Much has been written about the ongoing shift to volunteer-led provision for public libraries in England – and from all manner of mouthpieces. Since the rise of this phenomenon, in the cold light of day of austerity politics, various governmental and organisational reports (such as Arts Council England and the Local Government Association and Locality), as well as news reports (The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, The Independent), formal academic research and commentary and critique from across the sector (Public Libraries News, The Bookseller, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) and beyond (the Women’s Institute conducted research in 2012) have publicised this process.
More recently the Scottish Library and Information Council’s own report (July, 2015) – examining the same possibility for public libraries across ‘the Border’ – concluded that “[w]hile using volunteers to help extend and supplement library services is seen as generally helpful the evidence tends to suggest that volunteer-run libraries with no professional inputs or links to the public library service are not the preferred option”.
Unsurprisingly, much of the discourse arising from this change in praxis has been focused on the effects seen in local communities, and the library profession itself, especially in English regions where local authorities have been implementing or experimenting with this approach wholesale. Interestingly, however, this debate has remained decidedly parochial (in the widest sense of the word) – ensconced firmly within the mind’s-eye of this “green and pleasant land” – albeit with beyond-border Scottish and Welsh examinations on the topic. With this in mind, here at Artefacto we thought it would be useful to explore an international example.
Leeszaal Rotterdam West is situated in (as the name suggests) Rotterdam, The Netherlands, just down a side street from a main road, and within fifteen minutes walk of Rotterdam Central train station. Occupying a large, window-fronted corner building, its name also situates the space as a “reading room” (“leeszaal”) rather than specifically identifying it as a library. Similar, however, to volunteer-led English efforts, this space also came about via the dual factors of local branch library closures and a neighbourhood community unwilling to allow the local departure of a much-loved public service. Thus, in November 2012, Leeszaal was born.
Combining a space for people to read (books make up a large part of the space, and can be taken away without the need to return), alongside comfy seats, free wifi, tea and coffee, and computer terminals, the venue is a community space which is to some degree self-organised by those who happen to attend. On one of the days we visited, we met two local residents involved in a language exchange (one learning Arabic, the other Dutch); and throughout the day people milled in and out, coming in to access the internet or to read some of the newspapers and magazines provided, or to chat to others sitting around. The space is also used for workshops – on another visit we met the book artist who had run a children’s bookmaking session the previous day, with the kids making their own paper and producing a small handmade book of their own writing.
One of the driving forces behind the venue is Maurice Specht, so we thought we’d catchup with Maurice and ask him a few questions about the how, what and why of this amazing place.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the project came about?
We started the Reading Room after the Rotterdam Library decided to close 18 out of 24 neighbourhood libraries. Their reasoning: people are not coming to the library, they get their info somewhere else, and we need to cut budgets. After protest in our neighbourhood, which didn’t change the decision, we decided another response was necessary, a positive, tangible response, showing in real life what me and Joke – who I met through a mutual friend – [and Leeszaal’s other driving force] always say in our writing: that public meeting spaces are vital for the functioning of a neighbourhood.
After we came together we decided not to write a proposal and then talk to people, but went to all kinds of different more formal and informal groups in the neighbourhood to ask two questions: What does your ideal Reading Room look like? – And what are you willing to do yourself? Our neighbourhood is very rich in these type of groups (more 60+ of them) due to a long history of self-organisation and activism. We went to the Chinese Cultural Club; a Somali men’s group; gardening groups; churches; a resident organisation; different women’s groups; and a house for the elderly activity club … Through this we got our ideas, and our first 40 or so volunteers (ranging in age from 20 to 82) and from 6 or 7 different countries.
We first organized a 5 day festival to test out all the ideas we got from people, but also to see whether people who said they were willing to do something would really show up. While looking for an empty shop, a housing corporation (woonstad) approached us and asked whether we would like to use a then already empty former hammam (Turkish bathhouse) as our venue for free. We took the offer and never left!
What would you say is the philosophy behind Leeszaal?
The Reading Room is a public meeting space (in the traditional sense of the word, so everyone should feel welcome there) revolving around language, literature, imagination and participation. The Reading Room is only what we make out of it ourselves, thus reflecting those who make it together and giving lots of space for people to try things out. It is built upon the abundance in stuff, time, space, ideas, knowledge, money etc. we have in our societies.
Why “Leeszaal”, rather than “Bibliothek”?
We didn’t want to be drawn into this discussion about whether we were replacing the library and therefore didn’t want to use it in our name. Furthermore we wanted to always be more than only being about books. Finally, it was nice to draw on history – where before we had public libraries, collectives of citizens (bourgeoisie) set up these kind of spaces.
How have you seen the space change since 2012?
What has changed over time is not so much what didn’t work (we do close an hour earlier than we did for the first couple of months – 7 instead of 8 in the evening – and some programmes we don’t do anymore because those who initiated them have moved on), but more significantly we now much better understand what kind of space we are. We started out with a hint of an idea, a lot of enthusiasm and a fantastic group of people. Now we have a core identity which I can write down, we have all kinds of routines, well established programmes, and a much bigger group of volunteers (now almost 90, from 16 different countries by origin – the youngest is 10, the oldest 84). What has amazed us the most is what kind of ideas, qualities and opportunities come your way if you are set up in a welcoming, inviting and accommodating way. New programmes, new volunteers, working together with partners, offers of stuff and even money: they all come our way because people understand our basic philosophy and want to contribute to this common good by offering whatever they have. The sheer amount of it all has amazed me.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
We are now almost 3 years into the project and we are now entering a new phase. We are not really a new project any more, so the interest for everything which is new is waning from outsiders, media, partners, funds etc. (although at a much slower pace than we expected). A lot of our daily operation is now routine, and even running programmes is something we are good at now too. The biggest challenge will be keeping the Reading Room open to new people, new ideas, and new energy flowing in. It is very easy, maybe even tempting, to become an institution, to become institutionalised. It makes things predictable, you can re-use stuff etc., but that would be too easy. It would take out what makes the place so special.
The other challenge is how we can change the role Joke and I play in coordinating it all. We have the illusion of oversight which is a position somebody has to occupy, but it isn’t necessary that we as particular individuals occupy this position. But how we move to that new situation is something we are now thinking hard on. We are actually in the final stages of getting a bigger research project approved which revolves around this question: how do you turn a successful project into a sustainable ‘enterprise’/institution without becoming a stifled institute?
 Scottish Libraries and Information Council (July 2015), Evidence on the Use of Volunteers in Libraries and on Volunteer-run Libraries, p. 15.