History of the KB

Source: Honderd hoogtepunten uit de Koninklijke Bibliotheek - A hundred highlights from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Red.: W. van Drimmelen, A. Leerintveld, T. Vermeulen & C. de Wolf. English translation: L. Croiset van Uchelen-Brouwer. Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers, 1994. 223 p. Ill. ISBN: 90-6630-490-1 geb.

In a large library with a long history no book is an entity; its value is also determined by the company of others. And this is exactly what readers expect: not one particular book, but a collection of books, not this one opinion or fact, but an ongoing interplay of ideas and perceptions. Books are the evidence as well as the generators of a continuous cultural process, and collectively they constitute the mirror of culture.

One of the most important tasks of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek as national library is the care for the preservation of the Dutch written and printed cultural heritage. In the recent past this task has been implemented by the Depository Library of Dutch Publications, which stores every publication that appears in and about the Netherlands. For the earlier periods the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, with its present collection of over two million volumes, holds extensive collections in the field of Dutch cultural history. Its long tradition of collecting has not neglected the scholarly literature from foreign countries, an additional reason why the Koninklijke Bibliotheek is considered a leading learned library of the humanities.

It can boast large collections of medieval and later manuscripts, printed books from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, and precious books from later periods. Together they constitute a time-honoured patrimony spanning an epoch of more than a thousand years.

Many European national libraries have suffered the vicissitudes of fortune, hence no national library is ever complete. They originated in the course of the eighteenth or the beginning of the nineteenth century and were mostly based on private or ecclesiastic collections, either donated at the collector's own initiative or enforced by confiscation. Besides the organic growth by the regular increase of new books, they often experienced spasmodic growth by the acquisition of other large collections or by purchasing en bloc. Thus magnificent collections arose, which reflected the national culture in all its diversity.

Origins of the Dutch national library

Stadholder Prince William V unwittingly laid the foundations for the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. In 1798 the Representative Body of the Batavian Republic resolved to change the former library of the stadholders into a national library. Thus the Koninklijke Bibliotheek owes its origin to the collections of the stadholders, as does the Mauritshuis for its paintings and the Koninklijk Penningkabinet for its coins and medals. The Orange-Nassau library had not survived the previous period unscathed. At the end of the eighteenth century William V held only a small part of the original holdings and even from this remaining collection items were stolen during the French occupation. Nevertheless, the remainder was still a valuable collection, and that was entrusted to the care of the first Librarian, Charles Sulpice Flament.

The period of the Kingdom of Holland, 1806-1810, was not an adverse period for the library. It received the designation 'Koninklijk' (Royal) from Louis Napoleon, who also instigated the first major acquisitions. In 1807 he bought the collection of the Leiden lawyer Joost Romswinckel, some 22-24,000 books, mostly on Dutch history, and 9-10,000 maps and charts. Two years later, in 1809, the collection of Jacob Visser, the attorney acting on behalf of the government, was bought. It formed the basis for the collection of fifteenth-century printed books and significantly increased the number of manuscripts.

Steady increase in collections

During the reign of King William I the collections steadily increased, not least through the active interest of the King himself. He bought, for instance, the impressive library of the deceased Secretary of the Belgian Academy, G.J. Gérard, and placed the books in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek; at a later date they were joined by a large part of the manuscripts. He also accomplished the return of a number of books that had been stolen under French rule and put part of the Orange-Nassau library that had ended up in Germany, in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. The Mauritshuis, which housed the library, soon proved too cramped to hold the collection and in 1819 the King decided to move the library and the cabinet of coins and medals to the stately residence on 34 Lange Voorhout. This magnificent mansion, which Adriana Huguetan had commissioned the French architect Daniel Marot to build in 1733, had served as the palace of the King and the Crown Prince at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In this building William I opened the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in 1821, and it was to stay there until 1982.

The Koninklijke Bibliotheek continued to grow through purchases and donations. In 1827 the Dutch government purchased for 8,000 guilders the remainder of the library of the Abbey of Tongerlo, which had been dissolved in 1796 under French rule. The manuscripts were sent to the library in Brussels, but the five to six thousand books - predominantly on theology and church history, including a rare copy of the Biblia pauperum (no. 15) - arrived in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague in 1828. Some acquisitions deserve to be mentioned separately. For 1,134 guilders the King bought a magnificent manuscript in two volumes of the History Bible at Louvain in 1829, supposed to have been made in the Carthusian monastery in Utrecht around 1430 (no. 10). In 1830 the Dutch government acquired one of the most valuable manuscripts of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek from the Oud-bisschoppelijke Klerezij in Utrecht for 800 guilders: the Egmond Gospels (no. 1). The two miniatures depicting the presentation of the manuscript to the Abbey of Egmond by Count Dirk II and his wife are the oldest examples of Dutch painting.

The year 1835 saw the end of the period of office of the first Librarian, Flament, when he died at the age of 77. He was succeeded by J.W. Holtrop, who focused his attention on the study and bibliographical description of early printed books. In 1856 he published the catalogue of the incunabula of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, followed in 1868 by his famous Monuments typographiques des Pays-Bas au quinzième siècle. Both works were the result of scholarly research, based on the comparison of typeface for the identification and dating of incunabula. They brought him international fame as one of the founders of modern incunabula research.

