Inside the Belgian Library That Tore Itself Apart

18 Feb

This library wasn't meant to be so empty.

IN THE MID-1960S, THERE WERE no Belgians attending Belgium’s oldest university. Founded in 1425, the institution—known in French as the Université catholique de Louvain and in Dutch as the Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven—was no longer viable despite its rich legacy, and its national symbolic value. As in many places in the country, French speakers, known as Walloons, had long enjoyed special status at the institution, controlling its administration despite Leuven’s location in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders. Fed up, the Flemish students demanded that the university rectify historic inequities and finally prioritize its Dutch-speaking majority.

The institution had torn apart at its factional seams, and nothing less than a split down the middle would suffice. This division would ultimately require the construction of a new town, Louvain-la-Neuve (literally “New Leuven” in French) and a new campus just across the border, only about 40 minutes’ drive away. But dividing the library’s collection—splitting an expression of a unified culture, a shared history—may have been harder than building a new city.

So begins Matthew Taub’s fascinating story of the division of a library and a university. You may read the entire Atlas Obscura story here.

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