Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Leuven Connection

The library at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Leuven, Belgium, located just outside of Brussels has a long and stored history centered around academia. As early as 1425, when the "old university" was established, there has always been a university located within its confines. The history of the university is like that of so much of the rest of Europe; occupation and independence drove the names, missions and very language in which academics were taught. Is French the official language or is it Dutch (actually Flemish in this part of Belgium). These debates caused the splitting and creation of separate institutions yet none of these arguments were as horrific as the damage that fell upon the university's main library during World War I. And it was this damage that created a connection between my dear alma mater, Mount Holyoke College (as well as other American universities and colleges) and what is now the Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven. 

For most brick and mortar schools, their libraries serve as the centerpiece of their campuses. They are often the keepers of history, the archives of their schools, their communities and even their countries. They are the places where students and professors gather, where thoughts are pondered, where papers are researched and written and where so much learning takes place. (I imagine that I spent more hours in the library at Mount Holyoke than I did any other place on campus). By all accounts, they are sacred buildings. And this is what makes what happened to the library at Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven during World War I so horrific.

During August 1914, the town of Leuven was occupied by German soldiers who in revenge agains the residents eventually looted, burned and destroyed the entire town. The library, along with other public buildings and churches, was looted of many treasures then burned by German soldiers. Over 300,000
The Mount Holyoke pillar
books were burned as well as irreplaceable manuscripts, and 1,000 incunabula, or pamphlets, which dated to before 1501. This pillaging of the town was cited as an example of German atrocities and war crimes by allied forces. In the aftermath of the war the library was rebuilt bigger and grander than ever. The Americans took the lead in rebuilding the library and the Flemish-Rennaissance style building was designed by American architect Whitney Warren. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans were required to donate 13 million Marks worth of books as part of their reparation. When it was completed the library was viewed as a very public statement of the allied victory over Germany. There was global outrage over the library's destruction and donations of books poured in from all over the world. Mount Holyoke was just one of the many institutions who contributed to the library's rebirth. Unfortunately, because disaster can strike in the same place twice, the library was once again burned in 1940 in a fire that was believed to have been started because of an exchange of gunfire between the German and Allied armies. Once again the library was rebuilt to Warren's specifications and the 900,000 books and manuscripts that were lost were replaced through another global outpouring of support. By 1968 the library's collection topped 4 million books. 

A fellow Mount Holyoke alumnae first told me about the connection between our alma mater and the university in Leuven. Since Leuven is a quick train ride away from me I decided that I needed to go see the library and the "Mount Holyoke pillar" for myself. Today the library anchors the broad Ladeuzeplein Square. From a distance the library looks like many of the impressive buildings that fill European cities but as you approach it you can see that this building is indeed different. The names of many American colleges, universities and prep schools are etched into the stones of the exterior of the library. The large columns that create the covered entryway of the library hold the names of others. Mount Holyoke College is one of those represented. Each of these academic institutions aided and supported the rebuilding of the library following its destruction. In return, they have their name on a small piece of granite a world away from their own libraries. 

Since its founding in 1837 my alma mater has been an institution whose efforts and alumnae span the globe. I've long known about the missionaries and pioneers who graduated from Mount Holyoke and set off to share their skills around the globe. I've also known about the College's own efforts to make education globally accessible to all. I didn't know about their efforts in post War Belgium. I now do and once again feel proud to call myself an alumnae. 

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