Priests’ libraries in the Dutch Republic

First page of the inventory of J. Blok

By Jaap Geraerts and Sarah Büttner

The scholarly importance of “Priesterbibliotheken” (priests’ libraries) is well-known: they provide insight into what Catholic priests serving in the Holland Mission read or at least thought useful to own. Moreover, such libraries can tell us more about early modern Dutch Catholic spirituality, but also about the wider interest in books outside the remit of theology and pastoral care. Lastly, in particular libraries from the eighteenth century will also help to enhance our understanding of the schism which occurred in the Dutch Catholic Church. “Priesterbibliotheken (priests’ libraries) in the Dutch Republic” is a small pilot project which started at the IEG DH Lab in early 2021. The project aims to capture the bibliographical information contained in manuscript inventories of the libraries of Catholic priests serving in the Republic and making this available in digital form.

A number of inventories of this kind have received their due attention in the past, mostly in the form of scholarly editions, i.e. a transcription of the inventory accompanied by a (brief) introduction and/or analysis. However, a comparison of such libraries is difficult since the existing editions have appeared in print, which makes it tricky to search and analyse the information contained in them. This pilot project therefore seeks to explore the possibilities of creating and working with digital editions of such inventories. Currently the project is in an early phase of development which comprises two major activities. The first is the process of capturing the information contained in two inventories of priests’ libraries from the eighteenth century in a spreadsheet. This information will be invaluable for the envisaged outcomes of the second activity, namely the development of a data model and a description of the technical infrastructure needed to store and express the data. Once the technical infrastructure has been created and its possibilities have been explored and refined, the project can be expanded, hopefully with the help of a grant, by including the information from other inventories and by further developing the said infrastructure.

The first inventory was drawn up in 1733 by the ‘Jansenist’ priest Joannes Blok, at the time serving in the abolished parish of Eikenduinen near The Hague. This is a particularly rich inventory (comprising around 1200 books) in which Blok indicated which books were his and which were part of the already existing parish library. Apart from providing information about the interests of this priest, the inventory comprises a long section on literature relating to the Jansenist controversy, including several smaller ‘ephemeral’ tracts which often were not recorded in inventories like these. The second inventory comprises the library of a Jesuit mission station in Haarlem and was drawn up by a magistrate in 1732 after the station had been closed at the behest of the authorities. While the library was quite large, comprising at least 1600 books, the inventory is not a detailed as the other and ‘only’ lists around 600 of them, most of the smaller-sized books having been omitted.

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In order to process, capture, and enrich the information contained in the manuscript inventories, the following workflow has been established. To start with, the inventories were carefully examined and their content was transcribed in a spreadsheet. The information which our transcription generally contains is:

  • the name of the author,
  • the title of the book as it was noted in the inventory and
  • the place and
  • the date of publication.

Some columns are empty due to missing information, because the source entries were not available for all of the books. Several other categories were added in order to capture more complex information. The three most important ones are “standardized title”, “comments” and “link”, and are focusing on the next step in the workflow.

Inventories are meant to provide a unique kind of information. They collect, model and thus structure the information hiding in a physical repository of things, like for example in a library. In a way they mirror the actual holdings in very specific ways. Therefore, in order to obtain a most full account of information obtainable from these inventories, the books as physical entities corresponding to the entries need to be found. We are trying to gain advantage from the modern and digital times we live in by not overcomplicating our research by searching for extant printed copies. On the contrary, in order to facilitate possible future research, we try to increase the accessibility to the research data by including digital copies at an early stage of the research process. Summing up the tasks, books mentioned in the inventory have to be tracked down, listed in the spreadsheet, and metadata that is not yet available has to be retrieved and added as well.

The workflow should be designed as efficient as possible in order to track copies of the same book while treating them as unique items at the same time, and to streamline searches; thus, unstructured and unintelligible search processes ought to be avoided. For this very reason Worldcat seemed a good starting point for our research. As “the world’s largest network of library content and services” it allows to search for books and text that are hosted by libraries worldwide and sometimes even links to freely accessible digitized items. An additional advantage is that Worldcat generates permalinks that can be easily copied and pasted to the “link” column in the spreadsheet to. After the link is saved, the workflow requires that two additional points should be checked. First, it is important to look for differences in the title given in the inventory and the one given in the results. When both entries match perfectly, all is fine. Otherwise, the title registered within Worldcat takes precedence and will be copied to the field “standardized title”. This field will from now on be assumed as the title the book is worldwide known by, whether or not the individual inventories are giving divergent titles. Second, it is necessary to fill in missing information into the columns . If Worldcat states information differing from the spreadsheet, or if a particular edition couldn’t be found, this will be noted in the column “comments”.

What other possibilities are there to find a book, if it is not listed on Worldcat? Apart from a number of relevant printed books, such as Paul Begheyn’s Jesuit books in the Dutch Republic and its Generality Lands, 1567-1773: a bibliography (Leiden, 2014), online there are not that many options. Projects such as the Universal Short Title Catalogue just cover a specific time period or are confined to a limited geographical area of study, like the VD17. Of course, they are still pretty helpful. But there still is a lack of metasearch engines which are able to access widely data stored in projects, libraries, or individual databases. Moreover, there are not that many projects or databases at all that might provide a basis for such a search engine. In regard to this project, a rather unusual source turned up by accident. For the period of time covered by the inventories the existence of the books could be proofed with the help of antiquarian websites. Beyond that, some metadata could be proofed or added because of the entries on catawiki, ILAB or ZVAB. Hence, by providing its data, this project might be able to make a significant contribution not only to the history of Dutch Catholicism, but also to the history of the book more generally.


Cite this article as: Jaap Geraerts and Sarah Büttner, "Priests‘ libraries in the Dutch Republic," in Digital Humanities Lab, 08/07/2021, https://dhlab.hypotheses.org/?p=2096.

Featured Image: First page of the inventory of J. Blok by Jaap Geraerts


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