Digital Dutch masterpieces

“Are libraries old or new media?” I tweeted earlier this week, assuming that my opinionated Twitter buddies would tell me that libraries – with their crusty old gatekeepers, shelves of dusty books and strict “no talking” policies -- are quintessential old media.

As usual, I was wrong. Most of my Twitter friends responded that libraries are both old and new media. They are, of course, right. Libraries and librarians, like newspapers and journalists, don’t naturally fall into one or other media camp. It all depends on the kind of libraries in which you happen to find yourself.

Last week, I was lucky enough to find myself in the fair city of Amsterdam in the company of several hundred Dutch librarians.  I was addressing Bibliotheekplaza 2009, an annual convention of Dutch librarians focused on using the tools of the Web revolution to modernize libraries. Borrowing the wisdom of my Twitter buddies, I argued in my speech that while most libraries today do represent the most crusty and dusty of the ancien media regime, they also have a great opportunity to become the next-generation curators of digital information. 

My audience of Dutch librarians agreed with my argument that, in the midst of today’s chaotic digital revolution, we need reliably curatorial libraries and libraries more than ever now. Like in Britain, librarians in Holland are under tremendous pressure to reform. Unlike in Britain or America, however, the Dutch, with their trademark foresight, are actively investing in libraries of the future. The two most innovatively interactive libraries in Holland are the central public libraries in Amsterdam and Delft both of which have both radically reinvented themselves for the new digital age.

At Bibliotheekplaza, I chatted with Rob Visser, the guy who has been driving the remarkable digital revolution at the Amsterdam public library. Instead of the dustiness and crustiness of the typical 20th century library, visitors to Amsterdam’s central public library will find not only books, but a restaurant as well as a children’s theatre and a public radio and television studio. The library, which is open every day from 10.00 am to 10.00 pm, also holds a series of cultural festivals – such as the upcoming week of poetry – which it then broadcasts on the Internet.

Amsterdam library’s website epitomizes its innovative approach to the 21st curation of knowledge. The website features its own customized search engine, the “aquabrowser”, which has integrated the library’s books, CDs and DVDs as well as a rich archive of Amsterdam’s history and culture. Equally innovatively, the website provides those who use it within the walls of the library itself open access to all its digital content.

Amsterdam library’s return on investment is impressive. The upgraded library, built at a cost of 400,000 euros, was opened in July 2007 and within 7 months it already had welcomed over a million visitors. This truly 21st century library with its cutting-edge website proves that old media can be successfully upgraded. I urge all non Dutch librarians to make the trip over to Amsterdam to see the latest cultural miracle in this most miraculous of cities.