Flanerie Archive: KITLV Reading Room

Closing Soon - small

Objects are agents; they shape the way humans interact with their environment. Latour explores the idea of the human and the non-human mixing together from the starting point of a sign hanging on a door in a sociology department in Washington. The sign reads, “the door-closer is on strike, for God’s sake, keep the door closed” (Latour/Jim Johnson 1988, p.298).

The KITLV Reading Room will be closed on 1st July 2014. The books from the KITLV collection will still be available, but, will need to be picked up from the Leiden University Library on the Witte Singel. The distance is probably only some two hundred meters. The Leiden University library – generally abbreviated as UB – is comfortable: there is an area for reading newspapers, many computers, many shared tables, many tables face outwards onto the canal. The first floor (i.e. upstairs) has  many different rooms for studying; it’s almost labyrinthine.  There is an easily accessible cafe. There are vending machines for chocolates, snacks and drinks. Seemingly, all that is lost is the reading room itself. But, half of the KITLV library’s staff are losing their jobs. Others will work at the UB.

Seeing the above pictured sign makes me think of Latour’s article. Beneath the statement regarding the closure of the KITLV reading room is a letter from Assoc.Prof. William Frederick of Ohio University. The letter recounts his time using the KITLV reading room and the pleasure he had there: reading the archives and books on Indonesia, doing his writing, no doubt. Perhaps much of this writing was done by hand. When scholars such as Frederick and others started visiting KITLV in Leiden there was no doubt a non-negotiable necessity in being there. The photographs, in the very least, wouldn’t have been able to accessed through the internet and mischievously downloaded as low-resolution files. Below is Assoc.Prof.Frederick’s latter.


These days researchers visit the library and document the manuscripts and rare artifacts using their digital cameras. Researchers spread out their antiquated documents and slowly, patiently photograph these documents with their high resolution cameras. So quickly technologies change. These are documents that can’t be removed from the reading room; their use is permitted only in front of the librarians desk and with the wearing of white gloves. Researching, increasingly limited to the sensory limitations of computer screen and keyboard (and occasional fieldwork) here enjoys the pleasures of paper, the smells from centuries past. In another section, there is a rack of Indonesian language newspapers. They arrive more or less a week after their publication, wrapped in plastic and waiting for consumption on one of the reading tables. There is a pile of books being given away. The remainders of academic work; seriously un-read work. A computer is used to display the audio visual archive of the Recording the Future project. It is used sometimes. A cabinet holds a small exhibition of selected artifacts: inclusive of one from the history of the reading room itself.

Journal Shelves - small

Although the reading room is closing, access to the collection will remain. What is lost is the pleasures of being in the reading room. The reading room is located opposite the Lipsius building and next to one of the encircling canals of Leiden town. From one section of the specifically Malay archival reading room, one can look out onto a basketball court, one of the canons (perhaps the Spaniards are still coming) and the potentially gezellig cafe, De Groot Beer. The reading room is rarely noisy; although when potential candidates for PhD programs come as part of Leiden’s sandwich programs, the room(s) do become a little more crowded.

For me, the archetypal memory of the reading room is seeing Kees van Dijk seated at one of the desks reading and making notes. He’s tall and in his suit – I wonder if it is always the same suit, or if he has a few on rotation. I look at Prof.van Dijk’s profile on the KITLV website and see that he has been with KITLV since finishing his PhD. Perhaps this type of career used to be more easily achieved.  Staying in one location, having a fulfilling career, working hard, not being troubled by having to move or to look elsewhere for a new job. The KITLV library is also perhaps intoxicating: once one gets tuned into its collection, one book leads to another, to a photograph, to a DVD (more recently), to a manuscript, going back further into time, spreading out more generally in terms of geography. Seeing Kees van Dijk in the KITLV is an exemplary vision of scholar in action: patiently, slowly reading. Perhaps he’s been using this library for 40 years. I think of Pramoedya’s phrase, ‘now that is all gone’.

Frequently, I’ve borrowed books and have felt like their first reader. Their spines are un-wrinkled, their pages not showing the slightest trace of having been studied thoroughly. These books will be available across the canal, but, the familiarity of being handed the books over by Rini, or Sven will have been lost. No longer will one have to walk through the double, heavy, clumsy doors by which some of the KITLV smoke anachronistically. The hours are short – a strict 9 to 5 – but that’s part  of its charm. The staff have their lives too, and one should go home and spend time with one’s family, as is inculcated as being a part of Dutch culture.

Part of what is being lost is a sense of exclusivity for researchers of Indonesia, in particular. Visiting researchers will be diffused and absorbed into the more general areas of study – across at the UB or perhaps anonymously in the Lipsius cafe. The reading room serves as a de facto office for visiting researchers. And, as a space that intensifies the possibilities for engaging with researchers who may only be passing through Leiden – expressly for the KITLV – for a few days. Many of the qualities of Leiden seem anachronistic, slow and a little old fashioned. It seems unfitting that this room is being closed down for the sake of economic rationalisation. As Assoc.Prof.Frederick says in his letter by the entrance, perhaps more could have been done to resist its closure.

The photocopied sign indicating the reading room’s closure is pinned up on the noticeboard next to the entrance. The bland statement of a formality engenders further letters and regretful conversations. The reading room, to borrow an expression from Indonesian, is already smelling of the earth.


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