As of 22 April 2009 this website is 'frozen' in time — see the current IFLA websites

This old website and all of its content will stay on as archive – http://archive.ifla.org

IFLANET home - International Federation of Library 
Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 028-138-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Library History
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 138.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Libraries in Dutch-speaking Belgium

Ludo Simons
Central Library, University of Antwerp
Antwerp, Belgium


Belgium is not very well known abroad, apart from some rather amusing preconceived ideas, and this is true in the field of librarianship as well. Of course, every librarian knows Herman Liebaers, a former IFLA-president, and many librarians abroad will tell you that after the splitting of Louvain University Library volume 1, 3, 5 an so on of the Encyclopaedia Britannica remained in the Flemish university, whereas volume 2, 4, 6 and so on moved with the French-speaking part to a brand new university in Wallonia. This is a tough legend, but, how funny it be, it is not true. The truth about Belgian librarianship is that this country boasts a very rich Royal Library, in Brussels, serving the two parts of the country (e.g. with its legal deposit), some very important university libraries (e.g. Louvain and Ghent in the Flemish part) and an increasing number of well equipped public libraries, mainly in the northern (Flemish) part of the country. Unlike the Walloon part of the country, Flemish librarianship has been strongly influenced by the Dutch example, which for its part was deeply indebted to the Anglo-American 'public library'-idea. The City of Antwerp was one of the pioneers of this same movement in Flanders, and it is still unique in the sense that it has a double set of city library facilities: a very old municipal research library and an important network of public libraries. All these libraries together supply an increasing number of readers with electronic as well as traditional information media and are partners in several European impulse programs for automated access to the entirety of human knowledge


In 1985, browsing in a bookshop near Harvard Square, I found a cheap reprint of The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, which said about my native country that, next to "heavy industry, such as production of steel, chemicals, and petrochemicals," also "the traditional industry of lace-making continues to flourish" and that "virtually the entire population is Roman Catholic." Despite its weight (1.5 kg) I decided to include this work in my luggage and take it back to Belgium, as I could not deny myself a book so full of nostalgic dreams. Alas, or happily, the information this book offered on other subjects turned out to be much more concise and accurate. If I had hoped to read about the Netherlands that "virtually the entire population" walks in clogs, in reality and rightly so I found that "natural gas reserves supply over half of the country's energy needs" and that "natural gas is a major export." Belgium, the great unknown? I am afraid it is.

Is it any different in the field of libraries? I am afraid it is not. The Netherlands are of course, and not just this year, the country of the IFLA, and of the International Federation of Documentation, and if you take a closer look, of the NBLC, the powerful organisation of the Dutch public libraries. And Belgium? Belgium is Herman Liebaers, the former IFLA president, of course, and the university library of Louvain, which burnt down twice, destroyed by German troops in 1914 and 1940, and which has, since then, risen from its ashes as a two-headed phoenix, once in the Flemish town of Louvain itself, where it had all started in 1425, and once again in its French-speaking duplicate, the pioneer town of Louvain-la-Neuve, 25 km further, well into Walloon territory. Indeed, as The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia has it : "A constitutional reform (1971) in effect federalized the country by creating three partially autonomous regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels), but ethnic discord has continued."

Let me try to convince you that Belgium, in the field of libraries, is more than Herman Liebaers and more than a famous centuries-old university library divided according to arbitrary criteria. It will be easier to clear the latter prejudice than the former. Liebaers, omnipresent Head Librarian of the Royal Library, was promoted to Grand Marshal of the King of the Belgians and consequently became even more omnipresent. In his shadow no grass grew, let alone other librarians. That is how he became a legend in his own time. The legend of Louvain is somewhat more fragile: the supposedly age-old library had, as I have already pointed out, been destroyed in 1940, for the second time in twenty-six years, and hence it was a very young if also a very rich library that was divided, in the early seventies, between the Flemish university that remained in Louvain and the new, French-speaking establishment somewhat further south. It was not, as legend has it, divided in such a way that part I of the Britannica went to Louvain-la-Neuve and part II was left in Louvain, but in such manner that the whole Britannica was kept together in one place, because also in Belgium, and in spite of its continuing ethnic discord, an encyclopaedia has only one shelf mark. The outside world does not know this and will believe anything, but librarians know better.

