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IFLANET home - International Federation of Library 
Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

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


Code Number: 053-138-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Library History
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 138.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No
Arranged for translation into:   English   French   Spanish   German   Russian

A brief overview of Dutch library history

Paul Schneiders
Bussum, Netherlands


Dutch library history encompasses a millenium and begins with the medieval church and cloister libraries. These were closed during the Reformation, whereupon publicly-accessible municipal research libraries were formed in the large towns and cities. University libraries grew on the model of German university libraries. Popular libraries were also founded by the Society for the General Good. In l798 Louis Napoleon founded the Royal Library, the Dutch national library, during the occupation of the Netherlands by the French. England and the United States were the models for the development of public librarianship in the nineteenth century, which went through a peculiarly Dutch period of "denominational segregation" in the first half of the twentieth century. The war years were characterized by collaboration in the public library domain and in the loss of some important research collections to Germany. In the l960s The Netherlands began to apply information technology in scholarly and then public libraries, culminating in the formation of an electronic utility for Dutch libraries, PICA.


This short paper will attempt to give the broad outlines of library history in The Netherlands. I will try to highlight that which is specific to my country. Every country has library-historical peculiarities - The Netherlands included. Last year my Dutch Library History: From Cloister Collections to the Virtual Library appeared, a book of 350 pages which includes an English summary at the end, courtesy of Dr. Pamela Spence Richards. Although it is an excellent summary, for which I am grateful, it is too detailed to read here; and besides, I want to stress for you only that which is peculiarly Dutch.

The Netherlands formerly included parts of present-day Belgium, specifically Flanders. You will hear about the library history of this region from my colleague Ludo Simons. I will restrict myself to the present-day Netherlands, excluding the former colonies and I will address only publicly-accessible collections, not private libraries.

Dutch library history covers about a thousand years and begins with medieval cloister and church libraries. The Middle Ages was a time when the cloister libraries were closely associated with the cloister scriptoria - the copying rooms. And just to make medieval history relevant to the present, let me point out that now, 500 years later, we see university libraries beginning to be active as publishers. Is it possible to speak of a revival of the medieval scriptorium in the form of an electronic scriptorium? But now, back to history.

We have in our country a few authentic, surviving late-medieval libraries, such as the church library in Zutphen. To be sure, this dates from the l6th century, but is modeled on the medieval cloister library. In Enkhuizen there still exists a very pretty late-medieval church book room.

Just as in other countries where the Lutheran and Calvin Reformation became dominant, like in Germany and England, cloister libraries were shut down in the first half of the sixteenth century Their collections were either plundered, confiscated or sold at auction. A part of these old collections were incorporated into the libraries newly founded by the municipal authorities in such cities as Amsterdam, Alkmaar, and Haarlem. These municipal collections were given the name bibliotheca publica, public library. The name is misleading because in actuality only a part of the population - the literate elite - had access. They were really museum-like depositories and were regarded as part of the cultural decoration of the city. They had no formal budgets or collection development policies. Decades would go by without their being new acquisitions, which generally came through random bequests and donations. These municipal collections - frequently established with great enthusiasm - were in reality dusty museums in which few citizens took interest.

The university libraries had quite a different history. Leiden is the oldest Dutch university library. The university itself was founded in l575, the library l2 years later. The university libraries regularly bought up the collections of deceased professors. Students frequently had no access t university libraries, which were primarily intended to serve the faculty, and then only as a supplement to their own private home libraries. The printed catalog of Leiden university library is apparently the world's first printed catalog from a non-private library. Moreover, one of its purposes was clearly to stimulate future donations, since the catalog contained a list of past benefactors.

The Republic of the United Netherlands (l579-l795) was a bourgeois state run by influential city-dwellers, especially merchants. Because of their Calvinist beliefs, the members of this prosperous ruling class lived relatively austerely; thus Netherlands library history does not offer examples of splendid baroque castle libraries such as are found in other European countries.

