In 1816 King William I of the Netherlands opened national universities in Ghent, Liège and Leuven. In 1830, Belgium seceded from the Netherlands and became an independent kingdom. After the (re)founding of a Catholic University, first in Mechelen (1834), and then in Leuven (1835) work started on setting up a new library. Large scale acquisitions and donations quickly made the new library of Leuven one of the most important in the country. Rector Ladeuze (1870-1940) modernised the library between 1912 and 1914.
During World War I, German soldiers set fire to the university hall and the library. Only a few burnt pages and a number of completely charred books were found. In 1921, mainly American fundraisers and the personal efforts of Herbert Hoover, the building of a new library has been started. Whitney Warren designed the new KU Leuven University Library. The building of the neo-renaissance structure took seven years and was finalised in 1928.
Inspiration for the eighty-meter tall tower with its impressive clockwork was found in Spanish architecture. The carillon is a commemorative monument for American engineers who fell during the Great War. The 48 bells were cast by the famous English bell foundry Gillett & Johnston.
The University library was heavily damaged on 16 May 1940. The new library was completely burnt down once again. Barely 15.000 of the more than 900.000 books and about fifteen manuscripts escaped the disaster.
Today the books that were rescued from the fires, dubbed “Snow Whites,” have been retained. Each book rests within its own glass box, sealed with red wax.
The KU Leuven University Library building is not only designed as a modern library but also as a war memorial.
The vast reading room is undoubtedly the eye-catcher of the whole building and as no other place represents the spirit of the Alma mater of Leuven.
The one who desire to learn more about the university library's turbulent history can visit the library tower. Watching the panoramic view of the city will be an unique experience.
Source: https://bib.kuleuven.be/english/about/afbeeldingen/0129-bro-unibversiteitsbib-uk.pdf, https://www.visitleuven.be/universiteitsbibliotheek-toren)
Photos by Aslı Tezcan.