As of 22 April 2009 this website is 'frozen' in time — see the current IFLA websites

This old website and all of its content will stay on as archive – http://archive.ifla.org

IFLANET home - International Federation of Library 
Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 139-87-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Division of Libraries Serving the General Public
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 87.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Public Libraries In the Netherlands: Current Situation, Bottlenecks and Perspectives

Leo Popma
Association of Dutch Public Libraries
The Hague, Netherlands


Public libraries in the Netherlands do not essentially differ from those in other countries. The story from a Dutch librarian is not fundamentally different from yours. We have the same mission, the same ideals, and approximately the same ambitions. But the social context, financial and organizational circumstances in which we do our work may be different. And individual genesis may sometimes also explain specific accents in public library work in a country. That makes acquaintance with the library situation in other countries interesting. From that point of view I shall try to give you a rough sketch of the public library situation in the Netherlands this morning, on the basis of the following themes:

Administrative organization

Perhaps you will remember the first line of Caesar's description of the Western corner of the Roman Empire: Gallia divisa est in partes tres. Let me start in the same way. The Netherlands is divided into 12 provinces and about 580 municipalities. The size of the municipalities calculated in inhabitants varies roughly from approximately 7,000 to 700,000. Although for years there has been a development of enlarging the municipalities, some 60% of the municipalities still counts less than 30,000 inhabitants. The total Dutch population amounts to about 15.5 million, including approximately two million allochtonous fellow citizens. The urban areas are mainly found in the western part of our country, and in a few concentrations in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The rural areas with their typical library problems can be mainly found in the north, the eastern part of the Netherlands, the rivers' area and some parts in the south of the Netherlands. Consequently, you will hardly be able to spot a cow during your excursions around Amsterdam. These sociographic differences have been strongly decisive for the organization of library work until these days, as I shall indicate later.

The municipality is the core of our democratic constitutional state in many respects. Particularly in the last decade there was a strong movement of administrative decentralization, from national government to municipalities. This also applies to public library work. The municipality is financially responsible for the local library. About 80% of the finances of the library comes from municipal grants. The other 20% comes from subscription fees and other contributions from the library users or what I call "sponsors" in general. Consequently, the municipality decides for the main part on distribution, quality of the library service, buildings and collection.

The province constitutes the middle administrative layer between municipality and government. Approximately every decade the meaning of the province in the Dutch administrative system is a subject for discussion. For the public library service provincial responsibility is also a subject of study at present. The province is financially responsible for the provincial library centre, a significant supporting and facilitary service for the smaller libraries in the province in particular. I shall come back to this later. Furthermore, the province provides a financial contribution for the collection and the staff of the so-called WSF library (research support library), the central libraryof the provincial (library) network. There are 13 of such provincial central libraries with the assignment to provide for research literature in their region.

Finally, national government. Ten years ago we had a separate Library Law, say from 1975 - 1985. Organization, financing, conditions concerning buildings, staff, opening hours, etc. were centrally organized. Municipalities and provinces played a supplementary role. Since the decentralization in the second half of the eighties the role of the central government strongly decreased. As to public library work it is restricted to financial support of the NBLC Association of Public Libraries and a number of special projects. Important is the financial role of the national governmnt for the libraries for the blind, which are organized independently from the public libraries. Nowadays public libraries form a part of the Law on the specific Culture Policy, but the law means nothing to the library sector as to its content. The 1987 decentralization was for many a librarian something like the Last Judgement. And, of course, it was a big intervention, the consequences of which were hardly calculable. On the one hand it was not so bad. A library is a local service. Municipalities are prepared to spend money on that.

From a point of view of cohesion and quality control at the national level, however, something can be said about the decentralization indeed.

It is notable that in the past two years we have been able to establish that the national government itself has also been looking for possibilities to offer counterbalance. During the past year the information technology and all its social implications have proved the crowbar to regain some of that central direction. Not only our "own" Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has been notably active in this. Other ministries - Foreign Affairs and Economic Affairs - unable to pronounce the word "library" before, are interested in the possibilities of libraries. I shall come back to this.

Organization of the public libraries

This leads me to the organization of Dutch public library work. In a sense it is a derivative of the administrative structure of our country.

You will appreciate that, as a national Association, we like to speak about a national system of public libraries. Notwithstanding that, the local library is independent, has its own policy and is only accountable to its municipal board.

