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

A Rotterdam activist tells the story of his neighbourhood’s recent effort to make its own reading room after the local library branch closed.

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. 

*Covid-19 restrictions have impacted Leeszaal in the same ways as they have most public libraries. While open hours and events continue, they’re fewer and more restricted for the duration.

Drawing of the front facade of the Leeszaal building, saying "Welcome" with open arms.

Like most of my neighbours in Rotterdam’s Old West neighbourhood, I treated our local library branch the same way that I did our parks and shopping streets—as a natural feature of a big city neighbourhood. I used the local library, looked forward to my daughter getting to know it, and took for granted the presence of this welcoming public space. Then, a decade ago, the municipality of Rotterdam decided to close it, along with another 17 of the city’s 24 neighbourhood library branches. They cited three factors: library visits had dropped dramatically; people could find their information elsewhere; and the city needed to reduce its costs. All three arguments were open for discussion. With my neighbours, we met and talked and lobbied against the closures, gathering signatures to show support for the Old West library branch. In 2011 we lost the battle. That loss, combined with the community activism spurred by the city’s decision, led two of us, myself and a fellow research-organizer, Joke van der Zwaard, to propose creating something new; not strictly a library, but a public space centred on a collection of books. Leeszaal Rotterdam West (henceforth “Leeszaal,” which translates to “Reading Room”) was created by scores of local volunteers as a neighbourhood gathering place revolving around language, literature, imagination, and participation.

We started the project by going to all kinds of neighbourhood groups, asking two questions: what would your ideal “reading room” look like, and what would you be able to add to the place? This resulted in a long list of ideas and approximately 50 people who were willing to help. With them we made a five-day pop-up festival in 2012, in an empty storefront (a former Turkish bathhouse with about 350 square-metres of space). A group of Somali men offered crucial help, hauling the first 1000 books and all the bookshelves and chairs. We brought in used, long tables (from a former community garden); shelves were built from donated lumber and shipping pallets; and a graphic designer came up with a logo, which we use to this day. The pop-up had over 1000 visitors, most of whom hoped we would stay longer than just a week. Everyone worked very hard; our sweat equity, plus the promise to sustain it, persuaded the building owner to extend a one-month, free tenancy into a multi-year lease, so long as the market stayed stale (a fight we’ve had to wage twice again, as each lease expired). This gave us the basic capital—a space, people, and stuff—to create this new thing: a public, volunteer-run Leeszaal. The upfront cost was 1000 euros, and the rent continues to be free. Leeszaal is not the product of capital venture investors, but of human labour, freely given.

Leeszaal is open five days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The room holds a collection of 20,000 books that we circulate for free to anyone who asks. Add to that computers, Wi-Fi, a variety of chairs and long tables at which to work, read, and talk—all donated. (Imagine taking the best from your local thrift store and putting it to use in a community storefront.) Volunteer-led programs such as Literature Night, Poetry Slam, Puntkomma Music (a program which investigates the relationship between language and music, in relation to a particular theme), movies, theatre, language classes, discussion evenings, and much more give shape to the Leeszaal.

The program is determined and organized by the 100 active Leeszaal volunteers. Most are neighbours, ranging in age from 21 to 82: some have no formal education and some have PhDs; some face financial challenges (or lack housing) while others have stable incomes or are very well off. The volunteers come from different walks of life and very mixed backgrounds. Volunteers (or their parents) come from 23 countries of origin, from Greece to Somalia, Malaysia, Turkey, Rwanda, China, Israel, the EU, and the United States. Many are immigrants and some are asylum seekers, both legal and illegal. Not everyone speaks Dutch, but most are learning it, in part by volunteering at the Leeszaal.

This self-organized public space is an example of what the author of “Potatoes or Rice?“, following Hannah Arendt, calls “a polity”—an active, enduring collectivity of equal persons with divergent goals. “ A polity is born in the decision to leave inequality behind and gather together as equals…. A polity exists only in the doing, in the open-ended enactment of conflict among equals.” Leeszaal functions this way. It is a “public space” in the most basic sense: that is, all people are welcome to be together here. There’s no membership nor any credential needed to visit, use, or become a volunteer at Leeszaal. All enter on equal terms with everyone else. We organize and sustain “plurality,” in Arendt’s sense, not only with the people involved, but with the material resources we’ve gathered. The books (what’s typically referred to as our “collection”) are themselves a “plurality,” consciously brought together, mixed, and made visible, available to all on equal terms. By piling together all this stuff in our open, shared room, we’ve made a kind of material corollary to human plurality: a political space of things and people freely available to one another.