In the l8th century reading became more popular in Europe, and there appeared in The Netherlands, as in other European countries and North America, four new library types: the commercial rental library; the subscription library, where the haute-bourgeoisie could read books and journals. This type spawned a sub-variation: the specialized subscription libraries for such groups as medical doctors and lawyers. These libraries made it clear that the dusty old municipal libraries had totally lost their relevance to contemporary needs - the call for current literature and for magazines and journals in the vernacular.

I must name two other new types of libraries that emerged in the l8th century - the Age of Enlightenment. Under the general rubric of "social uplift" the Society for the General Good began at the end of the century to establish publicly-accessible libraries. These were small collections, mostly not more than a thousand books and principally books from which readers could learn something like the virtues of thrift and clean living. These libraries were aimed at simple folk and were run by volunteers, mainly teachers. Soon there were several hundred in the Netherlands - in the cities, but especially in rural villages. They were usually only open in winter - in "reading season" - and then for one evening or afternoon per week. They had no reading room. Although their number of readers were limited, these little libraries played nonetheless an important role in popular education. The Society for the General Good also functioned as a publisher of educational literature, founded savings banks and schools. One could say that this Society pioneered in the area of popular education.

The fourth type of library that emerged in The Netherlands in the eighteenth century was the national library. Under the influence of the French Revolution, there occurred here in l795 the bloodless, so-called "Velvet Revolution". In imitation of France the Dutch national assembly decided to establish a National Library in l798 - two hundred years ago exactly. This is why the Royal Library in the Hague, our national library, has organized a splendid bicentennial exhibition in Amsterdam. I heartily recommend a visit . Another French-inspired initiative was the founding of the library of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, founded by the brother of Napoleon, Louis Napoleon, who was king here around l8l0. Louis Napoleon also strongly supported the national library. It probably does not occur too often in cultural history that a country's occupying despot is spoken of sympathetically by citizens of the occupied land, but this is such a case, for Louis Napoleon has a place of honor in Dutch library history.

From my account it is clear that Dutch library history has experienced fruitful nourishment from abroad. Is that actually not the case in all countries? France's influence in the Netherlands is hardly evident in the nineteenth century, when the influence from two other countries - England and Germany - supplant it. To begin with Germany: specifically the university library at Göttingen was seen in the Netherlands as the paragon of breadth of collection, organization and cataloging to be imitated. Many Dutch research collections, specifically the university libraries, constructed their systematic catalogs on the German university library example.

England and, to a lesser extent the United States, has been the inspiration of the Dutch public library. The British Public Library Act of l850 attracted much attention here, and voices were raised to establish publicly-supported libraries in the Netherlands as well. This only came to pass a few decades later: the first public libraries opened in the Netherlands at the end of the nineteenth century: Utrecht in l892, Dordrecht in l899, quickly followed by more. In contrast to the libraries of the Society for the General Good, the public libraries aimed at being libraries for every citizen, regardless of gender, class or religion. Moreover, there was a strong emphasis placed on the professional training of the librarian, as opposed to the volunteers in the earlier libraries. Furthermore, the public libraries all had reading rooms for visitors.

The early advocates of the Dutch public library movement envisioned one public library for each town's citizens - that was their ideal. This ideal was not realized. Now we come to a typical Dutch phenomenon of the first half of this century - denominational segregation. This means that social life, especially politics and education, was based on religion. Thus Protestant political parties were separate from Catholic political parties, as were Catholic and Protestant schools, unions and all manner of clubs from soccer to dancing classes to Boy Scout troops. Dutch denominational segregation was a unique phenomenon in the world.

Thus there came to be three sorts of public libraries, all three subsidized by the authorities - the secular, the Roman Catholic, and the Orthodox Protestant. In some cities one found examples of all three; although there was absolutely no cooperation between them. On the national level there emerged another typically Dutch phenomenon, namely a strong centralization of public libraries. Under the supervision of the government, the so-called Central Association administered Dutch libraries. The Central Association divided up the state subsidies and watched over the moral content of the collections. Public libraries had to send their catalogs for approval to the Central Association. In the l930s one can speak of a sort of moral censorship of public libraries whereby the Association watched vigilantly to prevent anything slightly offensive getting into the collections, particularly in the area of sexuality.

