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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > July/August 2011

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Dutch Partners Create Unique Library and Score Worldwide Media Coverage
by Kathy Dempsey
Schiphol Airport Library - click for full-size image
Click for full-size image
Princess Laurentien agreed to speak at Airport Library’s opening, ensuring lots of media coverage.
Click for full-size image
This sign welcomes visitors and explains what the area is (and is not) for. The space and collections are not tightly controlled and aren’t usually staffed, yet they operate smoothly.
[Photo by Michael Dempsey]
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The Airport Library, with its towering shelves, sits just outside the Rijksmuseum.
[Photo by Sander Stoepker]
If you want the media to cover a library’s grand opening, have a princess as one of your guest speakers. Dick van Tol did, and it worked brilliantly.

This is not a fairy tale. And the princess was quite real. No, it wasn’t Kate Middleton, who recently became Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. This one was Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, who spoke at the opening ceremony of the Airport Library in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Dick van Tol, who headed the whole Airport Library project, invited her for a few reasons, not the least of which was this: The media always follows the royal family. Having a member at your event guarantees coverage.

But how did van Tol land a royal, and how much media attention did he get? Further, why is there a library in an airport?

A Project Built on Partnerships

Anyone who flies knows that you can spend hour upon hour in an airport. Anyone who knows the Dutch knows that they’ve always been innovators. Much of their thinking is pretty “outside the box” to an American like me, and many things in the Netherlands work well because of that. If you’ve ever been through Schiphol (pronounced SKIP-ul) Airport, you’ve experienced Dutch design and efficiency. I’ve long found its operations to be smoother than those in any of the other airports I’ve used. And yet, in summer 2010, this already-amazing place started offering yet another amenity: the world’s first library in an airport.

This unique library was built on a foundation of strong partnerships, and at the helm is ProBiblio, a Dutch library service organization. I had heard about the library on National Public Radio, and one of the many things I wondered was how it got so much publicity so far away. Happily, this spring I was going to speak at an ebook conference in the Netherlands, so I sent some emails and arranged to interview van Tol, program manager, concept development at ProBiblio, at Schiphol to learn more. What I heard was a tale of serious collaboration, strong determination, and fearless innovation.

First, it helps to understand two facts:

  • Schiphol is a major international hub where 18 million passengers have hours-long layovers every year.

  • When the Dutch see an opportunity to improve on a space, they find ways to do it.

It was clear that there was a need to occupy visitors at Schiphol. Even though the airport already had many shops and amenities, most activities there cost money. Airports often see a traveler as “a walking wallet,” van Tol said, so there was a need for not-for-profit activities and therefore an opportunity for a library.

In late 2006, ProBiblio and its main partners, the Netherlands Organisation for Public Libraries and the public libraries of cities Amsterdam, Haarlemmermeer, and Delft, began planning. As their vision became clear, they had an architect draw schematics of a library space in order to share the concepts and to convince other organizations and funders to join them. The initial cost to get those drawings was between €3,000 (about $4,336 U.S.) and €4,000 (about 5,781 U.S.), and van Tol said that they were the group’s most important tool because people often have trouble getting on board with projects that they can’t visualize well. The second essential element for success was having a knowledgeable, enthusiastic presenter who could convey the importance, excitement, and possibilities. (That was van Tol.)

A clear vision is essential for any major project. The goals of building Airport Library set the stage for its future success and provided a platform that other partners could stand on. Dick van Tol shared these four founding goals:

1. To promote Dutch culture

2. To showcase Dutch libraries internationally

3. To improve the image of Dutch libraries as brave and modern

4. To cooperate with Schiphol in giving visitors a pleasant way to spend their layover time

When you have a great plan but little funding, what do you do? You look for partners who share the same goals. First, ProBiblio and van Tol needed to convince Schiphol’s management about the value of a library. They already had the support of the Rijksmuseum’s small branch in the airport, which thought a library would make a good neighbor. The architectural drawings and a short, lively presentation got the project “off the ground,” so to speak. The next job was to win over the proper national agency, which in this case was the country’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Other organizations joined after that. “The power of the idea” was what convinced them, van Tol explained. In fact, every agency he asked to join said yes, even those that don’t cooperate with traditional libraries. They all wanted to be a part of something fresh and impressive that would enable people from across the globe to understand and appreciate the Netherlands’ proud culture.

Here’s another key to this project’s success: The organizations are not just partners in name; they make substantial contributions. Each cultural agency, such as the Dutch Music Center, the Van Gogh Museum, and the National Archive, “arranges for” its own part of the collections. Take the books, for example. There are almost 1,200 books in 30 languages and they all relate to Dutch history, design, music, literature, etc. Some are photo books, some are kids’ books, and many are fiction books from Dutch authors that have been translated into other languages. One partner, the Dutch Fund for Literature, donated this whole collection. Other arts’ foundations contributed their parts of the collection, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science contributed funds, and Schiphol management donated ad space inside the airport.

By the way, none of these materials circulate; they’re simply available to fill travelers’ time on-site. All materials are short enough to be used in a few hours.

So, Airport Library came to be ( There was a “soft opening” on July 15, 2010, and then the grand opening on Aug. 25 (the one graced by the princess). It’s located in the international transfers area, between Passport Control and the boarding gates. It’s part of a large area called Holland Boulevard, which includes restaurants, Dutch shops, baby care and children’s play areas, and storefronts that represent famous attractions and museums. It operates 24/7, yet it’s only staffed by volunteers for 2 or 3 hours a day. (No cost here—workers from the nearby Rijksmuseum shop come out to tidy up twice a day, and retired ProBiblio staff stop in for an hour or two to do whatever needs doing.)