Most libraries are private law institutions with their own boards. The library is part of a municipal organization only in a number of cities.

We know approximately as many library authorities as municipalities, so c. 600. A local library network consists of a central library and one or more branch libraries. On a population of 15,500,000 inhabitants our country counts about 1,150 library buildings. Apart from these some 90 mobile libraries with approximately 2,000 stops provide library service in rural areas and city districts.

With approximately 3,000 service points in total each Dutch citizen has access to the public library network within a distance of 5 to 10 kilometres from his residence.

30% of the Dutch population, c. 4.5 million, is registered as a user, as a borrower from a library. Including incidental use of library services, approximately half the population uses a library now and then. About 175 million loans are processed annually.

Each province has a provincial library centre in one way or another. These centres have a private law type of administration, are not linked to a larger library like in other countries, so they do not serve a public but act as independent support institutions for the libraries in the province.

These institutions were founded around 1960 for the purpose of stimulating and enabling public library service in the country. By concentration of management, professional librarians, acquisition and bibliographical service and logistic support advantages of effectiveness and efficiency could be obtained which also enabled professional library service in smaller municipalities.

Local libraries buy various services from the provincial library centre. The centres in their turn are enabled by the provincial authority to make certain services available free of charge or at low cost.

It can be said that thanks to the provincial library centres and the small size of the country and the large population density the Netherlands has built up a very dense library network.

At a national level two organizations are especially important for the facilitary support of the public libraries.

The NBLC Foundation - not to be confused with the NBLC Association - offers a varied assortment of services to libraries. Central media information, a central review service for the libraries of the entire Dutch annual book production, bibliographical services, an exchange collection service for immigrants, services in the field of reading and book promotion, professional publications and digital services such as the publication of CD ROMs, etc. are the most important services.

We also know the Dutch Library Service (NBD), an organization mainly aimed at the central purchase, binding and supply of books and audiovisual media ready for loan to libraries.

The NBLC Association of Dutch Public Libraries is of course active at a national level. NBLC is an Association of libraries and stands for promotion of interest of its members, for instance in the field of copyright, lending right, contacts with the Association of Dutch Municipalities, and, of course, with the national government, particularly the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. NBLC receives its annual membership fees, but is financially mainly dependent on the Ministry. By order of the department the Association executes an annual programme which is aimed at the promotion of the cohesion, quality and pluriformity of the Dutch public library system. This means that we have a programme in the field of library and education, a programme for the promotion of reading, for the information policy, for immigrants, and for education and additional schooling. We provide a professional biweekly, and have a professional library and information centre available for our members. The Association has an office with 25 full-time staff members, but could not possibly perform its activities without the support of a dozen committees and working groups composed of directors or librarians from the daily work practice.

Contrary to many other countries NBLC is an Association of libraries. Conflict of interests of libraries and library staff in an Association was the reason for splitting up more than twenty years ago. Then it was again decided to establish a separate organization of librarians. The Dutch Association of Librarians is mainly aimed at the discussion and forming of opinion of the professional, and, for that matter, is an association representing all disciplines in the library profession.

NBLC long-range strategy

So far for the rough framework in which the Dutch public library work is performed. More interesting is the question concerning our future.

In the first few years after the decentralization of library work things were as they used to be. After 1990 slow changes occurred, under the influence of the worsening economic circumstances, the international backlog in technological development, the ongoing influx of immigrants, the unemployment percentage, an overheated system of social security, changes in national government financing of municipalities, etc. In bad times administrators know how to find new philosophies about responsibilities of administrations and citizens, about profit and non-profit, and about market mechanisms, also in the field of culture and education. And how profitable they are for all of us.

The same goes for libraries.

They were faced with questions about the spread of branches, the low charge, those ridiculously low charges for people using the local library. And could not children pay anyway for lending books? They also eat chips and sweets and play video games all day long, don't they? And all those fiction books, $reverend Mayor, and pop-music compact discs, should they be subsidized by the community?

Questions like that in councils are not easy to be answered. While they are full of doubt and uncertainty of $local politicians about the library. And the library had to realize that $it is in fact invisible for local administrators.

What are those questions about after all?

They face the library with their role in the community, in education, in cultural participation of citizens. Government, municipalities require something in return for yearly subsidies. It is a question of legitimation and awareness of the rule they have to play in society. It became clear that decentralization had its backside and could lead to disparity.

