pie for 1 euro after 9:30 pm in the cafeteria!

My favorite spot was on the 6th floor facing the windows. Great view!

Whether or not you visit Amsterdam for studies and research or just plain tourism, make sure to check out the central branch of the Openbare Bibliotheek—in addition to the typical stuff of a public library, it has a theater and a museum, as well as special displays based on the time of year.

LGBT display for International Coming Out Day (October 11, 2012)

Oosterdokskade 143, 1011 DL Amsterdam

2. International Institute of Social History (IISH) / Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis (IISG)

The front of the building before renovations. 
A lot of people say to me, You came all the way to Europe to work at a library? Even though the work I’ve done at IISH has been different than what I expected, I will ceaselessly preach the unique wonders housed in this library which make it a compelling reason to come to a different continent.

The reading room is behind the wall to the left. The information desk is on the right.

The Institute's subject areas are anything having to do with social movements, so its focus spans from Greenpeace archives to skinhead punk art from the 90s. My interests lie in its labor and socialism materials. Its collection contains a few books, but its real treasures are its primary accounts, archives, and labor movement banners. The building is currently under construction , so some things like the record player are not accessible—too bad for me when I needed to listen to the album Antifaschistische Lieder. Nonetheless, a visit to the Institute is worth your time. When you visit, I highly recommend arranging a tour ahead of your arrival—on the tour you will see a selection of the Karl Marx archive, including the only existing page of the original manuscript of The Communist Manifesto.  After the tour you can get lunch in the cafeteria and a quintessential coffee, which is dispensed for free from a machine on the level below the Reading Room, along with water, tea, and soup-flavored hot water.

From the Marx archive, on display.
IISH has closed stacks except the openly accessible reference works in the Reading Room, and the library’s materials do not circulate outside the library. You can make a certain number of requests for items via email ahead of time to consult in the reading room, or you can request them at the desk until 4 pm. If you are serious about doing research here, the hot set up is a private carrel, which are handsome mini-offices that individuals can use for extended periods of time.

My companion near many of the colorful posters found in the library.
Cruquiusweg 31, 1019 AT  Amsterdam

3. J.R. Ritman Library – Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica


When I was contacting libraries about possible support for my Fulbright application in early 2011, The Ritman was the first to respond, albeit with bad news: the library was closed for the foreseeable future. The contact gave me alternative options, which was a generous response and imbued me with a favorable impression of the staff there.

I was excited to learn that the Ritman reopened in the last year so I quickly added a visit to my schedule this past October.

What a treasure! The library itself is an inauspicious building near the Westerkerk, off of Prisengracht in the Canal Belt. Buzz the intercom to gain entry. It costs 5 euros to visit, which didn’t bother me, although if I was a serious researcher in the fields of spirituality, hermetics, alchemy, or philosophy, I would go for the annual pass, which costs 30 euros.

The room and exhibit that greets you upon entering.

When I visited, an handsome and professional exhibit on medical advancements in early modernity adorned the entry area and continued into the adjacent room. My companion and I received a welcoming overview of the facility from a young woman who we later discovered is the granddaughter of the library founder, Mr. Ritman. Later, we also conversed with his daughter and eventually Mr. Ritman himself, at which point we shook his hand and exchanged a few words. (He was convinced I was not American but rather Eastern European; this happens to me a lot!)

The exhibit continues into the room to the left.
The stairs in the background lead to the Reading Room.

The library was founded with Mr. Ritman’s private collection of rare books and manuscripts, which began with a gift of a rare Jacob B√∂hme book from his mother when he was a young man. From the web site: When he conceived the plan to turn his private collection of books into a library, his vision was to bring together under one roof manuscripts and printed works in the field of the Hermetic tradition, and to show the interrelatedness between the various collecting areas and their relevance for the present day. In addition to its role as a repository, the library also acts as a small publishing house, publishing a handful of books every year.

Joost R. Ritman
I spent most of my time reading the apocryphal text The Gospel of Truth in the reading room upstairs, as well as some accompanying commentary by the reigning scholar in the field, Marvin Meyer. Although I don’t study philosophy or spirituality, my interest is Gnosticism grew after I read The Gospel of Judas in 2007. Many of the library's reference works and primary texts are available to browse openly; you will have to use the online catalog to request rare materials to consult in the reading room.

Feels a bit more like someone's personal study than a research library.
Probably due to its small size and its family business feel, I found The Ritman Library to be the most welcoming and the most comfortable. How cool is it to see three generations of Amsterdammers sharing their family collection of rare books and manuscripts!

Bloemstraat 13-19, NL-1016 KV Amsterdam