Yolan has worked in the library for more than forty years: ‘Books don’t die out’

No university without support staff. Univers is looking for the people who have kept the university running for thirty, sometimes even forty years. Yolan de Vries-Boekhorst has worked at the library for 41 years. “During the corona pandemic, we decided to clean all the shelves in the library. We have been working on it for a year.”

Yolanda de Vries. Picture Ton Toeten

Index cards, microfiche, slides, cassette tapes, video tapes, floppy disks and CD-ROMs: Yolan de Vries-Boekhorst has seen them all over the past 41 years. But: “They have all disappeared. The only thing left is the book, which is not extinct yet”, she concludes with visible satisfaction.

De Vries-Boekhorst (1958), educated at the library school, started in 1981 as a reading room manager in the library at the Faculty of Theology at Academielaan. “It was a big room full of books. There were index cards on the pages, because each book had a card by author name, title and subject, so you could search it in different ways. It was really a different time: there were no computers yet. When a book was lent, a card went into the lending box, which I put in four weeks later. That way I could see on the correct date which books needed to be returned. Of the books that were not returned, I kept the cards. The borrower was then given a handwritten card with a notice that there was a fine of a quarter. Then it was hoped that the book would come back.”

Monastery collections

“As I worked longer at the library, I became well acquainted with theology. I knew what subjects and streams there were, and if someone had a question, I could just go to the right book. Among other things, the Faculty of Theology has bought a monastery 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 then it went into the monastery library. These collections are a treat.” However, Yolan does not have a favorite book. “But Pomology by Johann Hermann Knoop from 1758 I think it is a very nice book. Knoop describes how ‘apples and pears’ grow and has illustrated it beautifully.” Sometimes she finds a surprise in a book: “Old postcards, the order list and the bill that Mr. Reverend had open in the wine shop and recently a dried flower.”

The most modern library in Europe

The building of the current university library was opened in 1992 and was the most modern library in Europe at the time. “People from different countries came to see what it looked like here,” says Yolan, now somewhat surprised. “Before that, each faculty had its own library. In addition, there was one central library, which was located in the Cobbenhagen building, where the canteen is now.” The Faculty of Theology’s library first moved to the library building around 2005. Yolan moved along and started working behind the counter.

Time consuming work

“My work consisted of helping people, but also doing a lot of administration. For example, you had the interlibrary loan (ILL), which allowed us to request books that we did not have ourselves from another library. And it was a bit of a hassle,” she says with a laugh. “I used paper with two copies for it, so I had one copy. Still on a mechanical typewriter, not an electric one, I processed the request. The notes went to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague, because there they had an overview and could see if a book was, for example, in Maastricht, Groningen or Nijmegen. They could then look up a catalog to see if they actually had a book and if it was not on loan, missing or unavailable for loan. If they could not deliver, the request would go through the mail to the next library. After a while the request, with or without a book, came back to us. It was very time-consuming work. All the things that you can now arrange with the push of a button used to cost an awful lot to type, write and call.”

Fifteen thousand magazine subscriptions

Meanwhile, Yolan has no longer worked behind the desk for fifteen years, but as the coordinator of the three repositories that the university has. The largest is on the ground floor of the library. “This really is my baby,” she says proudly. “When I started at the depots, they were neglected warehouses. Together with my colleague, who unfortunately passed away, I handled those stocks well. Fortunately, I have been given enough tasks in recent years, because I no longer have enough work in the warehouses. I pick up and put away books, but that has dropped drastically in recent years, especially when it comes to magazines. When I first started at the depot, we went to the warehouse three times a day to pick up six boxes full of magazines. The students have really been waiting for this. Then they stood impatiently at the counter: “Are the leaves here yet?” At that time we subscribed to about eleven thousand paper magazines. Thanks to digitization, there are about four hundred left.”

Always cold

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

Huge cloud of dust

During the corona period, the library building was closed for a number of weeks. “My colleagues and I had basically nothing to do as a result. So we decided to clean all the bookshelves in the library. It was a huge cloud of dust, because the permanent cleaners can 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. In the end there were two of us left, together we finished it. One hour every day: Take out all the books, clean the shelves and vacuum all those books. We ended up working on it for a year.”

Change comes naturally

In three years, Yolan will be 67 and retire. “Then it was nice,” she says firmly. “I’ve always had a good time here.” Nor did she need to look for change. “If you stay in one place for forty years, the changes will come naturally. And a lot has changed here. For example, I experienced the automation of the library. For that, I had to learn new things all the time, adapt and do my work different.” Not only is her work different, the library also looks different: “There are now gates, there are security guards and room attendants, and students have to eat at the computer, which was not the case in the past. Students are generally more self-aware than when I started at university, and a little more impatient: What I want today, I actually wanted yesterday, that kind of attitude.” They also leave a lot of junk in the library. “Pizza and coffee cups, e.g. In the cupboards we sometimes find moldy sandwiches, but also telephones and laptops that are no longer collected.”

Forty years of service

She says that the best thing about her work is the course Collection Management, which she followed from 2014 to 2017 in Amsterdam. “I was trained there as a conservation officer and learned to handle cultural heritage. I now have a lot more knowledge about what material is sensitive to, about damage and what you need to be aware of, such as temperature and mold. During that course I visited, among other things, the Rijksmuseum’s depot, which was very special,” she beams. “My work at the Faculty of Theology has also left me with friendships. Contact with colleagues is an important part of my work. Last year, three team members celebrated 40 years of service at the same time. We celebrated that together.”


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