The University Library: not always warm and accessible

The reading room of the university library in the former palace of Louis Napoleo
The reading room of the university library in the former palace of Louis Napoleon, Wittevrouwenstraat, c. 1930. Photo: Special Collections University Library Utrecht

These days, people are hard at work in the University Library, and the books are neatly organised and categorised for everyone who wants to use them. That is a relatively new thing. In the hundreds of years of our library’s existence, academics and students have only been using them for a little while. It is already a miracle in the first place that the books survived the library at all.

The history of the library goes back centuries

The history of our library goes back a long way: it is older than the university itself. Back when the city came out of years of unrest and moved to protestantism in 1580, a problem manifested. Who now owned the Catholic assets, the monasteries, churches and art treasures? And the libraries that came with them? In 1581, the city decided to claim all the books in the chapters and monasteries "in order to make a library." Said library came about in 1584: the confiscated books and manuscripts were placed in the Janskerk, where they would remain for a number of centuries.

The Illustere School which was founded in 1634, and became a full university in 1636, had to be built completely out of nothing. In the old Chapter Hall of the Dom Chapter (the current auditorium), a wall was build to make two lecture halls. That was ’the’ university. An empty church was remodelled into an anatomy theatre and a monastery at the Lange Nieuwstraat was remodelled into a hospital. Bolwerk Sonnenborgh received a botanic garden and a primitive chemical laboratory sometime later. And the city library in the Janskerk became the University Library from 1638 onwards.

Stolen books and students rarely welcome

Cornelis Booth (the namesake for the Boothstraat facing the Janskerkhof) became the librarian and was tasked to further organise the library, acquire new books and sell double copies. He also had to make a catalogue. A promise was made that the profits from a city loan to the Dutch West India Company would be used to benefit the library, but that was probably never actually done. The library also grew thanks to donations and by purchasing deceased professors’ personal libraries.

It is already a miracle in the first place that the books survived the library at all.

Leen Dorsman

The library was not accessible to just about everyone. Students were sometimes allowed in, but that depended very much on who the librarian was and whether or not many books were stolen in a certain period. In 1702, it also turned out that the custodian (who was called the custos) had stolen books. And although an attempt was made to bring the library up-to-date in the eighteenth century, it continued to be a low priority.

Bad conditions for books and custodians

On top of that, the Janskerk was also unsuitable to be a library: it was cold and damp inside. The custos got "gout and arthritis" there. Librarian Wesseling had to intervene in 1758, when workers had opened up the roof of the church for repairs without covering the books. People finally agreed that an unheated church was unsuitable for ancient books and in 1820, the decision was made to move them to Louis Napoleon’s (Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother) former palace at the Wittevrouwenstraat, which still hosts the University Library City Centre today.

The old literary treasures have been moved to the safe depots at Utrecht Science Park, where they can still be accessed, either in the heated reading room or via the website of the Department of Special Collections.

Dorsman dives into university history

Out of the thousands of people who study and work at Utrecht University, fewer and fewer of them know anything about the history of this institution. We can do better than that. Leen Dorsman was a Professor of University History until 1 August 2022. Each month on, he describes something from the long history of the university that you would want to know or should know.