The most important addition to the collections in this period was the bequest of Baron W.H.J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt, who died in 1848 and left his house, collection and fortune to the Dutch government. Besides Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities his collection comprised mostly manuscripts and precious books. Under the will the Librarian of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek was to be the official director of the Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, which opened in 1852. This would later on offer new museum prospects for the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, as was realized above all by Brummel during his librarianship. By active collecting of bibliophile editions in the 1950s he laid the foundation for the modern Museum van het Boek, opened in the Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum in 1960. The museum became more and more independent, although the official ties with the Koninklijke Bibliotheek continued to exist as laid down in the terms of the will. Nowadays both institutions work together very effectively and successfully in many fields.

In the second half of the nineteenth century a great many collections were acquired. In 1870 the Koninklijke Bibliotheek received more than 3,500 books and over 40 manuscripts from the estate of the poet Adriaan Bogaers. In 1871 the Spinoza collection of Dr A. van der Linde was bought, soon followed by his chess library which, together with the donation of Dr M. Niemeijer in 1948, forms the nucleus of the internationally renowned chess and draughts collection. In 1886 the Koninklijke Bibliotheek acquired thirty alba amicorum from the collection of Jonkheer G.J. Beeldsnijder van Voshol. Together with the alba already in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek at the time it is the basis of the present collection of more than 400 items.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, during the librarianship of W.G.C. Byvanck, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek bought more than a hundred medieval Dutch Books of Hours and devotional books to complement the collection already formed. Another important purchase was made in 1909, with the collection of bookbindings owned by A.W.M. Mensing, which complemented the valuable bookbindings from the collection of the stadholders.

In the course of the twentieth century the holdings of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek continued to grow, not only by the regular acquisition of new books, but also by donations, loans and the purchasing of whole collections or separate valuable items. A few examples may suffice to show the full scope. In 1933 the Koninklijke Bibliotheek bought an important part of the famous music library of D.F. Scheurleer, which meant that the existing collection of songbooks was considerably expanded. The purchase of the F.G. Waller collection in 1937, which contained a number of very rare editions, did the same for the collection of popular literature, such as chapbooks. The existing collection of children's books was much enhanced when a few thousand early children's books were bought from the Hague Public Library in 1944.

The Koninklijke Bibliotheek has many collections on loan, and the most important one is beyond doubt the collection of manuscripts and early printed books given on permanent loan by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1937.

In 1939 an impressive number of manuscripts was bought from the estate of the poet Willem Kloos for the collection of modern manuscripts. It included some 2,000 letters from the Nieuwe Gids archives, and manuscripts of Jacques Perk. In 1945 a collection of over 1,200 letters to the painter Willem Witsen was acquired for the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, followed in 1948 by a collection of the poet Hendrik Marsman, and in 1950 by a large collection of manuscripts of the composer Willem Pijper.

In 1971 the Koninklijke Bibliotheek bought the extensive paper-historical collection of H. Voorn, a collection which has since developed into one of the most important collections of the whole world in this specialized field and contains many rare and valuable items.

The legacy of written documents of the painter Jan Toorop, donated by his daughter Charley Toorop in 1929, and the major part of the library of Henriette Roland Holst-van der Schalk donated in 1939 should be mentioned as two of the numerous donations generously given to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. In 1940 L.J. Koopman donated his collection of modern French belles-lettres, for the greater part de luxe editions as well as first editions. He continued adding to this collection and after he died in 1968 a fund was set up from his capital, as laid down in his will, from which new acquisitions in this field could be bought. As a result the collection now consists of more than 7,000 volumes. The most important donation in the 1950s was beyond doubt the bequest of Jonkheer Dr M.R. Radermacher Schorer, a collection of some 4,000 volumes in the field of Dutch literature and book production. The terms of his will prescribed that the collection was to be donated 'for inclusion in the envisaged book museum', thus becoming the core collection of the present Museum van het Boek. From the same bequest the Koninklijke Bibliotheek later received a collection of manuscripts and letters of Dutch poets. The library was equally grateful when it received the virtually complete stock of the Brusse publishing house in 1969, and the complete stock and archives of Nijhoff's in 1991. Private donors also continued their patronage. In 1989 Mrs Achterberg-van Baak, for instance, bequeathed all the first editions of the works of her husband, the poet Gerrit Achterberg, to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and in 1991 Mr D.N. Esveld presented the library with a number of unique bookbindings made by his father, Dirk Nicolaas Esveld.

The Friends of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek have provided important support in acquiring objects of sometimes very great value. On various occasions the Friends have considerably increased the collection, either by donating objects or by making substantial contributions for acquisitions. A milestone was the rare chemise binding (no. 14) presented by the Friends on their fiftieth anniversary in 1988, although in this case too, financial support from several cultural funds was again indispensable.

The reading room of the former building of the KB at Lange Voorhout, built in 1908.

The reading room of the former building of the KB at Lange Voorhout, built in 1908.