What would you do if your city announced it would close 19 out of 25 local libraries? Protest, complain, become a cynic, or take action and create something new? A group of residents from Rotterdam chose the latter when we learned that our libraries would be closing by the end of 2012.
We saw the situation as a cultural and social disaster. We quickly devised a strategy in which we invited people from the neighborhood to tell us what their ideal "reading room" would look like, and what they would be willing to do to make it happen. These conversations led to a whole range of ideas, and helped us envision what the reading room could be. The meetings also started building a community that could work together to make the idea real.
To test out whether the ideas we generated during our conversations could work—but also as a way of showing doubters that it could actually be done—we organized a five-day festival last November. Every day of the festival was given a theme: learning, reading, reading aloud, meeting, and sharing. Through the program, we showed what the possibilities of the reading room were.
We found a former hammam that had been empty for a couple of years, and turned it into a pleasant public space in which you could drink coffee and tea, read newspapers, choose from 1500 books, work on computers or via wi-fi, and just sit and enjoy the space.
An important element in the way we work is that we bring together what we can get our hands on—whether it’s people, spaces, stuff, ideas, or money—and with the help of a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and craftsmanship from volunteers, we turn it into something of quality.
Over the course of the last few months, a graphic designer, a website developer, and an interior designer helped us create a high-quality basic infrastructure on which we can build the reading room. We think this helps ensure the project has the most impact. It makes the people who work with us ambitious, too, and makes it appealing to a lot of people. You want to go to something inviting and shows that the project team put in an effort.
After the festival, we quickly decided that we wanted to continue with the project. Not only because of the great reactions we got to the place and the program, but also because around 150 people said they would be willing to do something to help continue the reading room. So, as of February 5, we're open five days a week, and still offer books, five newspapers, computers and wi-fi, good coffee, and nice spaces to read and work. We also have a still-developing program for creatives, readers, children, and many other groups.
In the coming year we'll be experimenting with further developing the reading room into a high-quality public meeting space maintained and programmed by people.
Images courtesy of Maurice Specht and Tineke de Lange