Libraries constitute a dynamic public service which is constantly required to provide answers to questions from society. It should anticipate constantly changing information needs and changing behavioural patterns of people as to finding a solution to their everyday problems.

A library is a library, whether it is located in Amsterdam or in a small village somewhere in the north of the country. The public asks a question and is entitled to an answer. Decentralization, local autonomy? They are questions in the background and no concern of the public. It should simply be there.

Those common problems and common goals brought Dutch librarians together in 1995, and resulted in a common strategy entitled: "On the way to 2005: strategy of the public libraries in the Netherlands". The plan was endorsed by the members of the Association. It was a plan on national level, on common interests. It intends to support individual local developments, but it will not be the responsibility of any autonomous local public library.

Three main strategic goals were pointed out:

  1. to strengthen the national public library network;
  2. to develop a common market policy;
  3. to innovate library products and services.

National Library Network

The first strategic main line concerns the cohesion and mutual attuning of the library network. The village library serving 4,000 inhabitants cannot offer the same services as the city library with a population of 150,000 can. People should know what they can expect from the library. The librarians in those two libraries have to attune their library policies and agree on what inter- library support they can offer. On a provincial level libraries should work together according to an agreed system of task division and cooperation, in the field of service to schools, specific target groups such as immigrants, information services to citizens and the supply of electronic databanks. In such a provincial and national network there will be complementarity of individual libraries in traditional interlibrary loans and document delivery, but also through mutual assignment of knowledge areas and matching editiorial tasks for Internet services.

In a number of test areas we have so far come to the insight that we shall probably arrive at a classification of three levels: primary service to the public in all libraries, a back-office function at a regional level for school library services, etc., and the central library acting as a back office for the entire province.

The various provincial networks are supported by the national level. Provincial central libraries can also be charged with national support tasks under the authorization of the Association.

Agreements in the national network include agreements on harmonization of user conditions for citizens: for what services an amount is charged, what services are free. Can we achieve the introduction of a national library smart card? In such a plan belong also concepts like search and audit which should lead to the possibility of classification and declassification by the Association of its members. The task division in the system is not based on non-engagement but on contractual agreements.

After two years of experimenting in four regions it must be said that it is a long way to achieve these goals. Yet in a number of test areas initial results of provincial cooperation have been obtained. We shall need the time until 2005 indeed to realize the idea of a national network.

We do realize that such a plan has only a chance for success if the government is behind it. We are in constant consultation with the Association of Dutch Municipalities on this.

The authorities - both national government and provinces and municipalities - have also the feeling that decentralization has its drawbacks and that the various authorities should cooperate more in order to safegard the cohesion and quality of a public service like the library. A request from the Ministry to the Council for Culture, an independent governmental advisory body, to advise on the most desirable administrative structure of public library work is of a very recent date.

Therefore, the governments support the aim of the library sector itself to achieve more mutual attuning, effectiveness and quality. And that is an advantage.

In November this year we shall organize a national conference on the future structure of library work - that is to say the three government levels and we as an Association of libraries.


The second strategic main line aims at a common market policy. Certainly, libraries serve the general public. But what specific target groups can be distinguished to realize our social mission? How and where and with what means do we concentrate on immigrants, school-agers, the elderly, the long-term unemployed, children in the pre-school period? In order to be able to answer these questions the librarian needs instruments to enable him to make the right market mix: for what target group are what library services and what evelopment programmes suitable?

Last year, with the assistance of a university and a consulting agency, we developed a guide enabling the librarian to better define and design his local market policy.

Simultaneously we started an additional schooling programme on library marketing in which great interest is shown everywhere in the country.

For a number of years the Dutch libraries have twice a year jointly organized a promotion campaign around specific themes, such as: nature, travelling, living, the turn of the century. By means of these themes the attention is drawn in all libraries for a week, and the possibilities of the library are highlighted. Often a series of lectures is then organized together with external organizations. Posters and other promotion material is produced centrally and supplied to all libraries.

This year, for the first time we have been able to find sufficient funds to make and broadcast a TV commercial. Last May we have been able to have it broadcasted nearly daily on one of the three public TV channels. In October we hope to repeat that commercial. The message is in so many words: Curious people go to the library. We have found our members of the Association prepared to pay a certain surcharge on the annual contribution. And furthermore we have been able to find sponsors. You must be able to see the commercial here somewhere this week.

