Lieve Library,

Since a couple of years I have been steadily researching you with great interest, both professionally and as a member. As an experiment I have been offering you my artistic services as artist-in-residence for free at your main location Public Library Rotterdam. I was curious to see how far I could come as an individual, frequent user and artist interested in your public and democratic nature, to bring about collaboration. Once in, my plan was to research how we as library members and users can contribute to you and see how we can get a voice in the direction you are taking. In short, I wanted to research your public and democratic nature in collaboration with other users.

At first I contacted someone from your production team who I know via via. I had an informal conversation with him about my idea, followed by a more formal talk with him and his superior. They suggested me to contact the department Programming and Rental - who redirected me to the Department of Marketing and Communication, which whom I met face to face. My proposal didn’t fit as such in any existing departments, which at first I took as a compliment, later it proved to be a disadvantage. After initial enthusiasm the Marketing and Communication department came to the conclusion that they couldn’t facilitate me - a renovation was coming up and a big symposium - they had too much on their hands. Perhaps in the future they wrote.

I still went to see you frequently and on one occasion I spontaneously spoke to a librarian about my ideas and the response I got from your Marketing and Communication department. She told me that she was happy to leave for retirement, and that she thought your managers have little affinity with books and perhaps were afraid of collaborating with me. A couple of weeks later a local newspaper reports on the renovation of the ground floor and announces the arrival of a Starbucks, ‘because for a lot of people it’s an iconic company’ and ‘to attract tourists’. The opening of a bookshop to sell bestsellers was announced as well. It’s becoming clear to me that you are changing your course which likely lead to hefty internal discussions. How would library members think about this issue? Isn't making such a decision a perfect time to consult us?

Starbucks calls a visit their branches ‘the Starbucks Experience’ and in 2018 their policy officially changed and they call themselves a ‘third place’. Customers are no longer obliged to consume to be allowed to sit in a Starbucks branch. This change of policy came after a scandal over the treatment of two Black Americans. One of them had asked if he could use the toilet, he was told that the toilet is only for paying customers. When they sat down to wait for a third person, they were arrested within minutes, as the employee had called the police. Starbucks' response was as follows: racial-bias training for all 175,000 employees of all 8,000 Starbucks in the US. It explains why we no longer have to buy anything and we are still all welcome in Starbucks, also in a Dutch branch. Good intentions or good marketing?

What would your virtual humanist-in-residence Desiderius Erasmus have to say about this? After a cup of Starbucks coffee (or not) the library user may find an answer to this question on the third floor of the Erasmus Experience: a didactic exhibition where digital natives who’ve grown up with and in a neo-liberal world and the sharing economy, are learning about about freedom, moderation and tolerance via a WhatsApping Erasmus - Collect at least three diamonds, open the safe and rate your experience on the happy-or-not column.

Around the same time as the Starbucks branch is announced, there is an article in the British newspaper The Observer about the legacy and 20th anniversary of Naomi Klein's bestseller No Logo (on globalizing markets and super brands 🔍 finds: 5th floor Business Economics and Management 369.1 CLAY). I would like to share an observation from the article with you: ‘(…) Companies are stepping in as the public sphere becomes more and more emaciated by budget cuts. Brands literally fill holes in the road with their logos: In Louisville, Kentucky, Kentucky Fried Chicken has filled in a lot of potholes and stamped them with the text 'Re-freshed by KFC'. A bargain in advertising land: spend $3,000 to fix 350 potholes in town or have to buy 350 ads. ‘We are fortunate to have such an excellent corporate citizen in this community,’ said the mayor of Louisville.’

A city that has its potholes filled by KFC and the public library that has its precious space filled with Starbucks. Is that bad or smart? And what's next?

How can library members and users structurally contribute to the library and, for example, contribute ideas about such issues? A question I would still like to explore with you and other library users.

My offer is still open.

Yours faithfully,

Eva Olthof
library member and fan


27.02.20 First official Covid-19 case in The Netherlands

16.03.20 Intelligent Lockdown
Everyone is advised to stay at home
Schools are closed, childcare is closed, hospitality is closed
All libraries close their doors
Shops stay open
On the news we see long waiting lines in front of building shops and garden centers

Slowly opening out of intelligent lockdown - most things are reopening
A ‘normal’ summer seems on its way
Libraries are reopening and letting users in at low numbers to borrow books only

13.10.20 Partial Lockdown
All restaurants and bars have to close their doors again

03.11.20 Aggravation of Partial Lockdown
Announcement of closure all ‘doorstroom’ locations for 2 weeks - under which libraries fall
reversed for the libraries a day later by a motion in parliament

15.12.20 Severe Lockdown
Everything closes but essential shops (food and pharmacy)
Libraries aren’t seen as essential, nor as shops
Online reservation and take away books services are put in place in some libraries

5 weeks later 20.01.21
Curfew for the first time since WOII

3 weeks later 08.03.21
Non-essential shops are opening on appointment
All libraries remain closed

A month later
Non-essential shops are still open on appointment more people are allowed in, depending on the size of the shop
All libraries remain closed

Curfew is lifted
Non-essential shops are opening but with access for a restricted amount of people
Terraces are opening for a limited amount of hours
All libraries remain closed

Zoos and fair grounds are reopening
To the surprise of many not a word is said about the library

Debate in parliament
A number of politicians manage to draw attention to the closed library
The outgoing Prime Minister gives in and promises to re-open the libraries

Libraries are re-opening after being closed for more than 5 months