Leeszaal extends the politics of reading and writing—a polity of literature—out from its private origins to shape a living, acting collective that is brought together by our shared stake in Leeszaal. We act toward one another just as the readers of literature do—with curiosity, deference, fellow-feeling, an active interest in difference, and with no recourse to higher authorities. This is what we share. We’re not always friends (although friendships and relationships have formed over time), but we share a common polity within which we act politically.

So how does it work? How do you organize a living, acting collective out of such widely divergent elements? And, once organized and made coherent, how do you keep from becoming a homogenized group? A living polity has to host conflicts that are, at the same time, endurable and allowed to endure. Leeszaal has managed to do so for seven years now. If there is a formula, it is that there is no formula. However, there are recurring ways of doing things, I’ll call them “modes,” that help us to manifest, even celebrate, our differences, while still functioning as a coherent, lasting organization.

Drawing of a small book speaking to their "Mom and Dad" books, saying they want to go to Lesszaal when they grow up.

Labour as Authority1

The group of “Leeszaal volunteers” is just the aggregate of whomever walks through the door and gives their labour. When you arrive and offer to work, the volunteers on duty at the time will ask what you want to do. Those who already do something similar (or maybe just the most talkative and bossy among them) will help you choose by explaining what’s already being done (perhaps adding what they think is not being done enough). They’ll give you “the lay of the land.” No one will tell you what you must do; you choose what you want to do. While almost everyone is happy to serve tea and coffee at the small coffee bar, very few offer to clean the toilets or deal with visitors who misbehave. A lot of unpleasant work must be done; so, when you agree to show up at some regular schedule of hours to, say, help with the tea and coffee, you’ll usually be told that this pleasant duty also includes, say, intervening when visitors misbehave, or maybe one toilet-cleaning per shift. When extra tasks come with duties that you’ve chosen yourself, most people will accept doing them.

The on-duty volunteers who suggest these job descriptions have the authority to do so simply because they are there and they are speaking. Their actions at Leeszaal—as with your or anyone else’s actions—carry equal authority. Conflicts arise, but we’ve found ways to move through them swiftly (see “Everyday Diplomacy,” below). It’s fairly easy in a group this size, with a unified purpose and investment of labour. People like to be agreeable. However, in an active polity agreeability has its own risks. At Leeszaal the risk is best illustrated by the work we do to make a book collection.

By now—late Autumn, 2020—Leeszaal receives around 1,000 books each week. They come from private individuals and, occasionally, from organizations. People find it difficult to throw away books, so rather than doing it themselves, they bring us everything, no matter how outdated, damaged, or difficult to read, and they leave the selection to us. Leeszaal needs to turn this “pile” into a real collection. Luckily, we have volunteers who love to do this. Some have professional backgrounds in bookshops or libraries, and others are just avid readers. Their sense of a “good collection” is various, and not the same as the one you get at a regular library. First, we’re limited to the books that we receive. And second, we respect the choices made by any volunteer who takes on the task of sorting. By putting their labour into the task of sorting, their choices gain authority and shape our collection. No one is in charge of this. It’s accomplished by letting those who ask to do it to go ahead and work. As an active polity, we can’t impose hierarchical authority. Your work is your authority; it is authoritative because you show up and do it.

The risks became clear after seven years of working this way. The volunteer sorters have become better and better at it. They quickly see what will fit and what will not. And here is where it starts to go wrong. Seven years in, the collection is stalling, becoming uniform. By perfecting and systematizing the work that used to be “guess-work,” we naturally began to repeat our choices, multiplying what was already there and further excluding whatever we’re unfamiliar with. Moreover, because the collection is part of what attracts our public, we risk making our public narrower, more “perfected.” Where, at first, the public helped form the collection, now the collection determines the public. Or at least partly.

So, what if we selected our books in a different manner, highlighting different kinds of books, aiming for the unfamiliar? Would we draw in a different crowd, and with them new volunteers who are unlike those working now, and who might further change how we make our collections? These questions (lingering in the back of my mind for a while now) recently became urgent when I found copies of a wonderful Belgian magazine, nY, in the trashcan; they’d been thrown out. nY magazine presents a common problem for our volunteers, being very hard to situate within conventional divisions of interest. It is part sociology, part philosophy, part art, and part poetry. But although nY is not widely known, it was coveted by many who were familiar with it.  It’s the kind of magazine that makes a memorable, unexpected find in a place like Leeszaal. Joke, my co-founder, also told me how she found Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, an absolute modern classic in sociology, in the same trash can, alongside piles of non-Western literature. So maybe the idea of what makes a good collection should be opened up again? Maybe we need a more differentiated group of people looking after the “pile”? But if this is a discussion, who should lead it? Who should be involved, and how do we arrive at answers? It would require intervening in a self-organizing autonomous group that has done a wonderful job for the last seven years. In a polity based on deference and autonomy, as is a polity of literature wherein each person has authority over their own actions and meanings, can there ever be leadership or organization that calls the aggregate results into question? Who has that authority, and how? In the end it fell back on the inarguable authority of labour. I intervened by reaching into the trash can to rescue the issues of nY magazine, while Joke intervened by saving Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