In contrast to the public libraries, the research libraries were not nationally coordinated and were in fact independent institutions. One of the consequences of the public libraries' centralized administration was to facilitate censorship under the Nazi occupation. In the years l940-l945 the Nazis were able to force the Dutch public libraries to withdraw about l0% of their books from circulation as offensive to the occupiers. Moreover, Jews were dismissed from library service and Jewish citizens were denied the use of the collections, like in Germany. There were random incidents of protest, but because the number of users of public libraries had grown enormously in the war years - in lieu of any other recreational possibilities - the libraries stayed open. We must alas admit that Dutch libraries accommodated themselves very easily to Nazi regulations. Research libraries had fewer problems with the Germans than the public, but some Jewish research collections, such as the superb Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana wer removed from Amsterdam to Germany. The same thing was true of another famed collection, that of the International Institute for Social History, also pillaged by the Einsatz Rosenberg, but also eventually returned.

Another interesting fact from the war years is the flowering of special libraries and documentation. World War II, as a "scientists' war", stimulated the growth of these branches of the information profession. During the war, in l94l, the special librarians organized themselves professionally, but, differently from in the United States, they remained part of the general Dutch library association. Documentation had formerly mean primarily the advocacy of the use of the Universal Decimal Classification system (UDC). In the Netherlands the use of the UDC was widespread in special libraries. One of the consequences is that The Netherlands played a leading role in the maintenance and editing of the UDC . The secretariat of the INTERNATIONAL Federation of Documentation (FID) moved to The Hague. Because a series of Dutchmen served as secretary general of IFLA, The Netherlands played an important role in the development of international relations in librarianship. 50 years ago that post was occupied by Sevensma, after the war successively Margreet Wijnstroom, Paul Nauta and his successor Leo Voogt. FID and IFLA are both located in the Royal Library building in The Hague.

In library history there have been two distinct revolutions - the first 450 years ago with the invention of printing, and the second, in which we are still involved -began in the l960s with the development of electronic information technology. In regard to Dutch public libraries the l960s brought in another revolution. I have already spoken to you about the denominational segregation in Dutch public libraries. This segregation disappeared in the l960s, the result being that, with the disappearance of denominational libraries the secular public library moved into a monopoly position. This monopoly was strengthened by the fact that two old rivals of the public library withdrew from the competition, namely the popular libraries and the rental libraries. Thus we see an enormous growth of public libraries from the l960s on. For a half century they had had no more than about 6% of the inhabitants of their communities as members, but the percent began to rise in the l960s and now about 25% of the Dutch population are public library members.

I will limit myself to only a few remarks on the stormy developments of the last 25 years. Developments are similar to those in other industrialized countries I began as a teacher of book and library history at a library school which then changed its name to a school of library and information science, then to a faculty of information and communication, then to a faculty of information services and management. But apparently this name too will change.

The Royal Library, that was declared a national library in l982, is our depository library, a situation that depends on voluntary deposit by Dutch publishers. The Royal Library also has played an important role in the automation of Dutch libraries, a process which, after some slowness in the l980s, has reached a high stage of development thanks to PICA, the Dutch electronic library utility based originally on the model of OCLC. But the same problems exist for Dutch research libraries as exist globally - namely the problem of escalating book and especially journal costs, and of stagnant acquisition budgets. Suggestions about letting the universities operate as publishers and letting them publish their research on the Internet produce outrage from Dutch publishers like Elsevier and Kluwer. Public libraries have also witnessed increased automation. And now the teaching of CD-ROM and Internet use, and the provision of Internet access, is seen by public libraries as part of their normal task. In imitation of English and American public libraries, Dutch public libraries try to identify and satisfy local user needs.

In conclusion: let's not forget that modern libraries are the result of centuries-long developments. So it's important that we not permit the threatened discipline of library history to disappear, which actually happening in certain training programs for the information profession. Library history certainly has to modernize itself into the history of information. But just fixating on the Millenium, and not ever looking backwards, would be a pity. An American philosopher once said that he who doesn't know history is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.