Meera Nair

Louvain – 25 August 1914

In Posts on August 24, 2014 at 11:36 am

Librarians and historians alike may well feel somber as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Le sac de Louvain, a collective punishment meted out by German forces to the people of Louvain for seeming resistance to the German presence. Included among the sites of destruction was the library of the University of Louvain. Set ablaze the night of 25 August 1914, by the next morning its contents had been reduced to ashes.

In 2013, Mark Derez, Archivist of University Archives and Art Collection Leuven (Louvain), presented the story of that destruction, response, and reconstruction. An abbreviated version of his presentation was published in 2014 by the WWI Daily. Derez writes:

The destruction of Leuven had not been unique – in four Belgian provinces, 18,000 houses were destroyed and 5,000 Belgian civilians were killed … [But] there was an emotional element at work… Of all the atrocities committed, that which spoke most to the imagination was the devastation of the university library, for in no way could it have been considered a military target. … [This assault] produced a worldwide stream of solidarity. While the war was still on, twenty-five committees were formed in neutral and Allied countries to collect money and books.

Among those who took it upon themselves to encourage donations of books by Americans and American libraries, was Theodore Wesley Koch. A scholar of Dante, and an internationally respected librarian, Koch’s appreciation of the benefit wrought by libraries for the public was all too evident. As Librarian for the University of Michigan, he had introduced measures that allowed students to borrow books (previously only the professoriate enjoyed that privilege) and allowed public access to the periodical collection.

In a publication titled The University of Louvain and its Library, produced in London and Toronto in July 1917, Koch details the history of the university and the depth and breadth of the library’s contents. It began with a bequest of 852 volumes in 1627, “rich in history and theology,” from former student Laurent Beyerlinck. Subsequent patrons and librarians worked together through a period of nearly 300 years to amass over 250,000 items including rare manuscripts, incunabula, and university archival material beginning with the original papal bull authorizing its foundation.

Koch draws particular attention to the work of C.F. de Nelis, appointed as University Librarian in 1752, whose first act was to: “… ask the Government to require Belgian printers to send to the University Library at least one copy of every book printed by them (p.17).” (A condition that sounds very much like that included within the Statute of Anne (1710), where publishers were to remit nine copies of each book produced, “printed upon the best paper,” to various university libraries.)

The library was successfully reconstructed, inside and out. But it opened in 1928 to both acclaim and controversy. Architect Whitney Warren had sought to design not merely a modern library in neo-renaissance style, but also a war memorial replete with a bell tower whose carillon would ring forth patriotic anthems. Derez describes in detail the clash between those who sought to demilitarize the halls of learning and those who wanted the atrocities to be immortalized. So too does Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History (2003). The final design and play list stopped short of overt jingoism but was memorial enough to attract unpleasant attention from Germany in the next world war. Merely 12 years after it opened, the library was once again destroyed in the 1940 shelling.

The library has since been rebuilt again to Warren’s design. Complete with its bells.

The rallying of the international library community in support of public benefit continues to this day. Preservation of our past, and preparation for our future, were prominent topics of discussion at the satellite conference and the annual conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) held in Strasbourg and Lyon over the past few weeks. In her opening remarks, IFLA president Sinikka Sipilä spoke of strong libraries as integral to strong societies; and emphasized that “access to information supports development by empowering people to exercise their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, learn and apply new skills and make decisions and participate in an active and engaged civil society.”

To that end, the Lyon Declaration on Access to Information and Development was unveiled on 18 August 2014; it calls upon Member States of the United Nations to ensure that information access, sharing, and use are incorporated in the post-2015 development agenda. Details are here; at the time of this writing, 134 organizations have given their support.

 

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