Everyday Diplomacy

As described above, the Leeszaal is run by a very diverse group of people. They have two things in common: they are all volunteers, and they’re all committed to the Leeszaal. While that might not seem like much, combined with what we call “everyday diplomacy”2 it’s enough for a self-organizing group to deal with small and large conflicts. Everyday diplomacy entails trying to deal with our problems (which in any healthy polity will ceaselessly arise) by keeping them light, pragmatic, and concrete. If there is a problem with a particular group, we make sure it’s not talked about in terms of “all the such-and-such are so-and-sos”; we try not to dig for the root of conflicts, but to look for pragmatic solutions. (In searching for the root of a conflict, people often take on more rigid, opposing positions.) Keeping things light—for instance accepting that somebody is irritated without making a drama out of it—helps. And we try to express and engage with conflicts right away, so tensions can’t grow in silence. Everyday diplomacy is a hands-on, light, and active approach to working in a diverse, self-organized group. The habits of everyday diplomacy quickly re-orient the group back to our two fundamental strengths: our equality (we’re all volunteers) and our mutual stake in Leeszaal. Any hierarchy within the Leeszaal isn’t determined by chains of command or pay levels. We’re all equal in that sense. But because Joke and I started it (and we do a lot of work) it’s considerably easier for us to circulate our opinions and to win acceptance for them. Our shared predisposition to avoid conflicts (not by running away from them, but by keeping it light, concrete, and actionable) fosters an environment in which conflicts pop up, but also quickly disappear. Also, because all of the volunteers share a commitment to Leeszaal, we always have a common cause—the survival and thriving of this polity—to unite us. It’s easy to compromise on what you want, or to give up on things working the way you’d prefer, when you trust that everyone supports the same shared goal.

This important node of solidarity is helped by the fact that we differentiate between our agreement that Leeszaal should thrive, and the specific choices we make to realize that goal. For instance, we all share the value of being hospitable to the public, but that means different things for each volunteer or team of volunteers. Some will sit at the front door to welcome visitors and walk around to make conversation; others will wait behind the coffee and tea bar, preparing fresh coffee, and only react if you ask them something. Both are forms of hospitality, each fitting with the ideas and personalities of different volunteers.

Drawing of the letters of the alphabet, with some letters offering opinions in speech bubbles.

Designing Inclusivity

When we started, we aimed to create a public space that would welcome as many different kinds of people as possible. That meant we had to think clearly about the layout of the space. We were lucky to have a voluntary professional interior designer, Ruud Brugghe, who told us to place the bookshelves further to the back, with the seats in the front, near the big windows. He also placed the bookshelves parallel, so that you could look through the whole space when you walked in. This helped turn the space into a hospitable and inviting one. But we also wanted to make it a social space (maybe a “people-oriented space” is more precise). What do we mean by that? A short example can explain this best. After a year or so, a couple of volunteers suggested that we put up signs throughout the space, telling people where they could find particular kinds of books. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a specific category. So, from a functional point of view, the proposal made sense. It’s also something we’re used to seeing in libraries—or at IKEA. And it was exactly this functional element that (according to Joke and me), made a strong argument against doing it. If we put up signs, there would be no need to interact with Leeszaal volunteers, or savvy regulars, to find what you wanted; and so we’d lose the opportunity to have this small conversation. Instead of delegating the “finding” function to written signs, we chose to keep it human. (Moreover, there is an argument for not being able to find whatever you are looking for in a library; the library is the kind of place where you might want to be surprised, encountering a book when looking for something else.) We’ve been very happy without signage.

The same goes for Leeszaal’s few rules: there’s no sign at the door to tell you what you cannot do in the Leeszaal. From time to time, after unexpected conflicts, volunteers will suggest adding warning signs there. But, collectively, we’ve always chosen to have faith that most people know how to behave in a public space. If everyone knows that you shouldn’t litter, be too loud, break stuff, or be rude to the volunteers, what’s the use of putting it into writing? Why repeat, and reify, with a public sign? Those who break these rules will most likely do so anyway.

