2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
Book Reviews
Magna Commoditas
A History of Leiden University Library, 1575–2005
By Christiane Berkvens-Stevelinck. Foreword by Nicholas Basbanes
Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2004
112 pages
Paper back: ISBN: 90-5997-005-5 Price: $13.50
This new English-language history of one of Europe’s oldest libraries, at Leiden University, demonstrates that freedom of ideas has been central in the development of libraries from the beginning. The University of Leiden was founded during a long period of warfare between Catholics and Protestants. As might be expected, theology dominated its collections initially, but from the start the librarians embraced humanism and acquired books and manuscripts in a wide variety of subjects. Joseph Scaliger’s donation in 1609 of 208 books in Eastern languages—Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopian—cemented the tradition and encouraged Leiden’s librarian Daniel Heinsius to acquire important books with abandon. During most of his fifty-year reign, Heinsius rebuffed all attempts by university officials to curtail his spending, and the library grew from 442 books and manuscripts to 3117. Its holdings in Eastern languages were possibly the best in Europe at the time. The rapid growth of the collection brought disorganization and fights over access. In 1595, an ordinance limited library use by issuing keys only to professors and local functionaries. Students took matters into their own hands, obtaining and copying the keys and distributing them liberally. In response, the library was closed entirely for two years, and over most of the next century students and librarians strug­gled over the library, with those in favor of free access gradually winning out. During the eighteenth century, librarian Petrus Burman launched another collection expansion program. One of his best ideas was the purchase of unpublished letters, which he rightly believed would be of great interest to scholars. This was just one of many innovations of the Leiden University librarians. The library was the first to publish a catalog of its holdings, and it was also the first to form a group similar to a modern Friends of the Library. Librarians cajoled benefactors into donating books by circulating a special catalog of the collection prominently listing books and their donors. Magna Commoditas, illustrated in color throughout, is an adaptation of a much longer history of the library published in Dutch in 2001. It provides an interesting history of Leiden University Library and serves as an introduction to the role libraries have played in the intellectual development of the West.