Joining the library when you don’t speak the language

after a trip to the library, I dumped the contents of my bag on to the table. Pictured here: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Nikon camera, proofreading pens, Grolsch, sandwich

As I’ve mentioned before, checking out books from the Amsterdam public library isn’t free. Considering how otherwise literate and progressive the Netherlands is (with a few notable exceptions), this came as quite a surprise to me. But, like the efficient and functional infrastructure, the beautiful parks and the low crime rate that we presumably pay for with outrageously high taxes, you can clearly see your dollar – euro – at work at the library.

It’s an enormous and beautiful building, with stunning architecture and a clean, sensible interior. The library offers a ton of programs and activities for adults as well as for kids.

Moreover, I figure €35 a year is less than I’d spend during one trip to the bookstore, so it’s probably to my benefit anyway.

the hastily dumped deposits of my bag included my camera, proofreading pens and my newest library books, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun and Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Beer and sandwich not included in bag...

There are multiple levels of membership that you can sign up for and I opted for a basic leenpaas. The leenpaas entitles me to check out up to 8 things at a time (books, cds, music) and up to 50 things for the year. In addition to the €35 I had to fork over, I also had to bring ID and proof of residence. They didn’t make me sing the first three stanzas of the national anthem, but it feels like that might not be too far off. The woman who processed my membership was very kind and helpful and I was off to browse the stacks in no time.

I’m still committed to learning Dutch, but since I haven’t been taking in-class lessons in quite some time, my reading skills have come to a standstill at a pretty basic “kids section” level. One day I will muster up the courage to check out a Dutch language book written for children (I’ve heard that Polleke by Guus Kuijer is actually very good) but today I headed upstairs to the Engels Romans (English novels) shelves.

When you’re exploring a library in your native language, you take for granted the fact that the catalogue is vast and divided into genres – romance, thriller, classics, contemporary fiction. When the local language isn’t your own, though, everything you could possibly read in the library is a genre unto itself: English.

The English language section at the Amsterdam Central Library is actually fairly large, and there are more academic-ish books in English sprinkled throughout those respective sections (eg thrilling titles like Adobe Photoshop for Dummies or the DSM-IV). The German books are relegated to a single stack wedged into a dusty back corner. It could certainly be worse.

Still, as I pawed through the novels in my own language – Philip Roth mashed in next to JD Robb, Danielle Steel sharing space with John Steinbeck – I couldn’t stop myself from glancing over at the expanse of Dutch novels with serious book envy. If ever there was a motivating drive to improve my Dutch reading skills, I think this might be it.

I selected two books – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – and then prepared to check out. I had been surreptitiously studying the automated uitlenen desk, watching each patron carefully as they went through the process, so that I could then imitate their actions in an attempt to avoid looking like an idiot who has never checked out a book and understands only about 80% of the words on the screen.

I surmised that you first scan your library card and then set your materials to be checked out on the machine’s table, presumably to be weighed or scanned or, I don’t know, maybe they have to sing the anthem too. I stumbled through the touchscreen prompts and after the second attempt, was 90% confident I had done everything correctly.

As I left the library and walked through the anti-theft barriers, I held my breath and timed my exit to coincide exactly with a father and his son. If I fucked up the uitlenen and set off the alarm, I figured at least I’d have company.

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