Encyclopaedia writers and journalists not always do, however. In 1983, in a Dutch colleague's Festschrift, I proposed to introduce a legal deposit for both large language communities in our country, the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities, beside the Belgian deposit at the Royal Library in Brussels, just like in all other countries with or even without ethnic and cultural diversity. Soon I received a telephone call from a journalist working for the Dutch weekly Elsevier's , who had heard that I wanted to divide the holdings of the Royal Library in Brussels between the communities according to even and odd numbers, as had happened, according to his sources, when Louvain library was split up. I had to disappoint the man: my proposal was quite innocent in comparison. It left the Royal Library entirely whole, with an important international role, and was confined to supporting both better bibliographical coverage and a physical doubling of our cultural heritage, with beneficial effects for its accessibility and preservation. As a result, there was to be no juicy story about the latest aberrations of Belgian society in this Dutch magazine, and I missed the opportunity to become (almost) as famous abroad as Herman Liebaers was. Granted, on less honourable grounds.

The 1970s of this century changed the face of Belgium dramatically. In a first step towards further devolution, cultural powers - culture in the narrower sense and an important part of education - was transferred from the federal level to the level of the communities, i.e. the Flemish and the French-speaking communities as well as the smaller German region in the Province of Liege, close to the German border. Two out of the four Belgian universities were split up: the Catholic University of Louvain, the oldest and largest in the country, and the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels), its secular counterpart. The universities of Liege and Ghent, both founded by King William I during the short-lived union of Belgium and the Netherlands, after Napoleon's defeat and the Congress of Vienna (1815-1830), remained monolingual: French-speaking in Liege and Dutch-speaking in Ghent. Indeed, they are completely embedded in their homogeneous linguistic territories of Wallonia for Liege and Flanders for Ghent respectively. Moreover, Ghent has only been monolingually Dutch since 1930, as in the first century after the Belgian independence higher education as well as the best part of secondary education and de facto the "higher" forms of expression of society as a whole were almost exclusively French-speaking in Flanders. A series of subsequent language laws, wrested by the dynamism of the so-called Flemish Movement, rectified the situation on the legislative level. The demographic superiority of Flanders, coupled with a shift of the core of economic activity away from Wallonia, with its outdated heavy industry, to Flanders with its flourishing ports and its new industries, eventually brought some balance to Belgium. Anyone who has ever tried balance a sensitive pair of scales knows that just one or two ounces can make all the difference; it is no different with the Belgian equilibrium.

As I have said before, there is no longer a Belgian cultural policy: culture has been transferred to the language communities, and that includes everything relating to libraries. The great lonely stay-behind is the Royal Library, one of ten state-run research institutions (the National Archives are another example). They have not been transferred to the language communities, because they fulfil a national role. The status of these research institutions was less than enviable in the first stages of the nation's devolution; they threatened to fall between two stools and it required a royal commissioner - who else but Herman Liebaers? - to devise a plan for the redefinition of their status. Anyhow, our politicians did not take Liebaers' proposals into account at all; the only result of his intervention was that the ten institutions became the responsibility of just one minister in the federal government, so that the appointment of a cleaning lady no longer required three or four ministerial signatures. In the Royal Library there was a growing awareness that it had better exchange its imposed 'splendid' isolation - which was also cherished by some as a kind of mental defence system - for an active involvement in co-operation with other research libraries, first of all university libraries, in Flanders and in French-speaking Belgium. Now it is doing this with conviction, which is beneficial for all parties. As you may know, the Royal Library is the most important library in the country as far as, for example, Flemish medieval manuscripts are concerned. Moreover, on the basis of its legal deposit it draws up the Belgian Bibliography and as such it is a player in a European network of national libraries. And as long as Belgium exists, there is no reason to change this.

