SCHIPHOL, NETHERLANDS — Peter Rasenberg could not remember the last time he had read a book for pleasure. So it was with some bemusement that the Canadian schoolteacher found himself in an oversized armchair, engrossed in a collection of short stories pulled from the shelf of the library he found here, tucked among the boutiques between passport control and the check-in gate for his flight to Montreal.
“I wouldn’t normally have picked up material like this,” he said, caressing a slim anthology of 20th-century Dutch fiction titled “In Praise of Navigation.” But Mr. Rasenberg, 51, whose Dutch parents emigrated to Ontario after World War II, said the book had stirred an interest in his lowland roots. En route from a two-week visit to Tanzania, Mr. Rasenberg said he had never visited the Netherlands. His four-hour layover at Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam was, for now, the closest he was going to get.
Mr. Rasenberg’s serendipitous discovery of Schiphol’s new Airport Library is precisely the experience that Dick van Tol, the project’s coordinator, said he hoped to engender. Opened with little fanfare over the summer, the library — the first ever at a major international airport — has 1,200 books in more than two dozen languages, all by Dutch authors or on subjects relating to the country’s history and culture.
“There are 18 million passengers a year that only transfer through Schiphol,” about 40 percent of total traffic, said Mr. van Tol, who works for ProBiblio, a nonprofit agency that supports Dutch public libraries. Their layovers, he said, averaged somewhere between five and seven hours. “Most of these people never leave the airport, so they don’t see anything of Holland.”
The first discussions about creating the library began in 2006, at ProBiblio’s offices, which happen to be in the shadow of Europe’s fifth-busiest airport. “We can actually see the planes going up and down,” said Mr. van Tol. The agency presented its proposal a year later to Schiphol’s board and they began working together on the project in 2008, with an initial budget of €250,000.
Between Piers E and F and alongside the airport branch of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the collection is meant to be read on site and left on the shelves for others to browse. The library plans to offer e-books and music by Dutch artists and composers that can be downloaded, free, to a laptop or cellphone. The library also is equipped with nine Apple iPads loaded with multimedia content, including photos and videos, that is likewise devoted to the theme of Dutch culture. A digital guest book invites visitors to jot down their musings or leave messages for wayward companions.
“Has somebody seen Caroline, our beloved friend?” wrote Stone Svensson on Aug. 16. “She missed our flight from Denmark. Please let her know we look forward to see her in Quito.”
The concourse was humming with passengers one afternoon who were either jostling to get to their gates or gliding impassively on a moving walkway. The library was serenely quiet. Several travelers were sprawled out asleep in generously upholstered chairs, giving the un-walled space the air of a college library during finals week. Another used the reading table to tap away at her laptop.
Mr. van Tol seemed bothered that more people weren’t reading: “Maybe we should consider less comfortable furniture.” The library’s iPads were also temporarily out of order: A transiting teenager had managed to disable them while attempting to hack a free connection to the Internet — a service the library does not provide.
Mr. van Tol shrugged that such hiccups were inevitable for a library that employs no permanent staff and whose only effort to discourage theft is a sticker on the cover of each book identifying it as part of the Airport Library collection.
“Trust is the basis of this project,” he said. “We are willing to take the risk of vandalism or that some books will disappear. But we think having security is much more expensive.” Since the airport opened in mid-July, he said, only about a dozen books have been lost. Many more have vanished temporarily, reappearing when travelers passed through the airport on their return journeys.
Beyond promoting Dutch culture, Mr. van Tol said the airport project was part of a broader effort to lure readers back to libraries, which have seen declining attendance in many parts of the world in recent years. In the Netherlands, for example, library circulation dropped by 28 percent to around 113 million volumes in 2008, from 158 million in 1999. Registered users fell nearly 10 percent, to 3.9 million from 4.3 million, over the same period.
“Libraries today are being pushed to think outside of the box” to get their books back in front of readers, Mr. van Tol said. “You have to be brave and take risks.”
Walt Larsen, an American advertising executive on his way home to Minneapolis from a South African safari, conceded that trips to his local library in Minneapolis were no longer part his everyday life. “I frequented libraries a fair bit in the past because I do a lot of research,” said Mr. Larsen, 52. “But now the Internet has replaced most of that.”
ProBiblio has successfully experimented with other innovative library projects with similar aims of expanding readership. Since 2005, it has operated several “beach libraries” in resort towns across the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The libraries operate for around six weeks each summer and have a collective circulation of around 15,000 and registered users number roughly 25,000.
Roberta Stevens, president of the American Library Association in Chicago, praised the Dutch initiative and said she hoped one day to see the idea replicated in the United States and elsewhere.
“We can’t cement ourselves into the past,” Ms. Stevens said. “We have to reflect the changes we see in our societies, and its clear that we are becoming more and more transient.”
Mr. van Tol, meanwhile, is busy trying to complete his next project: a lending library aimed at commuters at the central train station in Haarlem, west of Amsterdam. It is scheduled to open by early 2011.
By NICOLA CLARK
See online: At Schiphol, an Unlikely Sanctuary of Books