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200 years of the university library

When it was founded in 1817, the University of Liège was located on the Isle Al Hochet in the former Walloon Jesuit college. We have little information about the library infrastructure at the time the university was founded. The collections were placed in the former college library, which was equipped with new furniture for this occasion. Despite several waves of building work and refurbishment, this building still exists and the ALPHA Library still occupies this space nearly two hundred years later. When the University of Liège was founded, the City of Liège donated the books from its public library to the new university. This came to approximately 7,000 volumes. The collection from Averbode Abbey (nearly 8,000 volumes) was soon added to this initial collection, along with150 precious manuscripts from Saint-Trond Abbey.

Extension of the original library in the 19th century

Very soon after the university moved into the former convent, important works were launched. Around 1820, Jean-Noël Chevron, who was responsible for building the new university, laid out the plans for new buildings. The library wing was extended by adding four sections to the existing ones, along with an amphitheatre for anatomy lessons.
Starting in 1835, following the increase in the student population and the collections, new works became necessary. The refurbishment and construction of new buildings were entrusted to Julien-Étienne Rémont on this occasion. They kept the sections that were added to the Jesuit building by Chevron and demolished the medical amphitheatre. Rémont completed the wing in the same style as the 18th century construction, retaining a perfect symmetry. At this time, the building’s ground floor was occupied by the philosophy, law and medicine auditoriums, as well as the botanical museum in the central part of the Faculty of Medicine building.

These changes considerably increased the library’s surface area, which now occupied the whole first floor. Three large, decorated rooms were built. These were connected to each other by Corinthian column arcades, with vaulted roofs decorated with caissons.

The axonometrical section of the building, and the plans that were published in the 1869 Liber Memorialis, make it possible to locate the library departments and give an idea of the developments that occurred in 1836.  They also show its extensions, which were built between 1842 and 1869, into the building on Place Cockerill, where the music room and a room with six columns are found. The chief librarian’s office and the reading room were located in the Paquay Barbière wing. At this time, the library’s collections were once again restricted by limited space. A few years beforehand, Fiess had refurbished the former reading room above the amphitheatre so that part of the collections (manuscripts, sheet music, engravings and the medal cabinet) could be stored there, but these spaces were already full when Leroy wrote the Liber memorialis in 1869. The situation seems to have remained the same until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1903, Adrien Witter’s willed his collections to the university, which considerably increased the library’s collection. Some twenty thousand works, including manuscripts, incunabula and many old prints, enhanced the collections, in addition to a set of remarkable drawings and etchings, objets d'art and fifty paintings. This unexpected bequest soon became a problem. From 1904, the cataloguing of books was interrupted by a lack of space in the rooms.

Would they wait for it to crumble?

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the library extended to the ground floor of the building, with the creation of a reading room for professors (the current Marie Delcourt room) and the creation of the Wittert room. The library continued to develop on these premises until the beginning of the 1930s. In 1932, due to the lack of space on the first floor of Place Cockerill, the collections and departments housed there had to be moved. Very soon, the central building would also find itself on the verge of crumbling under the weight of the documentation. It was then decided that a new library would be build and construction began with the demolition of the building on Place Cockerill. After several vicissitudes, the project was abandoned just after the second world war. After the war, the situation was evaluated. In these difficult times, the aim was to make the building suitable for use as soon as possible. A campaign to renovate the buildings soon began and new premises were inaugurated in 1949.

Reopening after the second world war

Although the layout of the ground floor remained unchanged, this work sounded the death knell for the large 19th century rooms. These were replaced by two levels, which were equipped with steel furniture. A mezzanine for the offices and a stairwell were also built. Unfortunately, the rooms were not large enough and a large part of the collections would remain in storage awaiting better days, in the military shacks located in the central courtyard. A second campaign to refurbish the building took place in 1969: a new reading room was built on the first level. This was progress and provided a certain level of comfort. The reading room on the ground floor was converted into a room for periodicals. The Wittert room was also demolished at this time, when the first computers were installed in the institution. In the meantime, a solution was found for the collections stored in the courtyard shacks: the construction of a building that would temporarily serve an an annex to the university library, pending the construction of a large new library on the Sart Tilman premises.

General library and documentation units

For a long time, the ‘General Library’ was the only real official university library. However, from the end of the 19th century, due to the spreading out of university institutes throughout the city and the growing specialisation of fields of knowledge, certain departments and faculties started to develop their own libraries. The decision to locate the whole university at Sart Tilman was made in 1954 and led to a radical change in its documentary landscape in 1956, with the creation of specialised ‘Documentation Units’ that were close to users and therefore related to faculties or departments. As for the ‘General Library', which was renamed the ‘Centre d’Information et de Conservation des Bibliothèques’ (C.I.C.B.) in 1988, it was no longer a universal library and restricted its acquisitions to general documentation, as well as history, literature and philosophy, in order to meet the documentary needs of the departments that had not yet migrated to Sart-Tilman.

A network to bring them all together

Faced with radical changes in access to information and user needs, which were linked to the sudden rise of digital technology, ULiège made the decision to modernise its libraries in 2003. It also reorganised them in depth, in order to enable them to fulfil their roles more effectively. It took their number from more than twenty documentation units or libraries to four major entities: The Bibliothèque Générale de Philosophie et Lettres (BGPhL – General Philosophy and Literature Library, which became ALPHA in 2013, after the integration of the new architecture faculty's library), the Bibliothèque de Droit, Economie Gestion et Sciences Sociales Léon Graulich (The Léon Graulich Law, Economics, Management and Social Sciences Library), the Bibliothèque des Sciences et Techniques (BST – Science and Technology Library) and the Bibliothèque des Sciences de la Vie (BSV – Life Sciences Library). In addition to the much-needed modernisation and development of the electronic library, this restructuring aimed to improve and extend the service to users and to coordinate the acquisitions policies in a more efficient manner.

Towards a University Library : ULiège Library

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