IJburg Public Library: the “experimenting library”

2014 – The IJburg public library is an ‘experimenting library’: especially focused on innovation. The library has recently been opened (March 2014), and it has five employees and one branch manager. This library has a different working method than other library branches of the OBA (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam; Amsterdam Public Library). 

Motive and Goal

In order to continue to survive as a library In the current zeitgeist, libraries need to critically contemplate on their own role and change if useful. The library is an easily accessible meeting place, where anyone can have freely access to and gain knowledge  For example, there are assimilation courses for immigrants, book clubs for people who have difficulty with reading or book clubs for youth. Computers are available and there are employees to support and help people who have questions This library is founded with the goal to experiment as a library and to shape the new role of the library. To reach these goals, more involvement from local residents, and doing research in what ways the library can support and work together with the neighborhood are critical. Indeed, this library focuses not only on lending out books but also on  working together with the neighbourhood.  A special focus lies in engaging children to come visit the library in order to stimulate language development. For instance, an initiative of an employee was to start a book group with 12 year old youths because this target group easily drops out when it comes to reading. In collaborations with schools, the library researches how it can reinforce the schools in the field of learning language skills. 

Workplace Innovation

In the IJburg library, all employees provide input to and shape the management. Indeed, all activities are designed and developed by the employees while in other branches of the library this is mostly done by the branch manager. The manager of the IJburg library trusts that employees are capable of deciding themselves whether an activity is viable. Furthermore the employees have a say in the strategy of this library. Consequently, the decision-making is decentralized, so that there is more space for inputs from all employees, and not only from the manager. Additionally there is an emphasis on professional development and learning from each other. Employees introduce each other to topics in which they are experts and which can be important for the library, such as awareness on how to use new media tools. Finally, the emphasis of the library is on co-creation: activities are developed as much as possible in cooperation with other local organizations and local inhabitants. This cooperation occurs on the basis of mutual help. 


Once every six weeks there is a team meeting in which employees evaluate the situation of the library, discuss bottlenecks and propose suggestions for them. An employee proposes for instance to share knowledge about reading tips for elderly people. This way, everyone in the team contributes knowledge and learns from one another.

For internal communication in the team, an employee has opened a ‘Yammer platform’. There was a need among employees to be informed and to stay informed, also on days in which they were not working. When employees start work again, after a period of absence, they are up-to-date due to Yammer.

Next to the official budget, the IJburg library has extra budget to experiment. The Amsterdam public library is subsidized by the municipality of Amsterdam. At the same time, Amsterdam public library has gotten the instruction from the municipality to partly pay their own expenses. This is done by reducing costs, for example by trying to reduce the hiring of external services and by organizing activities in which the library receives a small  payment. Accordingly this has two consequences: on the one hand ideas will be developed into activities bottom-up. Consequently, employees  undertake a wider range of tasks, which previously would have been executed by external service providers. On the other hand employees will research collaboration with local organisations and residents more. 

Ideas from bottom up

If an employee has an idea for an activity, its development is first discussed with other employees. When the activity leads to direct costs, this will first be discussed with the manager. This means that all team members can freely give input for activities. If further support is needed, the team can turn to the Amsterdam public library’s innovation- or education team for help.

Employees’ ideas have developed into activities, such as, a book market (children selling their own books in the library), a tablet-cafe (monthly workshops on a regular basis, with coffee and tablets, where local residents can help one another how to deal with tablets), and a baby cafe (a meeting space for parents with newborns where they can learn how to read aloud.

Employees do not only set up activities but also have a say in the strategy. An initiative from employees to transform the library from a branch with an emphasis on youth into a complete youth branch, six months after the opening, is accepted and will be implemented soon. Books for adults will still be available but they have to be ordered online and can be picked up within 24 hours. With this change, coordinated with the manager, the employees believe that it suffices more to the needs of the neighborhood. There live around 21.000 inhabitants in IJburg, of which 10.000 are children. 


Many activities have been develop thanks to ‘’co-creation’’: cooperation with other local organizations and/or local residents. One of the employees has received special time to talk to local organisations, to explore possibilities for cooperation and to figure out how cooperation would take place. Cooperation can take place on the basis of reciprocal help. In other cases the library rents out it’s location to groups for a small reimbursement, for instance for tutoring and homework assistance. Either way, the library becomes a meeting place in the neighborhood and other organisations can find a space (the library) to promote themselves.

An example of cooperating with other organisations for the well-being of the neighborhood, is the ‘flex-library’, an initiative of volunteers. People can bring their own books to the flex-library and lend other people’s books there. IJburg public library coordinates with the ‘flex-library’ to prevent the possibility of the same type of activities taking place in both libraries. Furthermore, the public library will refer adults to the ‘flex-library’ if they want to lend a book directly.

Another example is the cooperation with a theater group, based in IJburg. There are talks about reading a book aloud, in the library and then to turn it into a play. Possibly to be performed in the theater.

Local residents are also involved in the library’s activities, and they forward proposals for cooperation. This is in accordance with the philosophy of the library to be open for ideas from outside the organization. Some ideas from local residents which have led to activities are organizing weekly movie screenings and playstation tournaments for children. The library also joined the “benches collective”, a local initiative of a resident, who figured out with a library employee how to give further form to his idea. This led to the instalment of a bench outside the library, where books are read to children with lemonade and something sweet. Also, one night, the library has hosted a meeting of local residents. With 80 residents, initiatives which residents wanted to start in the neighborhood, were discussed or evaluated. 


The library has only recently opened (March 2014) and can show already positive results. Considering the size of the library, it is a small library, but considering the amount of visitors and the amount of books being lend the library is equal to that of a middle-sized library. This can partly be accounted for due to the high need for a ‘professional’ library in IJburg. IJburg houses around 21.000 inhabitants, of which 10.000 are children. At the same time the library has an enthusiastic team of employees who are involved and want to make the best out of the library.

Furthermore, as above mentioned, many activities are made possible by co-creating with other organizations and local residents. This cooperation makes sure that activities meet the needs and desire of the local population. In this way the library makes sure that it remains of significance in the life of the local inhabitants and especially in that of the children. An interviewed employee, confirms this: these activities are a success and the organizations and individuals that collaborate with the library are also enthusiastic. Nevertheless, it currently appears that it is easier to collaborate with other organizations than to involve individual citizens in the development of activities.

Concluding, it can be said that employees have an entrepreneurial mindset, they experience a high degree of team cohesion and take responsibility. Since employees have to take on many diverse and challenging tasks they learn to be flexible and to take on different roles. This way their innovative abilities are used and enlarged. 

Sector: Public sector

Source: cases

Theme:dynamic management & leadership, collaboration with ext. partners, intrapreneurship