In addition to the books, the library also boasts seven high-tech chairs where visitors can listen to any of the 75 pieces of music or watch some of the 50 videos about the country’s culture. There’s no online catalog to search; everything is just out and open to discovery. There are nine public-access computers (secured iPads, actually) that visitors can use to see the collection, but they don’t allow for web surfing, email, or other personal functions. The library doesn’t offer Wi-Fi because Schiphol already provides free wireless throughout the airport.

Media Coverage, Publicity, and Advertising

By the time it opened, Airport Library was already a well-known project. So when van Tol invited dignitaries like Princess Laurentien, the governor of the province of North-Holland, the mayor of Haarlemmermeer (the community where Schiphol is located), ministry directors, and others, they were happy to appear.

Interestingly, van Tol says he did not formulate a full media strategy. The power of the idea, the interesting contradictions of a library/airport partnership, and the unique way that this would promote Holland and its culture were draw enough. Being able to say that this was “the world’s first library in an airport” also carried weight. While he did send a press release to the Dutch media, van Tol didn’t initially seek international attention, but word sure did get out. The worldwide media buzz included coverage in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, a brief mention and photo in USA TODAY’s Airport Check-In column, and many more spots. In fact, van Tol informed me that there were at least 600 articles in newspapers, magazines, and online in at least 35 countries during 2010. And in 2011, there have already been 100 more. Then there are the numerous blog posts and Flickr pictures …

Promoting inside the airport, however, is a different story. There’s not much reason to reach out to the masses when only ticketed passengers can access Airport Library, but the partners do want to tell travelers about it. This is, in part, because it’s a cultural showcase meant to encourage people to see the Netherlands as a destination and to stimulate interest in its culture, even for those who cannot visit in person.

So to drive people to the library, Schiphol’s management gave €60,000 (about $86,722 U.S.) worth of advertisements. (It has since added another €10,000, or about $14,454 U.S.) Some ads are on the Departure Hall screens that show flight times; they are part of changing messages that scroll across the bottom of those often-viewed screens. The text gives the location, name, and tagline: “Airport Library: Ready for take-off.” The tagline is not only a play on flight-related words but also on the word “Read.” In strategic areas, there are other digital signs that promote the library and point the way to it.

Usage Measurements and Guest Comments

Evaluating a unique service like this can be tricky. ProBiblio has done two things. First, it has tracked usage. Between July and December 2010, the library served about 100,000 visitors, and it logged 93,500 hits on its iPad stations and 3,700 webpage views. (If you read Dutch, you’ll find more data in Airport Library’s annual report for that period:

Second, it has provided that old standby, the guest book. This one is electronic, of course. Many of its comments show real excitement and gratitude:

“The airport library is a great idea!!! It is extremely useful for occupying passengers who are on transfer flights. ... The literature is interesting and informative. ... Makes you feel like you’ve seen a little bit of Holland without actually stepping out of the airport.”

“... It stands out from other airports ... I won’t forget this airport, simply because of this great feature.”

Another essential evaluative measure is asking whether a project’s original goals have been met. In this case, clearly, they have been. Those who have seen the actual space have been exposed to Dutch culture and libraries, and thousands more have learned about it from the media buzz. The many social media posts and guest book comments attest to the fact that Schiphol stays are even more pleasant now.

Clearly, Airport Library is succeeding in its efforts to be entertaining and enlightening. It has the blessings of a real princess. Its founders are pleased but not complacent. (In May, they added a small exposition of materials from the Anne Frank House and have plans to change topics quarterly.) All in all, it’s a wonderful example of how people from many agencies can work together to meet needs, to try brave new things, and to make a real difference in people’s lives.

A Sampling of the Global Media Coverage

(Everything except the last item is in English.)

The World (Public Radio International): “The Library at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol” (Read an article, download an MP3, or watch a 4-minute video of Dick van Tol recommending three favorite books.)

This Week In Libraries: “TWIL #19: Dick van Tol (Schiphol Airport Library) and Kai Ekholm (National Librarian of Finland)”
(Video interview on a Dutch “internet TV show” for librarians)

Deutsche Welle: “Schiphol’s Airport Library Takes Off” (5-minute audio interview from German broadcast company),,6254754,00.html

The New York Times: “At Schiphol, an Unlikely Sanctuary of Books” (Includes praise from ALA president Roberta Stevens)

The Moodie “Ambitious Holland Boulevard Lends Strong Dutch Sense of Place” (Features lots of photos of entire Boulevard area)

Jetsetta travel site: “Amsterdam Schiphol’s Airport Library”

AOL Travel site Gadling: “Schiphol Opens World’s First Airport Library”

INNOTOUR: “Airport Library Schiphol” (Site for “the field of tourism innovation” from the University of Southern Denmark)

PPE Agency: Official press photos of the princess from the grand opening (This one shows her handwritten message to passengers.)

Informatie Professional: “Prinses Laurentien opent luchthavenbibliotheek op Schiphol” (Yes, this one is from the Dutch magazine Information Professional.)

Kathy Dempsey is the editor of Marketing Library Services. Her email address is
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