The Flemish university libraries, and the Royal Library in the person of the latter's bilingual Head Librarian, together with several other research libraries and documentation centres, have founded the Flemish Consultation Board for Scientific Library Work (VOWB). Indeed, in these technological times, libraries are increasingly forced to work together, if only to be able to jointly confront the threat from media giants such as the Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer concerns, which in the early months of 1998 could only be refrained by the European Commission from becoming a monopoly in several fields of science and scholarship. In theory, the National Conference of University Head Librarians, where both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking colleagues promote common interests, offers a broader platform in this respect; in practice the dynamism and the cross-sectional desire to co-operate is greater on the Flemish side than on the French-speaking side, so that international developments are more quickly acted upon from within one's own language group than within unitary Belgian structures. Moreover, the prominent Dutch library system has always been a great source of inspiration for Flanders, while French-speaking Belgium together with the Romance language countries in Europe have felt less at home with the mainstream of Anglo-American 'public library' idea, the movement which gave the great impulse for the European as well as the American public libraries of the past century. In this sense, the Germanic-Romance language border which, as you know, runs right through Belgium, has, to a certain extent, also been a dividing line between library views: more progressive views in the North, and more conservative views in the South.

That separate development is most conspicuous in the world of public libraries. Till well into the twentieth century, our public libraries, save for just a few exceptions, had not transcended the status of 'people's libraries', most of them with a catholic, liberal or socialist label. The Destrée law of 1921, which was the first library law to see the light of day in Belgium, created some financial breathing space for these miniature libraries, but also consolidated the existing fragmentation instead of removing it. The pleas for a new and better legislation mostly came from Flemish librarians, but could not be carried through in Belgium, because of, among other things, a lack of cooperation on the French-speaking side. Only when state reforms in 1970 acknowledged the cultural autonomy of the language communities, did it become possible to bring about a proper Flemish library decree, in which the public library idea was given full shape. Since 1978 then, Flanders has realised important projects through the merger of existing institutions, the creation of new libraries, the re-building and refurbishing of existing libraries into an impressive network of public provision of reading materials, including an automated central catalogue and Internet facilities throughout Flanders. In that same year of 1978, a similar decree was issued for French-speaking Belgium, but so far its implementation has led to less spectacular results. It is almost paradoxical that in the Belgian capital, probably 80 % French-speaking, the Flemish public library is the most prominent and can boast an ever growing number of non-Flemish users, including a considerable number of civil servants belonging to European institutions in Brussels.

Ladies and gentlemen, before you speaks a former chairman of the Flemish Consultation Board for Scientific Library Work, who is also the present chairman of the bilingual, unitary Belgian 'National Conference of University Head Librarians'. I have not been able to avoid referring to Belgium, on the eve of the 21st century, as a country where the cultural ties between North and South, certainly on the institutional level, have become rather fragile. This is no reason for exultation and even less for pride. But it would also be foolish to close one's eyes for this bare fact.

As Alvin Toffler already pointed out in 1983, in his book Previews and Premises (p.19-20):

Indeed, Belgium is not the only country where a flourishing nationalism - I am using the word in its neutral etymological meaning - has also left its traces in the library field. I am now referring to the existence of a National Library of Wales and a National Library of Scotland, next to (but not in competition with) the British Library. I am also referring to the status of the Biblioteca de Catalunya in Barcelona, which also houses the Institut Català de Bibliografia, which publishes the Bibliografia Catalana. I am moreover referring to developments in Eastern Europe, where a local association of devotees to the Slovak language, literature and history, founded in 1863, lies at the basis of the Slovak National Library in the town of Martin. This is an impressive institution which, at the time of my visit in 1980, had no fewer than 340 staff members and was already drawing up the Slovak National Bibliography with the aid of a Hewlett-Packard 2100 A. In his memoirs (Mostly in the Line of Duty: Thirty Years with Books, 1980, p.146) Herman Liebaers, too, points to this surge of national movements, which came over Europe in the 19th century. And likewise he was most impressed by the Slovak example:

