Roughly 100 guests from Europe participated in this year’s ALA conference in Washington. Given a total of over 23,000 participants, that’s merely a drop in the bucket. But, as generally known, quality trumps quantity anytime. My curiosity was therefore piqued when Camila Alire, this year’s ALA president, invited a European to speak as part of her special “President’s Program”. The Dutchman Eppo van Nispen tot Sevenaer, Director of the DOK Library in Delft, gave a presentation titled “Libraries Wanted: Dead or Alive”. The DOK Library in Delft is not only considered the most modern library in the Netherlands, but also easily in the running for the world’s most advanced and innovative library. No wonder, then, that the Dutch recently voted Eppo President of their library association. Incidentally, Eppo was director of one of the Netherland’s premier television stations in a previous life. An interesting career change for sure, not to mention a clear sign that Eppo values the importance and vibrancy of libraries -- which is not to say he isn’t critical of libraries. In his presentation, he listed a number of challenges today’s libraries face.
While libraries were once a primary provider of information, technological and societal changes in the last decade have almost relegated them obsolete. When asked who they trust most for information, is anyone surprised that most people answer Google? In building the DOK library in Delft, the idea was not just to build the best possible library, but also to build a library that could be a “better friend” to patrons than Google, that is, a library with real “added value”.
So what do patrons really think of libraries? Eppo took his visit in Washington as an opportunity for a quick, informal and amusing quiz of people on the street. He asked: “Would you want to be a librarian?” No, nobody wanted that. Someone actually replied, “Libraries? They’re from the Stone Age!” When he asked the crowd of librarians who today would invent a library if they didn’t already exist, only a few raised their hands. Regardless, Eppo is of the opinion that libraries still have value, as long as they’re willing to change. For one, they have to learn to accommodate changes in patron’s behaviors and patterns of use. In a digital age that is increasingly obsessed with the visual, today’s libraries are way too text heavy. There are only 17 library-specific applications for the iPhone. And libraries are still more concerned about developing collections than building relationships with patrons. For example, how absurd is it that libraries continue to forbid eating and drinking? What is to stop patrons from borrowing materials and enjoying them with a slice of pizza at home? What is missing most in libraries, says Eppo, is the fun factor. But maybe we just need more people like Eppo in our libraries. If it’s all fun and games in his library, I cannot say, but his presentation was entertaining and motivating. The airport library that will soon open in Amsterdam is also one of Eppo’s projects. Just like TANK U, a download station for e-books.