Building a Free Volunteer Library

By Maurice Specht
Maurice Specht's stories

In 2012, when the Dutch city of Rotterdam closed eighteen of its twenty-four library branches, one neighbourhood responded by making its own leeszaal (or “reading room”). They organized a pop-up version in an empty storefront—a local library, more or less—made entirely from donations and volunteer labour. Eight years later, Leeszaal Rotterdam West circulates a collection of over 20,000 books, with 1,000 new volumes coming in each week.

The books, shelves, computers, WiFi, furniture, and storefront are donated; the labour is voluntary; and access is free and open to all. The 100-or-so volunteers who staff it five-days-a week (and many evenings for events—films, concerts, language classes, readings, and more) share authority over everything that’s done there.

At Leeszaal, authority doesn’t rest in a formula of elections, meetings, or committees, but in accepting the actions of each volunteer equally. This is a polity shaped by doing—each volunteer’s labour is their authority. In effect, “the reading room” extends the private habits of reading (curiosity, deference, equality in all conflicts) to guide personal conduct in an active and varied collective, a living polity of literature.

Maurice Specht, one of the founders of Leeszaal Rotterdam West, describes how it works, highlighting four modes of relationship that come up again and again. At Leeszaal, diversity and difference are strengths; homogenization is the enemy. 

“Cooperation is built from the ground up…” at Leeszaal Rotterdam West

1 March, 2022