The Czech Republic and Slovakia have, in the meantime, become independent states, without bloodshed and apparently without too painful an aftermath. In this respect they had it rather easy, because for a long time they had already had two factual capitals, certainly in cultural terms, namely Prague and Bratislava. Belgium has only one capital, Brussels, and this is one of the most important reasons for keeping the country together. Even though the language border, which is a few kilometres to the south of Brussels and divides the country into a northern and southern part, resembles ever more emphatically a border between two different peoples. A famous slogan of the still young Flemish Movement in its romantic stage in the 19th century was: "The language is the whole people". This is inaccurate, of course, but language is an important constituent part of a people. And even though English is increasingly the language that we use to communicate with the whole world - a development that I personally applaud - the fact remains that for the overwhelming majority of people, communication is chiefly aimed at - and often limited to - members of their own language community. For the French-speaking population of Belgium this language community reaches from Brussels to Bordeaux and Marseille, not to Antwerp. For the Flemish, it reaches to Amsterdam and Groningen, not (or no longer) to Liege. Most Flemish novelists have their books published in Amsterdam; nearly seventy per cent of the general books sold through bookshops in Flanders come from the Netherlands. There are no political implications here: there is no movement that would like to see Flanders politically united with the Netherlands. Many centuries of mental separation and diverging social evolution have left too much of a mark for that. For most people, Belgium is simply a reality, which one does not fuss about. But one half of the country is increasingly growing into a terra incognita for the other half.

Does it make sense, in these times of Internet and virtual libraries, to remind people of days gone by, when a book in Slovakian was still a rarity in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and a book in Dutch was a manifestation of the young Flemish Movement in Belgium, while a book in Catalan was an act of insurrection against Spanish authoritarianism? It never hurts, I think, to look at the origins of the obvious realities of today, even if we are now looking at a world which has become a 'global village', thanks to information technology.

With a joint collection of about 20 million books and audio-visual materials, a total of about 50 million loans per year and a participation of nearly 25 per cent out of a total population of 6 million heads, the public libraries in Flanders assume an honourable place in this infrastructure of knowledge. For university libraries, in the view of some, it is increasingly inappropriate to point to impressive numbers of incunabula, rare books, periodical collections and modern holdings, since the notion of 'holdings' is increasingly giving way to the notion of 'access'. Yet certainly not everyone will agree with the nonsensical statement in the Dutch professional journal entitled Informatie Professional (1997/6:14) that "in the future[...] building physical collections in libraries will no longer be necessary, because all (digital) information is in principle directly available, wherever it finds itself"(translation). However, with their - roughly estimated - ten million volumes, the Flemish university libraries are not doing badly, and their participation in Belgian and European automation initiatives, sometimes in co-operation with the Royal Library and with French-speaking sister institutions, proves their technological skills at the service of - indeed - nation-wide and border-crossing information provision.

As you may know, Belgium is the country of Lernout and Hauspie, the speech technology firm based in the Province of West Flanders, lately discovered by Bill Gates and Microsoft, who went on to take an important stake in the company. In an analogy with Silicon Valley, the region has been named the Flanders Language Valley. Our libraries do not yet occupy an equally impressive place in the world, but they are not unimpressive either: We have the Royal Library, four major university libraries, with Louvain in the first place; we have good public libraries, particularly those of the provincial capitals of Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Louvain and Hasselt, as well as a number of special libraries. One of the most remarkable among the latter is the Antwerp City Library, an old municipal institution, whose origin dates back to the late fifteenth century and which still retains its character of 'scholarly library'. As a result, Antwerp is the only city in Flanders that can boast a double set of city library facilities: a very old municipal research library, with rich ancient holdings, among which more than a hundred incunabula; and a network of public libraries, the largest in the country, including a central public library, branch libraries in all parts of the city and two mobile libraries for the remoter areas. Another one of those so-called special libraries, namely a seamen's library, is for obvious reasons also located in Antwerp. Rotterdam may be the larger port, but as an immigrant resident of Antwerp I am proud to say that our library history is longer than that of any town in Holland, including Deventer, which one day claimed to have the oldest municipal library of Western Europe. I was director of the Antwerp City Library at that moment, and told my Dutch colleague that I wouldn't object, provided that he let me the pleasure of boasting the oldest municipal library of the Low Countries. He willingly agreed, as, of course, he had no other choice ...


Archives, libraries and documentation centres in Flanders, in Vlaamse archief-bibliotheek- en documentatiegids 1966-98, Antwerpen, 1996, 26-33