The Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, situated in the heart of Antwerp, has been collecting books for over five centuries. Its focus is on the Antwerp, Dutch literature and the history of the Low Countries, but many other topics are covered by its 1,5 million items – from novels to newspapers, from incunabula to comic books.
Its collection of early printed books contains around 40,000 items. Some of these date back to the old municipal library established in 1481, or to the library of the cathedral chapter which merged with it in the early seventeenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the municipal library was enriched with the “useful” books of the Antwerp monastic libraries seized by the French. The library contains books donated by such sponsors as Christopher Plantin himself, Rubens’ physician Lazare Marcquis, and the German emperor Wilhelm I.
In 2008 the library was renamed the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, for two particular reasons. First of all, it honours the memory of the author Hendrik Conscience (1812-1883), considered the father of Flemish literature. Conscience’s statue, erected in 1883 in the author’s lifetime, is a well-known landmark in Antwerp, watching over the baroque ensemble of the square also named Hendrik Conscience Square. The term ‘heritage library’ refers to the specific function of the institution: it is not a circulating library, nor (strictly) a research library. Its purpose is to collect, preserve and make available all ‘bookish’ cultural heritage relating to Flanders.
The Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library is housed in a magnificent baroque building, part of the old Jesuit square. The main attraction is formed by the Church of St. Charles Borromeo, with Rubensian elements in the façade; next to it is the Professed House, which held one of the largest scientific libraries of the Low Countries and housed the editorial staff of the Acta Sanctorum series. The Sodality House finished the square, and now holds about a quarter of the collection of the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library. It also houses the magnificent Nottebohm Room, a nineteenth-century library décor popular with children, filmmakers, and anybody with a heart for books.
Image credit: Ans Brys