It is not only the collection that is considered to have a heritage, but also the library itself: the story of the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library began in 1481, with 41 books. Today it is one of the most important heritage libraries in Flanders.
How it all started
In 1481, the town solicitor Willem Pauwels donated 41 books to the city of Antwerp. This was the start of the City Library, which was set up in the Town Hall. Unfortunately, all of the books were lost in 1576 when the Town Hall burnt down during the Spanish Fury.
Expansion of the collection
Thanks to Christopher Plantin, the rebuilt City Library has experienced a remarkable expansion: he and his successors donated a copy of every book they printed to the library. When the City Library merged with the library of the Bishop’s Seminary in the early 17th century, the collection grew again. The first inventory, which dates from 1609, was drawn up by the then librarian Aubertus Miraeus and lists 356 works, including 32 manuscripts.
The return to the Town Hall
After the departure of librarian Miraeus, the library lay dormant for a while. That was until the mid-seventeenth century, when the city moved its collection into one of the vacant rooms of the former Stock Exchange. By the end of the century, the library had returned to the Town Hall once again. However, her story comes to a standstill there for a while: for the next one hundred years the librabry seems to be almost completely forgotten.
In 1805, the library opened its doors to the public for the first time. The collection of the École Centrale, which mainly consisted of books from the abolished convent libraries, was added to the library’s collection soon after. In the mid-nineteenth century, the librarian Frans Hendrik Mertens laid the foundations for the library’s impressive collection of Dutch literature, which still accounts for much of the library’s collection today.
Move and expansion
In 1866, the Volksboekerij – the present-day public library – opened alongside the City Library. Soon the Town Hall proved to be too small to accommodate all these books. In 1883, both libraries moved to the Sodality on the Jezuïetenplein, which was renamed Hendrik Conscienceplein and was adorned with a statue of the Flemish author.
Soon after, the library ran out of space again. In 1895, the public library moved to Blindestraat. The City Library now had the Sodality to itself, but the lack of space soon became evident. The building was renovated and expanded in 1936, by adding a reading room and a repository. In 1997, the library was expanded again – the last expansion to date – occupying the building block up to Korte Nieuwstraat.
A new name
In 2008, the City Library was renamed Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience or Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library. In 2011, the Government of Flanders formally recognised its status as a heritage library. Since 2008, the library has partnered up with the Flanders Heritage Library.