These collective campaign activities aim to point out the fantastic possibilities of the libraries to the public in their personal interest and circumstances. Finally, what we're after, to quote the PHILIPS slogan, is: "Let's make things better".


The third strategic main line is aimed at the innovation of library products and services. This mainly concerns digital and electronic services. It is good to stress here once again that every library in the Netherlands, but also in your country, is after improvement of its services and implementation of new media, and that it is active individually. The strategic plan I am telling you about in the Dutch situation respects those local initiatives but aims at stimulating the collective development of the library field.

In the coming autumn we shall start a retrieval system for all libraries on the most interesting Internet sites in various fields of interest. With a short content description about 1,500 sites will be retrieved as a resource in the information service for libraries, but in the library also directly accessible to the public.

For the maintenance and updating of the databank we shall form a decentralized editorial board in which a dozen of large library institutions will be participating for the time being. They will maintain the information area which has been assigned to them. The descriptions and submitted sites will be judged by the editorial board and admitted to the system after authorization. The Dutch libraries have also made cooperative agreements with the libraries in Flanders/Belgium about this. We speak the same Dutch language as you know.

Currently we are active in setting up a databank of so-called abstract books. Secondary school pupils have an enormous need for abstracts from literary books for their final exams. At the end of this year or in the beginning of next year we hope to have the database operational first on CD ROM, later also via Internet. Of course, the big problem in the progress of the initiative is the copyright.

The third joint innovative project is the most radical one, and really a national project. It is a cooperation between national government, in casu the Ministry of the Interior and the NBLC Association of Dutch libraries. For a period of more than two years the public library is mentioned as one of the primary points of public access in all kinds of government memorandums about the electronic highway and its social implications. Libraries have to offer accomodating access to government information via Internet.

After half a year of discussions all Dutch public libraries will be supplied with Internet equipment in a two-year project. An intensive training plan will be set up covering both media skills, area knowledge and didactic skills for librarians. For a national programme of media education expects from the libraries that they show the citizen the ropes on Internet in the form of short courses, and that they instruct them in the use of government information.

The preparatory phase of the project started in June. In the coming half year the national organization of the project will be further worked out, additional schooling programmes will be developed. In the beginning of next year all libraries (to a modest degree) will be supplied with Internet equipment.

The entire project involves the still modest amount of 1 5 million guilders.

Meanwhile for the new period of government (1998-2002) we have submitted, with the support of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, a follow-up plan to obtain funds from the National Action Programme for Electronic Highways (NAP-2).

Current developments

What more is going on in the Dutch library world? The same as anywhere else. We have the same mission, we have the same ideals and about the same ambitions. But in some way or another also the same problems. Cut-backs, closure of branch libraries, cuts in book budgets, etc. For an adult public service which we have meanwhile become this is also included. We should not complain, but fight and convince. That's all in the game. What is really threatening, both for library and citizen, for a democratic society as a whole, is the development in copyright. De draft European guideline on harmonization of copyright makes you afraid and angry. How will that end, how will that make itself felt in our national legislation? Dutch libraries have grown accustomed to quite a few things. Nowadays we contribute 20 million guilders to lending right for the loan of books, audiovisual media and multimedia. Per annum library users pay approximately 50 guilders. Children general still borrow free of charge. That means that every adult person pays ten guilders for lending right annually. The question is whether in the years to come political awareness can be aroused that the free on-site searching of databanks in libraries is a minimum requirement for an informed society. In EBLIDA at the European level, but also at a national level, the library world is active to find a "fair" balance between citizens' rights copyright owners' rights.

In conclusion

And now I shall conclude my speech. The year 2005 is the period of the common long-range strategy of the Dutch Public Libraries. Some developments can be planned, other developments happen to you. It is boiling and bubbling in the Dutch library system. Questions of structure, administrative competencies, technological innovation, copyright uncertainties, commercial information suppliers/publishers will have a strong impact on developments in the years to come. Above all there is the question whether we shall be able to preserve social appreciation of the public library. This asks for strong cohesion, for programmes which are innovative and aimed at society, and professional librarians. That's what the Dutch libraries are working on in their long range strategy. Whether we were successful I shall tell you at IFLA 2005.