50th anniversary of Depository of Dutch Publications

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Depository of Dutch Publications. This “depository” is where the National Library of the Netherlands (KB) stores all publications published in the Netherlands. The most important task of any National Library is to ensure that everything is preserved so that the past can be explored in the best possible way. The history of the Dutch depository is a remarkable story.  

Preserving all of a country’s publications is the primary task of almost every National Library in the world. As the National Library of the Netherlands, the KB also has this task. The library term for this preservation function is: the national Depository. The year 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the Depository of Dutch Publications. This joyous occasion is something to celebrate, because the national depository is an important foundation for Dutch culture and society.  

The history of the Dutch depository is unique because it is relatively young and because, remarkably, the Netherlands has a “voluntary depository,” whereas almost all other countries have a depository act. Due to digitisation, in addition to the depository for paper books and periodicals, an e-depot has also been developed at the KB, for digital publications. 

History of the Dutch depository

The Dutch depository is relatively young. Many other countries have had depository schemes in place for much longer. An example is the well-known dépôt légal in France, which has existed since 1537. Nevertheless, the KB has also had depository schemes as precursors to the current one.  

When the KB was founded in 1798, and it was simply called the “National Library”, it was already said it should collect all the books from this country. A few years later, however, that view fell out of favour and the KB functioned mainly as a specialised library for members of parliament in The Hague. When the French took over in the Netherlands and we became a vassal state of France under King Louis Napoleon (brother of Napoleon I) in 1806, a law was introduced based on the French model, requiring publishers to send copies of their publications to the KB. 

King Louis also officially endowed the library with the “Royal” designation. However, books were submitted during this period, deposited being the official term, but the law was not always properly enforced so not all books were received. After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the House of Orange returned to power in the Netherlands under William I. In 1817, another scheme was drawn up for compulsory depositing, but neither publishers nor printers nor the KB itself always followed it to the letter. Enforcement still left much to be desired.  


In 1881, a new Copyright Act did give a strong impetus for a stricter form of deposit: copyright was linked to the submission of copies of publications. To be able to claim the rights as a publisher and protect against illegal copying, copies had to be submitted to the Ministry of Justice.  

One of those copies was transferred to the KB. This meant that a substantial proportion of published books did find their way to the KB. These copyright copies can still be recognised in the KB collection by the publishers’ and printers’ declaration on the title page and the ministry’s stamps and numbering. Many of the editions of the famous Tachtigers (“Eightiers”) poets, such as Gorter’s May, were obtained by the KB this way.  


In 1912, the copyright act was replaced and copyright and copies were separated: starting in 1912, copyright arose upon the creation of the work. From 1912 onwards, publishers therefore no longer had to provide a copy to claim the rights. This also brought the mandatory depositing route to the KB to a standstill.  

So the Netherlands no longer had a depository scheme from 1912. This had consequences, because the publications obtained by the KB from then on were selected and purchased by the specialists. And any selection has its limitations, as it may be guided by personal or time-specific views or opinions, for example regarding which books are considered ‘good’ and which are not. A depository scheme prohibits just that: it is non-selective and covers basically everything. The depository-less era lasted until 1974, and that resulted in a lack of many books in the KB's collection.  


Cornelis Reedijk. Photographer: Robert Scheers.

After the war, the lack of a modern depository scheme increasingly took its toll. The numbers of publications skyrocketed and no one had a good grasp of what was being published in the Netherlands. The KB began lobbying for the introduction of Legal Deposit in the Netherlands. This push for a real Dutch depository gained momentum in the 1960s during the period when KB librarian / director Kees Reedijk held the reins (1962-1986).  

In the mid-1960s, Reedijk insisted that the KB urgently needed space and resources to be able to fulfil national tasks. Around his retirement in 1986, he told newspaper NRC that, at the beginning of his librarianship, the KB functioned far from effectively as a national depository of all printed heritage. He was quoted as saying:  

“The librarians – and there have been only eight of them so far [in 1986] – have never been very concerned with the National Library’s most important task, namely collecting everything published in and about the Netherlands. Hobbyism reigned supreme. Some preferred to collect incunabula, others started an alphabetical catalogue, still others acquired some modern works of study, and all of them looked down on ‘uninspired easy-to-read trash’, which was passed on to public reading rooms if at all possible.” 

Around 1965, the KB did still, of course, manage exceptional and impressive Special Collections as well as a very extensive and internationally oriented Research Collection in every conceivable field of the Humanities. But the preservation of every new Dutch publication, as a national task, did not receive much attention.  

