Roman Koot, now librarian of the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet, was determined to study history when he was in the fifth year of secondary school in Tilburg, but his teacher in the final year of his studies put a stop to that. “I just couldn’t get along with the teacher and he couldn’t get along with me. I have to admit that the man certainly made sure I didn’t study history.” Koot immediately puts the influence of his history teacher into perspective: “Of course, there wasn’t a single reason for that choice. I would rather have spent a year travelling. But that wasn’t really what people did back then.”

During that time, Koot read three books a week. And he can prove it, too. In his diary, he recorded exactly which books they were. Koot belonged to ‘that group of people’ who had read everything in the youth section of the library early on. With special permission, he was granted access to the adult section. The library academy was a logical choice for him after grammar school.

Reading habits

Number of book per year: “Last year, I read about 40 books.”

Last book read: Companion Piece by Ali Smith. “It’s a fascinating book. As a reader, you need to stay on your toes. I can’t always follow the main character’s motives right away. I like that.”

Favourite genre: “I don’t think in terms of genres. I don’t know what genre lots of books fit into. I look out for books that get me to read something I don’t know yet. That takes me more towards the psychological novel, although I hate navel-gazing writers. As an art historian, I studied the period between the First and Second World Wars. Writers from that period revive history in their own unique way through their books.”

Primary motivation: “On the website of the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet, I summarised it in one sentence: ‘I look for literature and art that challenges and provides a different perspective on life and the world.’”

Reading lists

At the library academy, he saw that some librarians like lists – of the most important titles or most influential writers, for example – more than reading. Koot also finds lists enjoyable and useful, ‘but it is initially the curiosity about a book that prompts me to read and that led me towards becoming a librarian’. At the academy, he found a deeper understanding of art history, literary studies and a teacher of English and American literature who made the students listen to Bob Dylan’s records for the lyrics, long before Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In his early twenties, Koot became a librarian at the art academy in Den Bosch. After graduating, he went with a friend to use the photocopier at the library academy. “It was free there.” When the director saw them, Koot thought they had been caught in the act, but instead he asked them to apply to the art academy to replace a sick librarian. Both boys applied, and Koot got the job.

The library as an enclave

It was the early eighties and conceptual art was just making its entrance into the art academy. This suited Koot well: “I thought art should involve more than just a good reproduction on canvas.” The library also had a special function within the organisation. “Today’s MeToo complaints were very much the order of the day back then. Lecturers entered into relationships with students or addressed them harshly in front of the class for not experimenting enough, or too much. The library was an enclave for students, a refuge.” At that point, the internet had not yet come along. Students got their information from the library’s books or from Koot’s own videotapes of art documentaries.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

In 1986, Koot bought the book If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. “The book addresses the reader directly.” Koot opens the book and reads out the first sentence: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.” That sentence is already a strange alienation technique, according to Koot. “I almost begin to remember that when I first read this sentence, I thought: I won’t be here for the next few hours.” The book is experimental and contains stories that are unfinished. Between the stories, it discusses reading and writing, language and the way in which literature is created. “This book confirmed the idea that it is the writer’s imagination that determines good literature. And of course, it also has to be well written!”

And imagination is exactly what literature is all about for Koot, he says during the conversation. Literature also plays the additional role of giving us new perspectives on life and the world. Later, he emailed a quote from Renate Dorrestein: “Literature brings us something that psychology cannot do, sociology cannot do, journalism cannot do: the ability to see inside the characters’ heads, to become part of their dilemmas and, in doing so, to step into their shoes. Literature helps us to identify with others and also to understand ourselves.”

(Art) historian

Koot has read many books since then. His curiosity has not diminished as a result. He is a reader and has known all his life that he is a reader, not a writer. Even at the art academy, he never dreamed of becoming an artist. “Don’t put a brush in my hand. I’ve always enjoyed understanding and articulating what an artist is doing.”

This led him to study art history in the evenings when he worked at the art academy. This was followed by jobs at the Centraal Museum and the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History. For a long time, this allowed him to express his fascination with how the world works and which traces play a role in it. In his own words, it is the history side of being an art historian that is most important. “Of course, I should have studied history in the first place.”

With the heritage collection of the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet, history is never far away. As a librarian, Koot buys all the non-fiction books for the library but keeps his personal preferences for his leisure time. “I can’t buy a book and then borrow it myself before anyone else. The books at the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet are for the members.”

The Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet is located in the University Library and has a large heritage collection, plus current fiction and titles in the areas of history, art, philosophy and many other subjects. Roman Koot has been librarian at the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet since 2017. He is also the curator of special collections and academic heritage of the Erasmus University Library. In Leiden, he studied Art History, after which he was a subject specialist at the Literature Library of Utrecht University and head of Library and Archives at the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.

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