Rotterdam: City of Labour and Books

Author: Roman Koot, Librarian of the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet and Curator Special Collections at the EUR University Library

For those of you who decided to come to Rotterdam for this year’s conference: you made the right decision for you will encounter a remarkable city. Not the Dutch capital The Hague, not the emblematic historical Amsterdam, but a truly modern and international city, with a population comprising 175 nationalities.
Rotterdam has the reputation of a city of labour: it is one of the world’s largest port cities, characterized by a no-nonsense mentality, in contrast to Amsterdam (‘money is earned in Rotterdam, and spent in Amsterdam’). Of course, these are stereotypes. I love Amsterdam, for its museums, liveliness, history, and libraries, but Rotterdam is something else.

Rotterdam used to be a historic city as well, until the bombers of Nazi Germany destroyed the inner city on May 14, 1940. A disaster, for sure, but an opportunity as well, to design and build a completely new city center. Nowadays, you see a city famous for its bold, modern architecture. The latest addition: the spectacular vessel-shaped depot building of the Boijmans Museum.

Did you know, Rotterdam was once an intellectual hub in Europe? At the end of the seventeenth-century refugees from France and England found shelter in the Netherlands. Among them many intellectuals and artists. From France, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) settled in Rotterdam, where he compiled and published the first scientific book journal, Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres. John Locke (1632-1704) came from England and completed his influential An essay concerning human understanding in Rotterdam. ‘De Lantaarn’ (The Lantern), the house of the British Quaker Benjamin Furly, was the meeting point, as well as one of the best equipped libraries in town.

Some centuries earlier, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was born in Rotterdam. The importance of his writings and his influence on religious and intellectual thinking can hardly be overrated. His Praise of folly is still a joy to read and a welcome antidote to orthodox and fundamentalist thinking of any time. Although Erasmus travelled all of Europe and never returned to his birthplace, he called himself Erasmus Roterodamum, ‘Erasmus from Rotterdam’. The city is proud of its famous son, and you will meet him everywhere in town, crossing the Erasmus Bridge, on your way to study at the Erasmus University or when you visit the Central Public Library, which houses the Erasmus Collection, the world’s largest and most important collection of his published writings and studies on his thinking. Not surprisingly, the collection was recently included in the prestigious UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

Some shelves from the Erasmus Collection at the Central Public Library

That brings us to libraries. Rotterdam has several wonderful libraries. Apart from the Central Public Library, which is housed in a soon to be renovated, but still a remarkable example of post-modern architecture in the city center, we have a well-equipped University Library.

Part of the reading room at the EUR University Library (photo Roos Alderhof)

Situated on the lively campus Woudestein, in a fine example of ‘béton brut’ (of course tastes differ), it is also the location of the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet (Rotterdam Reading Cabinet), the oldest functioning private public library in the Netherlands (established in 1859). It functions today as the humanities library of the university, but also as the library for many private citizens, for their daily consumption of (new) novels, poetry and studies on history and culture. The bombing of 1940 destroyed the library, but with the support of many Rotterdam citizens it was soon after revived. It houses an interesting heritage collection of old and rare printed books as well, among which is the private library of Elie van Rijckevorsel, the last member of an elite family of entrepreneurs from nineteenth-century Rotterdam.

As a harbour city, Rotterdam of course houses a Maritime Museum. Its library contains literature on maritime, colonial and trade history, privateering and piracy, travel descriptions, ship (model) building, maritime law, and many other related subjects. A real gem is the ensemble of c. 500 old travel descriptions from the collection of W.A. Engelbrecht.
And then, don’t forget to visit the very rich collections of the library of the City Archive, where you will find everything you want to know about the history of Rotterdam. I already mentioned the new depot building of Museum Boijmans. Although the museum itself is closed for renovation, the library, which documents the collection of the museum and holds an internationally famous collection of surrealist and avantgarde literature, is open for consultation in the depot building.
And there is more: the extensive collection of books and archives on the history of architecture at the New Institute (the former Dutch Architectural Institute), and the library of the Nederlands Fotomuseum.

These heritage libraries are working together under the banner ‘Rotterdam: City of Books’, with the goal to stimulate book history research and to promote our collections. At the WLIC we will present ourselves in one of the conference venues at the Ahoy, so please pay us a visit. And, if you have time between the conference sessions, the librarians will give you a warm welcome in their institutions!

Roman Koot, Librarian of the Rotterdamsch Leeskabinet and Curator Special Collection

2 thoughts on “Rotterdam: City of Labour and Books


    That sounds exciting! Thanks for the information Roman Koot,👍.

    The harbor city must have plenty of attractions to explore. From its modern architecture, bustling port, and diverse cultural scene, with a mix of historic buildings and to the contemporary landmarks, such as the iconic Cube Houses and the Erasmus Bridge.

    I can’t wait to be there !😊


    Thanks for the information, dear Roman Koot. Looking forward to seeing you in August at Rotterdam.

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