Last Saturday I participated in an interesting visit of the Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg (National Library of Luxembourg) with my genealogy society Luxracines.
A Brief History
The origins of the Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg (BnL) date back to 1798, a time when French troops occupied the former duchy. In 1802 part of it’s most ancient collections, the manuscripts from the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach, were moved to the National Library of France. The library went from being a central library of the Département des Forêts (during French occupation) to ownership by the city of Luxembourg after 1815. The Luxembourg state, after gaining independence through the Treaty of London in 1839, reclaimed ownership in 1848 when the name was changed to Bibliothèque de Luxembourg. In 1899 following a rise in national sentiment among the Luxembourgish population, the name was changed to the present form, Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg. It’s role as an encyclopaedic library to the education system prevailed during the early years. Today BnL is also a heritage library.
The BnL has been housed in the former Athénée grand-ducal (Athenaeum), located next to the Cathédrale de Luxembourg, since 1973. To give you an idea of the age of the building, the Athenaeum was originally founded in 1603 by the Jesuit Order. Steel beams have been added in the old building to support the weight of the collections housed there.
Luxembourg’s national library is a small institution compared to other national libraries. It is the largest repository in Luxembourg with 1.5 million physical documents and a growing number of digital publications. The library is bursting at it’s seams and at the moment documents are located at several different sites.
Introduction by Mr. Pascal Nicolay
Before taking us on a tour of the premises, Mr. Pascal Nicolay, librarian and documentalist, explained the mission and collections of the library.
An important role of the library is the collection of cultural heritage of Luxembourg. Materials printed on different media (books, periodicals, video, CD, DVD) and produced nationally are preserved for the future generations. Because several languages are spoken in Luxembourg publications are usually simultaneously produced in Luxembourgish, French, German and English. This means that the number of copies kept is greater than in a country with only one language.
Through legal deposit BnL collects and makes all Luxembourgish publications accessable in their comprehensive collection. This is a legal requirement to submit a certain number of copies of a publication to a repository, usually the national library of a country.
They also collect works published in other countries which deal with Luxembourg in some way. If a book published in another country includes a biography of a well known personality from Luxembourg, the library takes steps to acquire the required number of copies of the publication. For example, a German publication on restaurants in Europe may include a section on the Luxembourgish chef Léa Linster, gold medal winner of the 1989 Bocuse d’Or, the first and to date only woman to accomplish this.
More importantly, for the genealogist, the library collects publications that may mention the not so well known people. Top of the list are newspapers followed by town bulletins; political parties paraphernalia; local fire department anniversary brochures which often discuss early members of the corps, history of the “house names” and town; yearbooks. Imagine the stories that can be told about an ancestor mentioned in any of these.
We began the tour by visiting some of the rooms accessible to the public. The periodical room where, for example, patrons can read the daily newspapers or recent publications that may be harder to find on the local newspaper stand. The tiny microfilm room where newspapers can be viewed and prints made. Very old newspapers, from 1850 and earlier, can be found and searched on BnL’s eluxemburgensia site. The general reference (dictionaries, encyclopias, etc.) and more specific reference (agriculture, science, etc.) material also has a place in the library.
The best part was when Mr. Nicolay took us “behind the scenes” into the areas not normally accessible to the public. We saw books stored in electrically powered shelving systems and hand crank shelving systems.
Shelves filled with old, old books!
We climbed up a spiral staircase to the attic where old wooden beams held together by wooden dowels could be seen along the full length of the building.
Fire extinguishers are everywhere. The fire department can be on site in five minutes. However there is no modern sprinkling system in the building.
Back in the public area we saw the multi-media room where material can be viewed or loaned out for a week.
Finally, in the projection room, Mr. Nicolay explained how their collections can be searched from the library’s homepage using the new joint search interface of Luxembourg’s libraries’ network a-z.lu.
With a free library card patrons can order material online that they are interested in borrowing or viewing at the library. Orders can be picked up at the library a half hour later.
Unlike other national libraries, the Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg is a loaning library and allows patrons to “check out” books, periodicals, multimedia, etc. with a valid library card.
As mentioned in the begining the library has outgrown its location. Last month a ground breaking ceremony took place for Luxembourg’s new National Library. The construction is is estimated to take four years to complete.
This was the first time I’d set foot in a library since I was in college in 1977. One of my favorite pastimes while going to school was the hour once a week when we went to the library. Beelining to the biography section or fiction for the newest Nancy Drew, learning how to use the card catalogue and how to research. I didn’t know at the time that those skills would help me later with my genealogy research.
Next time I go to Luxembourg City I’m going to apply for a library card. I want to learn how to use the National Library before they move into their new premises, hopefully, in 2018!
© 2014 Cathy Meder-Dempsey