Even with good faith, there’s no end to the bad behaviors in any real public, and so there’s no end to the debates among Leeszaal volunteers about handling them. One result was that we began putting small placards on each of the tables. These signs have a particular tone—they tell you what you can do at Leeszaal; not what you cannot do. When we started, people were surprised they could just take things for free, and they even felt a bit awkward. To help them get over it, we put signs on the bookshelves saying: “Yes, it is true, you can just take away the books from the Leeszaal!” At Leeszaal you pick the books you want and take them with you; no one registers your “borrowing.” Moreover, we don’t ask you to bring them back. (And thank goodness that most borrowers don’t! If they brought the books back we’d need even more space to house them with all of the new books that are coming in.) This abundance goes against our normal experience of “getting stuff.” In a proprietary economy, you either buy stuff, rent it, lease it, receive it as a gift, or steal it. At Leeszaal these categories don’t apply; you just pick what you want and take it away with you. The larger implications of a “polity of literature” are radical.

Whereas most rules tell you what you can’t do, acting as prohibitions, Leeszaal deploys rules differently. In a sometimes confusing space, where the usual relationships—whose book is this?—no longer function as in most “normal” spaces, such enabling rules can help you find your way. If they don’t exclude you, but instead authorize you to act, rules can help you become a part of the space.

Here a shadow falls: among the public that we manage to “include” there are plenty of thieves. While it’s impossible to steal books from Leeszaal (because no one owns them), we see quite a few (mostly) men taking many more books than they can read (likely without the intention of ever trying). These men come three, four, or even five times a week, taking five to ten books at a time. It’s likely that they will sell what they’ve taken for profit in the second-hand book markets. While they don’t break any rules, this offends the volunteers who’ve given their labour freely to make a collection of free books. It’s as if these books—freed by our interventions—have been kidnapped to be hauled back into the market where a price tag keeps them from reaching all their readers. Should we set up a registration system as a way to counteract this tiny minority of people? Or should we accept it? Having accepted it for many years, Leeszaal volunteers were loathe to set up any registration or tracking. Who would do all that work? But a few decided to confront some of the men with their actions, and to tell them that it goes against the spirit of our work. If these men continue to do it, we can tell them they’re no longer welcome, although that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe the shame of doing something so petty to volunteers who refuse to lose trust will stop them. This is one example of several in which rules, signs, exclusions, and rigidity can creep into the self-organizing principles of Leeszaal. Such changes come about through day-to-day experiences. It’s urgent that we track how to hold on to our original spirit and practice of inclusion, and not slowly fall into the trap of exclusion.

From the start, the Leeszaal wanted to be a public space in the classical sense of the word: a place where people of all backgrounds and walks of life could visit, meet, and find something to their own liking or interest. We knew this meant that we had to work consciously to ensure openness. It’s fairly easy to make a space for people similar to oneself. Too many well-intentioned public spaces quickly turn into parochial domains: places where you’ll find people who dress the same, talk the same, listen to the same music, act the same, etc.—places where you know exactly what to expect and that you’ll fit in. Such familiar spaces inform and shape our identities and sense of belonging. It would have been very easy for the neighbours in Rotterdam’s Old West to make a place dominated by highly educated people looking for a particular co-working and co-organizing vibe around art, social theory, and improv jazz. And although such a project would surely find enough people to get underway, I doubt that it would have ever lasted so long. People “like me” might find commonality in shared knowledge, interests, and skill sets, but that means that we also lack many useful skills, knowledge, and interests. Who would have looked after the collection? Who would have made sure we bought coffee for a low price (a skill our purchaser held because that is how she had to negotiate prices in her private life)? Who would have greeted or watched over the huge diversity of visitors, shelved all the books, and initiated the classes? Who would do the dishes, clean the toilets, make the posters, and organize our program around migration stories?  People saw themselves in the volunteers who actually built Leeszaal, and they came in, feeling welcome. Leeszaal’s differences and diversity are its strength.

With a diverse public, you also draw people who don’t fit in seamlessly. The coming together of different atmospheres creates tension. For instance, Leeszaal sometimes combines rowdy groups of boys, making a lot of noise, looking at porn sites, and provoking each other and the volunteers; groups of men on the autistic spectrum who leave their protected IT work environment to take over Leeszaal’s central table for their lunch hour; and homeless people who are looking for a dry spot and a Wi-Fi connection (and sometimes end up staying the whole day). Most of these groups don’t cause any trouble; they mind their own business. They’re happy to have a chair to sit on where they don’t have to buy anything and won’t be chased away. But the homeless don’t always look clean; some smell or drink; and, as in any population, some have mental health problems. Every now and then things erupt. Leeszaal’s volunteers have learned, over time, how to handle such emergencies; but the real impact is that other visitors begin to shy away from the Leeszaal, because of the people they feel uncomfortable with.

