Face behind the frontdoor: Het Damesleesmuseum

For this article I had a nice talk with Areke Plesman (chairman of the Board) and Miriam van Zutphen (member of the Board), who both work as volunteers in a very special library.

Damesleesmuseum (reading museum for ladies) is one of the largest private museums in The Netherlands; it was founded in 1894. In 1893, at the initiative of the Bienfait sisters, twelve young women founded the reading group Mei 1893 “for the benefit of the intellectual education of ladies in The Hague”. As more ladies became interested the group became a “reading museum”, a fashionable counterpart of the Maatschappij tot Nut van ’t Algemene (society for public utility) which served to benefit the common citizen. Ladies were not welcome in libraries for gentlemen. Therefore the reading museum, in those days another word for library, met a need. Since 1950 the Damesleesmuseum resides at Nassauplein number 15.

Mrs Plesman told me that there are now about 550 members and since 1974 membership is open to gentlemen. “Long live the emancipation! However, the number of gentleman members is small, most of them are husbands of our female members.
“We have over 33.000 books. The collection exists of Dutch, French, English and German books. Every month about 25 newly published books are added to it: ten titles in Dutch, ten in English, two in French and 2 in German. Mainly fiction but also books on history, nature, travels and biographies.”
Each book first comes on approval and is read by two ladies of the reading committee. When they do not agree and cannot come to a decision the book is read and judged by a third person. Only after that it is definitively bought. So it is possible that a very popular book by a well-known writer will not be bought.

“We really are a ‘museum’ “,  said Mrs Van Zutphen, “because books are hardly every disposed of. In our archives you will find a great number of old publications and first editions. Our reading museum gives a good picture of the history of the emancipation of women. What did they purchase over the years? What were they interested in?
“When a book is approved of it will be bought, it gets a barcode and is platicized. We get no subsidy, so all the work is done by volunteers (49 ladies and 1 gentleman!). Not only should they love reading, they should also be able to work with the computer,” Mrs Plesman said. “The registration of lending and returning is done digitally – how else. Therefore 80 years old is our age limit for the volunteers. Apart from all these activities we serve the visitors a cup of tea or coffee.

“We purchase one copy of each book and as soon as they have arrived the new books are open to perusal, here on the table. Members can state which book they are interested in and they receive a ticket with a number. They can then borrow the book when it is their turn. On the table is also a notebook for wishes in which members can write the titles of books they would like us to purchase. We take that into account.

“We have a social function,” Mrs Plesman said. “Our reading table with Dutch and foreign magazines is very populair. On Saturdays a great number of ladies come here to read a magazine, have a chat with the other ladies and enjoy a cup of coffee. Our members, who have to become a member of the Vereniging Damesleesmuseum, come from this neighbourhood, but also from Voorburg and Wassenaar. We are certainly not a library for ‘Haagse Dametjes (ladies typical for The Hague) as people often think, we are here for ordinary people who love to read.”

Are you interested? Pop in at Nassauplein 15.  Opening hours are: Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10.00 – 16.30 hrs.
You can register via a registration form that can be obtained at the reading museum. Introduction by two members is required or one can have an interview with one of the members of the Board.

11 April 2014, Josephine de Vijlder (MM)