The origin of the University of Amsterdam’s library collection can be traced back to the Late Middle Ages, to the parish library of the Nieuwe Kerk, one of the predecessors of the current University Library. What began as a parish library first grew into a city library and then – following the establishment of the Athenaeum Illustre, or Illustere School, in 1632 – into the school's library in the Agnietenkapel. The library collection remained modest in size for a long while during this period. This remained so even after the Alteration of 1578, when all Catholic churches and convents in the Amsterdam (including the Nieuwe Kerk) were seized by the new Protestant city government. From that point on, the collection was concentrated in the city library – a collection that, in the early days, consisted of fewer than 1,000 volumes.
In the centuries following the establishment of the city library, its collection grew at only a modest pace. This did not truly change until the Athenaeum was re-dubbed the University of Amsterdam (UvA) in 1877 and the city library became the University Library. The number of study programmes on offer gradually increased, and along with it both the number of enrolled students and the scope of the University Library collection. In particular, the donation of a number of large private libraries resulted in spectacular growth. These included E.J. Potgieter's private library and Leeser Rosenthal's collection of books on Judaica, but also the acquisition of a large number of works on loan from academic and private societies. As a result, in 1881, the University Library was moved from the attic of the Agnietenkapel – following shorter periods at the addresses on the Prinsengracht and Herengracht – to the Singel 421. This was the former longbowmen's shooting range, the Handboogdoelen.
In the 20th century, and particularly in the years after World War II, the University's growth continued with redoubled vigour. New fields of study were organised into separate institutes, each of which received its own library with dedicated study materials. In only a short time, over one hundred institute libraries emerged in addition to the University Library. These were scattered throughout the city, from the historic centre to the Watergraafsmeer, and later on in Zuidoost. During that same period, the university grew from a few thousand students to a few tens of thousands, a development which only heightened the demand for scientific books and journals. Over time, the University Library and the respective libraries of the institutes developed a division of labour in which the University Library concentrated on the general information needed by all disciplines and kept the less frequently-used materials at its depot, while the institutes’ libraries focused primarily on sources that needed to be immediately available for education and research.
At the end of the 20th century, on the eve of the digitisation of scientific information, the institute libraries’ collections were concentrated into faculty libraries within the faculties. These were often housed in a central location on the campus, where the immediately available material was stored in open shelving. The depot function of the University Library was concentrated in the Zuidoost district of the city, in the IWO Building. To house the rare, fragile and valuable centuries-old specimens from the UvA collection, the Special Collections Library – which is today part of the Allard Pierson Museum – was built on the Oude Turfmarkt. At this point at the turn of the century, the pinnacle of the age of paper, the UvA had in its possession a collection of books and journals that stretched over 120 kilometres.
Yet with the advent of digitisation, the vast majority of scientific information began to be made available in digital rather than analogue form. These days, over 90% of the annual collection development budget of 8 million euros is spent on access to online information such as e-books and e-journals. The physical size of the University Library collection has also contracted to around 90 kilometres, 90% of which is stored in the depot and approximately 10% of which can be found in open shelving. The collection supports the UvA's timely education and research in all the fields of study on offer and is managed, in consultation with the faculties, to that end.
The Allard Pierson Museum manages the collections of historic books amassed by the UvA over the course of five centuries. In addition, the Allard Pierson Museum provides access to these collections for education and research purposes, as well as presenting them to a wider audience. With the addition of collections such as those of the former university museum De Agnietenkapel and the Theater Instituut Nederland, the diversity of the cultural heritage materials has increased exponentially. These now include everything from the first Apple computer to costumes worn by the singer Ramses Shaffy, and from the Blaeu atlases to Egyptian mummies.
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