Culture, Heritage and Diversity


A library to Foster Intercultural Learning in Amsterdam (the Netherlands)


The OBA (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam) is Amsterdam's main public library situated on the Oosterdokseiland, branded an 'island of knowledge'. The building, opened on 7 July 2007, was designed by noted Dutch architect Jo Coenen. Its modern and striking look perfectly fits into a bold area renovation project carried out by a multinational team of architects. The project aims at creating 200,000 metres of modern architecture on the island, mixing cultural (the library and a conservatory), business (a conference hall and an Asian trade centre) and residential elements, ranging from 24 to 47 metres high.


The OBA library positions itself as an "open house to all who hunger knowledge and recreation" and a provider of the right to information enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is part of the library's purpose to make this right a reality and thus contribute to a democratic and humane society.


The OBA Library as Part of Amsterdamís Knowledge Landscape

At 28,000 square metres spread over 10 levels, the OBA is the largest public library in Europe and an excellent spot to spend a couple of hours. It is open 7 days a week from 10 in the morning till 10 at night and, thanks to its central location, receives 2.5 million visitors a year and around 7,000 visitors per day. The library offers access to a large selection of Dutch and international literature, press and study materials for an annual fee no higher than 50 Euros. Young customers of up to 19 years old are offered free membership. There are over 1,300 seats spread all over the building, including 600 computer and internet points and 50 multimedia workplaces. The library has 7 education and meeting rooms with the capacity to receive up to 75 people. Six smaller OBA library branches are scattered around the city.


The OBA library is not only an information hub, but also a centre of communication, education and culture, as well as a meeting place for the community. As such, the library plays a central role for the migrant communities present in Amsterdam, where European and non-European migrant population make up 14.9% and 34.9% of the city population respectively1. The libraryís role a as a knowledge provider is even more important given that half of young city dwellers currently have a non-Western migrant background2. Furthermore, the fact that the cityís integration budget will most probably be subject to severe cuts in the years to come cannot but add to increased expectations and demand on behalf of the stakeholders.


In Immersion Language Learning at the "Dutch Square"

The OBA library decided to tackle the above issues proactively, namely by offering facilities for learning the Dutch language to a variety of audiences. This is done through the NL--Plein (Dutch Square) project supported by the municipality.


The NL-Plein corner is located on the library premises. It provides a variety of study materials on the Dutch culture and language, such as books and CD-ROMs, which are classified by topic: reading (levels 1 to 3), listening, looking, grammar, the Netherlands and things to know. The Dutch Square is equipped with "language" computers with software enabling visitors to practice their language skills individually or in a group. In addition, for group classes school teachers or language volunteers can book one of the education rooms. It is important that access to the NL-Plein is free of charge for both students and tutors.


One of the language and cultural sights of the library is its Storytelling Wall, a wall-like setting consisting of computers, touch screens and sound showers and decorated with cultural exhibits representing Amsterdamís diverse population (e.g., a Moroccan tajine). To improve the command of Dutch or just out of curiosity, one can watch and listen to hundreds of folktales from all over the world, short stories from different city districts and tales about the history of the city and its inhabitants. Employees of the library take care of renewing the stories database on a regular basis.


According to the director of the Library, Mr Hans van Velzen, the NL-Plein project has been marked by success, in particular among the migrant communities. Migrant families encourage their children, especially girls, to go and study in the library due to its convenient opening hours and safe environment. The customers are eager to consult the library 330 staff, composed by one-third of people with a migrant background.


Outreach and Partnerships

To reach out to a larger audience in its promotion of language training, the OBA library cooperates with two television channels, the Education Television Centre (ETV) and the Amsterdam Local Television (AT 5). The ETV specialises in broadcasting courses and now runs around 110 programmes dedicated to language, work, society, health and education. As a result of cooperation between the ETV and the OBA library, a project called Eaten en Weten (Know What You Eat) was designed and is now being televised. Another partner of the OBA Library, the AT5, is crucial in terms of its outreach potential since it covers the whole Amsterdam Region and has privileged relations with local newspapers and the national television. As a result of cooperation between the AT5 and the OBA library, a televised project called Lekker Bezig (Tasteful in Action) has been successfully launched.


A Step towards Intercultural Learning

Considering the above initiatives, one cannot but note that the language training proposed by the library, namely through the NL-Plein project, remains focused on learning Dutch by migrants as a way to successful integration. However, there are other considerations in an intercultural approach to language, especially in cities with a large migrant population like Amsterdam. Thus, from the intercultural viewpoint, there is significance in the extent to which the majority are prepared to adopt migrant or minority languages.


Therefore, the OBA library would only benefit from broadening its approach to language training by giving visibility and recognition to migrant languages in addition to Dutch and encouraging mutual learning across language divides.


To find out more about the OBA Library, please consult


Christina Baglai


1. According to official statistics, Dutch natives account for 50.1% of Amsterdamís population. Taken together, migrants from Morocco, Suriname, Turkey and Antilleans/Arubans, make up 24.8% of the city population. "Amsterdam in cijfers" (Amsterdam in Figures), 2010, available on:

2. Idem