It is pleasantly warm in the neighborhood library in Rokkeveen in Zoetermeer. Harold Gemert (67) is sitting behind a computer. It is “not so easy” to study at home, he says. He is doing a correspondence course in English.
A mother with her son enters. “PAY DOWN THE BOOKS,” he spells. A couple tries to make copies of official documents. He struggles with coins, she with the papers.
John Bal enters with a great book about Rome. He’s just been there, „it was on my bucket list. It was now or never. I’m 84, after this it won’t happen anymore,” he says to another man.
Ellen Hogeslag greets a visitor behind the counter. She’s been here since eight o’clock. Not because the library is open then, but to drink coffee with Dick, who teaches gym to the elderly in the adjacent room. “My morning ritual,” she says. She’s been a librarian for forty years, at this library since the neighborhood was built in the 1980s. She knows everyone, and everyone knows her. “When I’m in the city center of Zoetermeer, people wave at me.”
This neighborhood library should have closed. The municipality has had to make cutbacks for years because of the structural financial shortages that arose after government tasks such as youth care were taken over. In 2019, the city council and city council looked at one hundred and twenty ways to cut somewhere. For example, the foundation that manages the library lost 250,000 euros in subsidy. That amount was exactly the rent of the two neighborhood libraries, so the city council suggested closing them. Only the head office in the city center would then remain open, for more than 125,600 inhabitants.
The swimming pool, the sports club or the greenery
Such choices are made all over the country, many municipalities are struggling with structural financial shortages. Sometimes it’s not the library that closes, but the swimming pool. It is the cultural institutions and sports clubs that receive less subsidy. Or the green is only monitored once a month instead of once every two weeks. Provinces, which oversee municipal budgets, warned again this year that many municipalities are delaying the maintenance of roads, bridges and schools.
That may seem like minor inconveniences. But, warn aldermen and councilors, it is precisely the things that make it pleasant to live in a municipality. Which ensure that there is a community.
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When the news that the neighborhood library might be closing reached the residents of Rokkeveen, they revolted, says Kevin de Kok, the library manager. “It is not possible for everyone to go to the city center in the center.” He says: “We are also just a meeting place.”
The foundation that manages the library decided to make the main location in the city center smaller. Workplaces had already been removed during an earlier cutback, says De Kok: “The air had cleared up.” It was decided to dispose of the lower floor. That saves rent. And so the neighborhood library of Rokkeveen could remain open.
Enter without a threshold
“The experience is: if you close something, it won’t come back,” says De Kok, who previously worked for the municipality. “It’s just very difficult to free up or get such a budget at a later time.” And, he says, it is not just about the books or the library, but precisely the meeting function that a neighborhood library has. “The library is one of the last public places where you can enter without any barriers. You are always welcome, nobody has to be a member, you don’t have to buy anything.”
He says: “If you cut us away, you cut everything away.” During the last lockdown, this was “fortunately” also seen nationally, he noticed. In contrast to the first lockdown, the libraries were then allowed to remain open: “When it comes to self-reliance, about loneliness, about helping vulnerable groups, we have a role.”
In Zoetermeer, the organization that includes a number of welfare organizations also had to cut costs: 200,000 euros per year. There too, choices had to be made: the community center functions were centered in six walk-in centers.
In Rokkeveen, the welfare organization moved away from community center De Vlieger, on one side of the sprawling neighbourhood. It is one of those late eighties building with gray bricks, purple doors and frames. Inside, the chairs are stacked, the billiard table is covered. The welfare organization once organized a painting course, tai chi and women’s gym here. They played cards and bridged. There was someone from the elderly care with coffee ready. You can now rent the building if you want to organize something yourself.
A passer-by points to somewhere over the roofs of the flats: all the welfare activities are still there, but elsewhere. For example at the library, on the other side of Rokkeveen. Where, in addition to the room with books, one of the six walk-in centers was built. You can practice yoga there and go to the knitting café once a month. But also get help with debts or when using a tablet. The police officer is sometimes there. Games are ready in a cupboard. There was no room for billiards alone.
Library manager De Kok says that there are plans to turn the library into a House of the Neighborhood. A foundation that helps Zoetermeerders with a language deficiency is already ‘in’. The library is in talks with neighborhood associations and foundations that can no longer go elsewhere. He points around: “As far as I’m concerned, the walls are going away here. Maybe something like a mobile wall, or a curtain. I can imagine that there will be room for amateur theatre.” And yes, maybe also for billiards. “Only yes, then it will be less full of books.”
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