Earlier this month I had the incredible good fortune to visit DOK in Delft, Holland. Normally I would call it the Delft Public Library, but it just goes by the name “DOK” and the sign on the door says it’s a “library concept center.” The staff did this on purpose to get away from the traditional stereotypes of the public library, because the institution they’ve created is about as far away as you can get from the connotation of a 1950s building, filled with quiet people, all of them sitting alone, in a relatively dreary building, being shushed by an old lady with a bun.
Instead, it is easily the most colorful and aesthetically-pleasing library I have ever seen. Granted, I’ve seen a very small percentage of the world’s libraries, but the use of a diverse palette of bright and unusual colors was a very stark contrast to every other library I have seen in person or in pictures.
Even more impressive (and truly striking) is the amount of radical trust the staff has placed in its patrons. Some of the stark contrast with American libraries is due in part to the litigious nature of our society. Everywhere I went in Delft and in DOK, I found examples of things we could never do in the U.S. out of fear of being sued out of existence. In some cases, it’s as simple as having some of the shelves for childrens books and display cases on wheels so that they can be moved around as needed to create program or play space. The kids can even stand on the bookshelves (as can adults). There’s a room that’s tucked away on the side that truly is built for children, with low benches for sitting and lighting underneath them for little ones who want to read or play on the floor. In another case, it’s the open listening station pods. When I was there, I could hear music drifting through the building from one of them. Some kids would put on an album and let it run while they were elsewhere on the floor talking or playing videogames. It wasn’t overwhelming, though, and there were other places where I couldn’t hear it at all and could sit in silence if I wanted to.
The small design touches everywhere are stunning, but that’s not surprising giving the Dutch aesthetic. DOK easily has the coolest, most comfortable chairs of any library. As I walked around, I kept sitting in them just because I could and wanted to. Some of them are even practical. Recently, I was in a public library in the U.S. where I had trouble finding a comfortable place to sit. My only choice as an adult was the standard box cushion chair with wood arms. Compared to DOK, furniture used in American libraries is at best corporate and at worst unwelcoming. They also use natural language names for sections of the collection (psychology, computers and internet, etc.), not Dewey numbers, and the graphics for the banners are colorful and eye-catching. They are clearly done by a professional, and they don’t all look the same. Also note the lack of steel shelves that make the library look like a warehouse. Instead, they used flexible shelving made from recyclable materials (also done for some gorgeous tables and desks).
You walk into DOK and you immediately feel welcome into a place you know you can spend hours at if you want to. DOK is what I’ve always wanted libraries to be in terms of the “experience” that happens around books, information, content, media, and people. You can’t help but smile when you’re inside, and you just feel happier in general. A couple of years ago, I heard a speaker at a Minnesota Library Association conference say that the classic mistake libraries make is that we focus too much on how we want people to feel about the library when they walk in. His theory was that we need to focus on how people feel about themselves when they walk in, and DOK illustrates that theory in practice. Each time I entered the building, the bright, natural light from the glass ceiling had an effect on me. If I feel better about myself there, I will feel better about the library and enjoy my experience more.
DOK’s Director, Eppo, told us that “libraries are (for the most part) all about not having fun.” At DOK, they deliberately turned this stereotype on its head. Instead, their theory is that “life is all about having more fun than you can think of, and it starts at the library.” So they have videogames, listening stations, comfortable chairs, a café, a circulating art collection, programs throughout the building (not just hidden away in a room in the basement), a piano, toys for kids to play with, a brightly-lit room devoted to graphic novels, an entire room (done in red) devoted to romance novels, and more.
When you walk in the building for the first time, if your cellphone is discoverable via bluetooth, you’ll receive a text message from DOK that says, “Welcome to the most modern library in the world,” a claim well-lived up to. There’s an RFID system for both library cards and books (with no privacy problems to date). There’s a system of LCD screens mounted around the building for navigation and information which runs off Nintendo Wiis. The display is a Flash application of a Wii channel and the top bar’s information and color changes based on your location in the library. Staff can log in to a website to change what shows on the display in order to update messages for the public (about programs, closings, etc.). The afore-mentioned listening station pods are truly amazing, and I now have to find a way to fund one for my home. Plans for later this year call for the installation of a multimedia creation area for podcasting/vidcasting/etc. and a “genius bar” type of setup for technology help for the public.
None of which precludes the provision of and help finding print materials and reference help. Staff are smartly situated throughout the building, and books are everywhere. Magazines and newspapers are easily accessible, housed in a brilliant design of cubes that makes the most current edition visible and recent issues available without staff intervention. While there are flyers and handouts on top of various shelving, the walls are not plastered with handmade signs of rules and navigation. Of course, there isn’t a single “no cell phones” sign to be found since they actually communicate with patrons via mobile devices.
I could go on all day about how DOK gets the big things and the details right, but you can see some of this for yourself in my Flickr set. It is everything the big, fancy American libraries want to be but just miss. If your library is planning a new building or a renovation, I highly recommend you talk to the people at DOK and if at all possible, visit this amazing library. You will be amazed at how much better than a bookstore a library can be at merchandising and aesthetics, let alone the social experience.