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Among the stacks: Belgium’s 6 most beautiful libraries
If two weeks after the end of Brussels’ Book Fair at Tour and Taxis you still find yourself suffering from book withdrawal, maybe it’s time to go exploring some of Belgium’s beautiful spaces devoted to the written word: its libraries.
All over the country, public and private, standing alone or in museums or cultural centres, there peaceful, elegant spaces for your to lose yourself the stacks, stick your nose in a book and soak up some history and culture as the same time. Here are six of the loveliest libraries of Belgium.
1. University of Leuven Central Library, Leuven
Flanking Leuven’s famous Ladeuze Square, the main library branch of the University of Leuven is everything a library should be: a regal neo-Flemish Renaissance building with ornate mouldings, echoing archways and a long, cavernous reading room ringed with book stacks and lined with tables of diligent-looking students and creaking chairs.
The current building and collection had a rough go of it in the 20th century. In 1914, it was burnt by the Germans along with much of the rest of the city during the First World War. In 1921, an American architect Whitney Warren rebuilt the library in its current form with the support of American philanthropists only to have it burnt down again by the Germans in 1940, losing 900,000 of its books and manuscripts. After the war, the library was once again rebuilt and has managed to stay standing since.
Mgr. Ladeuzeplein 21, 3000 Leuven
2. Plantin-Moretus Printing Museum, Antwerp
As its name suggests, the Plantin-Moretus Printing Museum (pictured) is not typically billed as a library, per se, but as a museum dedicated to the lives and work of early European book printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. Still the UNESCO world heritage site houses some 30,000 volumes of old and rare editions, which were part of the printers’ private collection.
Open to visitors, the museum takes you through the majestic residence and offices of Plantin and Moretus, where you’ll find the two oldest printing presses in the world and a Rubens portrait or two thrown in for good measure. There is also a reading room to which visitors can be granted access for research or study purposes.
Vrijdagmarkt 22-23, 2000 Antwerp
3. Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, Antwerp
Since its beginnings over 500 years ago in 1481 when Antwerp’s town clerk donated 41 volumes to be held as cultural heritage, the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library’s collection has steadily grown. Today it possesses over one million volumes in a pristine collection preserving Antwerp and Flemish culture heritage.
Not to be missed is the Nottebohm Room, a gorgeous stack room and exhibition hall that, with its mellow beams of light streaming in to illuminate the dark wood shelves and ancient globes, cannot fail to charm.
Hendrik Conscienceplein 4, 2000 Antwerp
4. Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels
Few buildings encapsulate the good and the bad of Brussels architecture like the Royal Library of Belgium. This twentieth-century monolith built into the Mont des Arts next door to Brussels’ Central Station is a stately structure of some 75,000 square metres, some of which is stunning, other parts of which is, frankly, ugly.
Inside, you’ll find over seven million volumes, including the complete archives of every book every published in Belgium as well as a collection of 45,000 rare books. The library also holds hundreds of thousands of drawings, engravings, maps and coins, as well as the Centre for American Studies, a joint institute run by the Universities of Antwerp, Leuven and Ghent and the Free University of Brussels.
The main reading room is less inspirational than others on this list, looking dated and rather institutional. However, many other corners of this edifice are very charming. A gem within the library is Librarium, a museum space devoted to the history of the printed word in Belgium and beyond. Its contents are regularly changing and starting in April will hold an exhibition entitled "'Journey through my library".
Boulevard de l'Empereur 2, 1000 Brussels
5. Library of the National Bank of Belgium, Brussels
Even if you don't find yourself in need of a library devoted to economics, finance and monetary policy very often, the National Bank of Belgium library is still a sight to behold. While many old libraries are all about dark, cosy nooks between towering stacks, the National Bank is all about letting the light in. Housed in a former bank building designed by famous architect Désiré De Keyser in Brussels’ city centre, it boasts a beautiful glass-domed ceiling, open colonnades and a wide, sweeping staircase, avoiding the claustrophobic stuffiness of many other libraries.
You can visit the library for free Monday through Saturday during regular business hours.
Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 57, 1000 Brussels
6. Solvay Library, Brussels
Tucked away in the middle of Leopold Park, behind the European Commission, the Solvay Library is an architectural gem. Another magnificent reading room with study rooms on either side, behind its classical exterior is a masterfully crafted interior of precious woods, wrought iron, mosaics and stained glass in full Belle Epoque style. While today it is used primarily as an event and meeting space rather than a library, it is still worth a wander around its halls if you find yourself in the park.
Rue Belliard 137, 1040 Brussels