With many different groups, mostly consisting of men, we’ve actively engaged them to help us come up with protocols or some kind of shared understanding. We cannot exclude them. Our polity begins with the choice to be in community with everyone. So we have to figure out the conditions under which each of these groups can be a part of Leeszaal. The younger boys who were disruptive ended up asking us to establish rules and standards. But once we implemented them, most of the boys stopped showing up. It was, apparently, impossible for them to uphold the rules that they’d asked for. With the autistic men, we finally asked them not to sit together as one big group, but to please spread across the Leeszaal. That, together with asking them to contribute their labour by moving stuff from time to time (and giving them a stake and authority in Leeszaal) helped us keep a very friendly agreement for using the space together. With the homeless men, we’re in an ongoing process. At times we feel lost. Among the official institutions that deal with these men, none have ever reached out to help us to react and find a way forward. It took a year and a half to finally find help from a trained support network, primarily through a local church that offers resources and food to the homeless. With their training and extensive experience, they’ve functioned as intermediaries between two worlds—the homeless men and Leeszaal—which led to our volunteers feeling more confident and less threatened whenever things went wrong. Inclusivity is hard work. But the other option—excluding whomever is difficult—would compound the problem. It would kill the public character of the space that we set out to create. With our ambition to be a polity, exclusion became an option of last resort.

Drawing of the earth, with a sign in front of it saying "Rehearsal in progress."

Polity in Doing

Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition locates “politics” in the human capacity for action. Our ability to begin something new—what Arendt calls “natality”—is what makes us human. The extensive, secondary literature on Arendt rarely focuses on the means of sustaining action over time. How do you keep alive what you’ve set in motion, knowing that you can’t control the ways an action will develop (because if you could it wouldn’t have been an action—birthing the hitherto unknown—in the first place)? The author of “Potatoes or Rice?” writes that a “polity exists only in the doing, in the open-ended enactment of conflict among equals,” something Arendt herself hinted at. Leeszaal offers several insights into sustaining actions, revealing what I’ve called useful “modes” of behavior in a permanent and ever-evolving public space, a polity of literature. Labour as authority, everyday diplomacy, designing inclusivity, and the management of colliding atmospheres, are tools we’ve developed over time; we keep using them because they work. Writing about them doesn’t do justice to the reality of doing them. They’re actions, in Arendt’s sense, not concepts or categories. Also, describing them makes us sound more self-assured than we are. There’s always doubt, discussion, and reflection. Doubt should be lived with, inhabited, and not stifled. A polity doesn’t exist on paper and you can’t design it. It is only in the doing that it comes into being (and it disappears when the doing stops, although it will haunt the future in unexpected ways).

I’ve found a useful metaphor for the polity at Leeszaal from a student of Hannah Arendt, the world-renowned sociologist Richard Sennett. In his book, Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, Sennett investigates how we, as social animals, manage to act together. His analysis combines clear conceptual thinking with a grounded understanding of day-to-day practices. While Arendt says a polity is in the doing, Sennett gives a deeper account of the actual “doing.” He focuses on “rehearsal.” Sennett is himself an astute cello player, an experience he draws on to make a distinction between practicing and rehearsing. “Practice” is a solitary activity in which the musician tries to play what is written on the musical score. But it’s in “rehearsal” that the music really comes alive. Rehearsing is a collective effort in which the musicians have to act together in real time to discover what a musical piece should sound like. Rehearsal is doing. Like orchestras, collectives achieve their greatest heights not when one ego sets the tone, nor through subsuming the ego into the larger whole; the first will lead to people walking out, while the inevitable homogeneity of the latter will lead to dull music. Great musical groups, like strong polities, need to come together in action. Our experience at Leeszaal reflects what Sennett called “the most resonant point about artistic cooperation in rehearsal: cooperation is built from the ground up.” Attentiveness to the concrete “other,” the back and forth of people acting together, an endless rehearsal, will birth an enduring polity. Hopefully more and more polities will emerge in which we can rehearse different modes of gathering, acting, and staying together. It might enable us to perform great deeds.

1 In this text I use “labour” in its colloquial sense: the use of our skills and capacities to accomplish or make something that’s desired. It’s very much like what Hannah Arendt calls “work,” and quite unlike what she calls “labour”—the completion of tasks necessary for survival.

2 Specht and Van der Zwaard, De Uitvinding van de Leeszaal, (2015).

Signup for the ArtsEverywhere newsletter

icon-angle icon-bars icon-times