In 1481, the town solicitor Willem Pauwels donated 41 books to the City of Antwerp. This donation led to the establishment of a City Library in the Town Hall. Unfortunately, it was lost in 1576, during the Fall of Antwerp, when the town hall burnt down.
Expansion of the collection
Thanks to Christopher Plantin, the collection of the rebuilt City Library was substantially expanded. He and his successors donated a copy of every book that was printed by the Plantin publishing house to the library. In the seventeenth century, the City Library merged with the library of the Bishop’s Seminary, the collection was once again expanded. The first inventory, which dates from 1609 and which was drawn up by the then librarian Aubertus Miraeus, lists 356 works, including 32 manuscripts.
Return to the town hall
After the librarians departure, the library laid dormant for a while.
In the mid-seventeenth century, however, the city moved its collection into one of the vacant rooms in the former Stock Exchange (Beurs). By 1700, the library returned to the town hall again. There it continued to languish for another hundred years, almost completely forgotten.
In 1805, the library opened its doors to the public for the first time. The collection of the Ecole 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 foundation 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 too small to accommodate all these books. In 1883, both libraries moved to the Sodality in Jezuïetenplein, which was renamed Hendrik Conscienceplein. A statue of the Flemish author was erected in the square soon after.
The library ran out of space again, however. 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 with a reading room and a storage in 1936. 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 of heritage library. Since 2008, the library is also a partner library of the Flanders Heritage Library.