Leuven’s University Library: Risen from the ashes

De Universiteitsbibliotheek aan het Ladeuzeplein in Leuven

For Libraries Week,  we are putting the spotlight on the history of a remarkable university library. Leuven University’s library has had a past as rich as it has been turbulent, peppered with religious conflicts, political discord, and wartime catastrophe. 

The first university founded in Leuven is now known as the Old University of Leuven. The first rector, Willem Neve, travelled to Rome to ask the pope for his blessing in the founding of a new university. Pope Martinus V decreed the founding of Leuven’s university on the 9th of December 1425, making it the first university in the Low Countries.

De instelling van de Leuvense Universiteit
De instelling van de Leuvense Universiteit, André Hennebicq, 1888. Museum M, Belgium, CC BY-NC-SA.

Leuven’s university had to wait until the 17th century for a university library to be founded. Before that, students and professors had to rely on private collections to research and discuss.

In 1636, the Cloth Hall – the building which had been home to the cloth weavers’ guild – was given to the university to be used as a university library.

Oude dekenij van de lakenwevers in Leuven
Oude dekenij van de lakenwevers in Leuven, Lodewijk Jozef van Peteghem, 1854-1859. Museum M, Belgium, CC BY-NC-SA.

Leuven’s university was founded as a deeply Catholic university and mainly stayed that way throughout the next centuries. 

During the 16th century, Protestant books were burned and an index was created at the library that listed forbidden books of Lutheran writings. The Louvain Index was the inspiration for the famous Index Librorum Prohibitorum later created by the Pope which contained a long list of forbidden books. 

 Index Librorum Prohibitorum…
Index Librorum Prohibitorum…, 1564.  Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, Portugal, Public Domain Marked.

During the French Revolution, all universities were abolished so new Écoles Centrales could be founded. 

The Leuven university disbanded in 1797. The rich collection of its library was partly transported to Brussels’ École Centrale and to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Ironically, the abolishment of the Old University of Louvain meant that most of its precious historical library was saved from future devastation.

 L' ancienne cour de Bruxelles
L’ ancienne cour de Bruxelles, Marcellin Jobard & Jean Baptiste Madou, 1825. KIK-IRPA, CC BY-NC-SA.

The first half of the 19th century was a turbulent one for Leuven’s University.  In 1817 the Rijksuniversiteit Leuven was founded, a non-denominational state-driven university. Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830 and founded a new Catholic University in Mechelen in 1834.

A year later it moved back to where the original Catholic University had resided for centuries, Leuven. Its library in the Cloth Hall was reinstated. 

Grote leeszaal voor WO I
…Grote leeszaal voor WO I, 1839-1939. KU Leuven, Belgium, Public Domain Marked

Catastrophe struck again in the 20th century. In 1914, at the start of World War I, the university library in the Cloth Hall was burned to the ground by German forces. 

Zicht op de Lakenhal in Leuven in 1915, Louis Neve, 1915. Museum M, Belgium, CC BY-NC-SA.
Louvain : la bibliothèque, 1875-1930. Ghent University Library, CC BY-SA.
Les Halles Universitaires de Louvain avant et après
Les Halles Universitaires de Louvain avant et après, 1875-1930. Ghent University Library, CC BY-SA.

About 300 thousand invaluable books were lost in the fire. Luckily the most valuable had been transported to Brussels and Paris more than a century earlier, saving a wealth of heritage and information from the flames. 

The burning of the library was widely used in anti-German propaganda to show the barbary and ruthlessness of the German soldiers. 

 L'Offizier. - Kamerad ? - Plus depuis Louvain
L’Offizier. – Kamerad ? – Plus depuis Louvain, Jean-Louis Forain, 1915. Bibliothèque de l’INHA, France, Public Domain Marked.
En mémoire de l’incendie de la Bibliothèque…, 1918. Ghent University Library, Belgium , CC BY-SA.

This outrage sparked a movement that helped reinstate the library in a new building after the war, aided largely by the ‘Belgian Relief Fund’ founded by Herbert Hoover. With this money, a new monumental library was built and finished in 1928. 

 La maquette de la nouvelle bibliothèque de l'université de Louvain
La maquette de la nouvelle bibliothèque de l’université de Louvain, 1875-1930. Ghent University Library, Belgium, CC BY-SA.
 Bibliothèque de l'Université de Louvain
Bibliothèque de l’Université de Louvain, 1875-1930. Ghent University Library, Belgium , CC BY-SA.
Voorgevel van de Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leuven
Voorgevel van de Universiteitsbibliotheek in Leuven, Philippe van Hove, 1921-1931. Museum M, Belgium, CC BY-NC-SA.
Université de Louvain : bibliothèque
Université de Louvain : bibliothèque, PHrs Réunis, 1875-1930. Ghent University Library, Belgium, CC BY-SA.

Discover more amazing images of the University Library here. The library still exists in all its splendour, and you can visit an exhibition on its history inside. Find opening hours and visitor information here

By Jolan Wuyts, Europeana Foundation

Feature image: De Universiteitsbibliotheek aan het Ladeuzeplein in Leuven, Hubert Jacobs, 1981. Museum M, Belgium, CC BY-NC-SA

2 thoughts on “Leuven’s University Library: Risen from the ashes

    1. Thanks for sharing Rene. Good blog, great to see that this beautiful library continues to inspire people all over Europe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.