The study committee

Reedijk and his deputy librarian, historian Arie Willemsen, set to work on it. Some countries had had legal depositories for centuries, but by now the Netherlands had become a great exception worldwide as a country without a proper scheme. Willemsen later recounted how Dutch delegates at international library conferences were sometimes frowned upon because they represented a country “without a depository,” something that was baffling to many foreign librarians.  

Willemsen and Reedijk lobbied the government hard, which in 1970 led to the establishment of a government Study Committee, headed by the KB, charged with paving the way for the “Legal Submission of Publications in the Netherlands.” The committee included representatives of the KB, other libraries, publishers and booksellers as well as officials from the ministries of Education, Culture, Recreation and Social Work and Justice. 

The publishers and “the” Brinkman

The committee proceeded vigorously and the arguments provided for a depository act seemed irrefutable. At this time in the early 1970s, the KB was very optimistic about the chances of success for a Dutch dépôt légal, which would finally allow the Netherlands to “join the ranks of civilised nations in this respect too,” as Arie Willemsen put it in a retrospective.  

This optimism was also fuelled by the excellent cooperation with the publishers of the Royal Dutch Publishers Association (KNUB). You might expect the publishers to have balked at any obligation imposed on them, but they (like all entrepreneurs) were instead very much in favour of clear rules from the government, rules that were the same for everyone.  

And they also had an additional interest, because the publication of the time-honoured Brinkman's Cumulative Catalogue of Books fell into decline in the 1970s. That was a list of new books compiled by publishers to inform booksellers, started in the 19th century by Carel Leonard Brinkman. Until the 1970s, this was a commercial publication of Sijthoff publishers, but the publishers were keen for the KB to take over. This was quickly arranged within the study committee. Publishers would no longer send their new books to Sijthoff, but to the KB where they would serve as the basis for the new depository. And, at the same time, “the” Brinkman became the basis for the KB's National Bibliography.  

Bibliographical centre

The KB and publishers worked together in unity. In anticipation of the new act, a bibliographic centre was established in the KB in the 1970s with a new KB department, soon to be called “Depository of Dutch Publications and Dutch Bibliography Department,” often unofficially referred to as “the Brinkman.” A new keyword system was set up to record national book production. That system of the strictly monitored Depository or Brinkman keywords is still in place.  

In addition, an acquisition department was set up, because even with an act, the KB would still have to do considerable detective work. Even now, many think the KB acquires books “automatically,” but this actually still requires a lot of human work. Reedijk and Willemsen did carefully consider the nineteenth century and the faltering depository practice back then. The legislative proposal drafted in the study committee’s final report also provided for an article that would arrange that “KB officers” could be appointed as “sworn investigating officers.” This KB “detective” department could then itself claim books directly and impose fines if it did have to deal with unwilling publishers. 


Policies for “retrospective collection” were also set up to identify gaps in collections from periods during which there was no depository. The study committee soon came to the conclusion that you could not oblige publishers to still provide publications from decades earlier, but that the KB had to develop its own policy for this by means of donations and purchases. This “retro policy” is still in place and has even been intensified in recent years in the context of current discussions on diversity and inclusion. The retro policy fixes the bias in the selections of the depository-less era. 

No act

Despite all the optimism, the committee’s legislative proposal failed to reach the House of Representatives. The study committee derailed into a bureaucratic labyrinth, with Ministry of Justice officials in particular being obstructive. Claiming a free copy of books was said to be “expropriation” and in violation of the Constitution. That turned out not to be the case, but years had passed by the time that was established. The KB and publishers did not want to wait for the sluggish red tape and decided to get started on their own. The KNUB asked affiliated publishers to start supplying the KB themselves, and the “voluntary depository” was launched on 1 January 1974. It is the 50th anniversary of this “voluntary depository” that we are celebrating now, because this arrangement is still in place today. In the 1980s, the KB and its partners tried one more time to get a legal depository off the ground with a comprehensive and revised report by the study committee, but the plug was finally pulled on the legislative proposal under Prime Minister Lubbers. One of the reasons was that the voluntary depository worked so well. The adage became: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

The need for the depository

Later, Arie Willemsen sometimes regretted the practical decisiveness of the KB in the early 1970s, because the success of the voluntary depository prevented the establishment of the legal depository. But either way, the 50th anniversary is a joyous occasion, as the need for a national depository is undeniable.  

The depository represents the norm that it is not the few or the elite of any kind who should decide which books should be preserved and which should not. The depository represents the principle that all books should be preserved. And the same applies to all newspapers and all journals and magazines. And the same will apply to all digital publications, for which the KB coordinates the e-depot.  


Our experts

Arno Kuipers
Subject Specialist Dutch language and literature
Gert-Jan van Velzen
Relationship manager depository collection