Yolan has worked in the library for more than 40 years: ‘Books don’t go out of use’

Yolan has worked in the library for more than 40 years: ‘Books don’t go out of use’

Without support staff, there is no university. Univers goes in search of the people who make sure the university continues to function for thirty, sometimes even 40 years. Yolan de Vries-Boekhorst has worked in the library for 41 years. “During the coronavirus pandemic, we decided to clean all the bookcases in the library. We spent a year doing that.”

Yolan de Vries. Beeld Ton Toemen

Card files, microfiche, slides, cassette recorder tapes, videotapes, floppy disks, and CD-ROMs: Yolan de Vries-Boekhorst has seen them all over the past 41 years. But: “They all disappeared. The only thing that remained is the book, which has not gone out of use yet,” she concludes with visible satisfaction.

De Vries-Boekhorst (1958), educated at library school, began working as a reading room manager in the library of the Theological Faculty on Academielaan in 1981. “That was a big room full of books. On the sides were card indexes, as each book had a card by author name, title, and subject, so you could search for it in different ways. It was really a different time: computers weren’t available yet. When a book was loaned, a card would go in the loaner’s bin that I put on four weeks later. That way I could see on the correct date which books were due. Of the books that were not returned, I kept the cards. The borrower then received a handwritten card at home saying there was a 25-cent fine on it. Then all we could do was hope that the book would be returned.”

Monastic Collections

“As I worked in the library longer, I became very familiar with theology. I knew what topics and movements there were, and if someone had a question, I could walk straight to the right book. Among other things, the Theological Faculty acquired a monastic collection. These are very extensive collections because fathers were not allowed to own property. So if they wanted to read about something, they bought a book, and it then went into the monastic library. Those collections are a candy store.” However, Yolan does not have a favorite book. “But I think Pomologia by Johann Hermann Knoop from 1758 is a very beautiful book. Knoop describes how ‘apples and pears’ grow and has illustrated it beautifully.” Occasionally she discovers a surprise in a book: “Old postcards, the order list and the bill Mr. Pastor still hadn’t paid at the liquor store, and most recently a dried flower.”

Most modern library in Europe

The current university library building opened in 1992 and, at the time, was the most modern library in Europe. “From different countries people came to see what it looked like here,” Yolan now says somewhat amazed. “Before that, each School had its own little library. In addition, there was one central library, which was situated in the Cobbenhagen Building where the cafeteria is now.” The Theological Faculty’s library didn’t move into the library building until around 2005. Yolan moved as well and started working behind the front desk.

Time-consuming work

“My job consisted of helping people but also a lot of record keeping. For example, you had the inter-library loan, which allowed us to request books we didn’t have ourselves from another library. And that was quite a hassle,” she says, laughing. “I used paper with two carbon copies for that so that I had a copy. Still on a mechanical typewriter, not an electric one, I processed the request. The bills went to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, because there they had an overview and could see whether a book was in Maastricht, Groningen, or Nijmegen, for example. They could then look up in a catalog whether they actually had books and whether it was available, lost, or not possible to loan. If they could not supply it, the request went on by mail to the next library. After a time, the request, with or without a book, came back to us. It was very time-consuming work. All those things you take care of now with the push of a button, back then it took an awful lot of writing, typing, and calling.”

Fifteen thousand magazine subscriptions

Meanwhile, Yolan has not worked behind the desk for fifteen years, but as coordinator of the university’s three repositories. The largest is on the first floor of the library. “This is really my baby,” she says proudly. “When I started at the depots, they were neglected warehouses. Together with my colleague, who unfortunately passed away, I did a good job of tackling those warehouses. Fortunately, enough tasks have been assigned to me in recent years because I no longer have enough work on the warehouses. I pick up books and put them away, but that has decreased tremendously in recent years, especially when it comes to magazines. When I just started at the depot, we went to the warehouse three times a day to pick up six crates full of magazines. Students were really waiting for that. Then they would stand at the counter impatiently: “Are the magazines here yet?” Back then, we had subscriptions to about eleven thousand paper magazines. Because of digitalization, there are about four hundred of them left.”

Always cold

Yolan still enjoys walking through the warehouses. “I enjoy those rows of old, rare, and precious books and all those cabinets filled from top to bottom.” But she no longer smells the slightly musty, sour smell of sometimes centuries old books: “I’ve become immune to that, I guess.” She is also used to the air-conditioned temperature in the depot. “It’s always cold here, so the books are kept in the best possible condition.”

Huge dust cloud

During the coronavirus period, the library building was closed for several weeks. “My colleagues and I had almost nothing to do as a result. So we decided to clean all the bookcases in the library. There was a huge cloud of dust because the regular cleaners are allowed to clean around the books, but they are not allowed to move the collection. We started the job with the whole team, but gradually more and more people dropped out. Finally two of us were left; together we finished it. An hour every day: taking out all the books, cleaning the shelves and vacuuming all those books. We ended up working on that for a year.”

Change comes naturally 

In three years, Yolan will turn 67 and retire. “And that’s enough,” she says with determination. “I’ve always liked it here.” Nor did she feel the need to seek change. “If you stay somewhere for forty years, changes come naturally. And plenty has changed here. For example, I went through the automation of the library. Because of that, I had to keep learning new things, adapting, and doing my job differently.” Not only is her job different, but the library also looks different, too: “There are gates now, there are security guards and ushers, and students are allowed to eat at the computer, which was not the case before. Students are generally more self-conscious than when I started at the university and a bit more impatient: what I want today, I actually wanted yesterday, such an attitude.” They also leave a lot of junk in the library. “Pieces of pizza and coffee cups, for example. In the lockers we sometimes find moldy sandwiches, as well as phones and laptops that are no longer picked up.”

Forty years of service

She calls the most enjoyable part of her job the Collection Management course she took in Amsterdam from 2014 to 2017. “I was trained there as a conservation officer and learned how to deal with cultural heritage. I now have much more knowledge about the sensitivity of the material, about damages and what you have to watch out for, such as temperature and mold. During that course I visited the Rijksmuseum depot, among other things, which was very special,” she says, beaming. “From my work at the Theological Faculty, I have also made friends. I consider the contact with colleagues to be an important aspect of my work. Last year, three of our team members celebrated forty years of service at the same time. We celebrated that together.”

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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