Dutch legal history and digital libraries

A month ago I made a promise to offer here more on Dutch digital libraries and their importance for legal history. The list of projects maintained by DEN, the Dutch knowledge center for digital heritage, seemed worth checking again. On my blog and my website you can use the collection of links for Dutch and Belgian legal history, but it just might be the case more can be found out there on internet than you will find on these pages. When you wonder reading this post why I do almost not mention projects at Amsterdam, Leiden or Utrecht this is mainly because they have already been included earlier on. Surely I can have completely missed an important site or two or even more, and it cannot do much harm to check this project list which unfortunately is maintained only in Dutch. In order to focus as much as possible Belgium will follow another time.


Let’s start with the happy part of my hunt for Dutch digital libraries. In particular for Friesland (Frisia) legal historians can point to a number of websites. The first digital library has figured already in an earlier post. At Leeuwarden (Ljouwert), the Frisian capital, forces have been united to create the Tresoar, Frisian for treasury. The provincial archive and the provincial library work together in this institute. The website is accessible in Dutch, English and Frisian. In contemporary law Frisian is – a historian must add: again – allowed in court proceedings. However, the digital collection of the Tresoar can only be accessed using an interface in Dutch, but the Digital Treasury Room can be viewed in three languages. The normal approach offers the choice between a list presentation and a thumbnail list, and although distinctly less colorful it is more practical than the fancy looking Treasure Room site which seems to aim at a young audience. Sources for Frisian law are present in this digital collection: the incunable with the Freesk Landriucht, strangely placed among the manuscripts, is one of the highlights. The section Dossiers offers dossiers on three famous trials. The Codex Roorda and two manuscripts of the Hunsingoër Landrecht stem from the collection of the German legal historian Karl von Richthofen. Among the digitized genealogical material is a criminal court register for the period 1838-1844 (“Strafzaken”). The Tresoar also presents sources for the history of the University of Franeker, prints, historical maps and poetry.

The second Frisian website is named after a librarian, Geert Aeilco Wumkes (1869-1954). On Wumkes you will find a small but very well stocked digital library for the history of Frisia. Among the digitized books are a source edition for medieval Frisian law, Zeventien Keuren en Vierentwintig Landrechten, Nikolaas Egbert Algra (ed.) (Doorn 1992), downloadable in the PDF format (23 MB), sources editions by M. de Haan Hetttema (Oude Friese wetten), the famous book Hedendaagse rechtsgeleertheit by Ulrich Huber (1686) , and more works by Karl von Richthofen, the pioneer of the study of medieval Frisian law. Worth reading is also the study by Johann Samuel Theissen, Centraal gezag en Friesche vrijheid [Central authority and Frisian freedom] (Groningen 1907) , the starting point for the modern study of Frisia’s position within the medieval Low Countries. The Wumkes site has as its strengths the Bible in Frisian, a geographical dictionary for Frisia, the acts of the Fries Genootschap and the journal De Vrije Fries.

A third website not mentioned by DEN is maintained privately by Kees Nieuwenhuijsen who presents OCR-scanned texts. His collection is still growing and being refined. Not only the Lex Frisionum and the Lex Francorum Chamavorum (Ewa quae se ad Amorem habet) are presented with a commentary, but now also other sources for Dutch medieval history, such as the Cartularium Radbodi with the possessions of the diocese of Utrecht in the tenth century, and the Codex Eberhardi, a list with the Frisian properties of the abbey of Fulda in the ninth century.

The DEN list does mention one project started by the Fryske Akademy, the Frisian Academy. On its website in Dutch, Frisian and English the Fryske Akademy presents a number of projects; the English version of the project lost is not complete. The Fryske Akademy supports the Wumkes digital library, but apart from that there is only one major digitization project, HISGIS, a historical geographic information system in which the data of the 1832 Dutch land registry and pre-cadastral information from written sources is projected on maps. Apart from Friesland data have been entered for the provinces Groningen, Overijssel and Utrecht. Readers of my posts on Terscheling can look at Skylge.

Scattered findings

The list offered by DEN shows a wealth of digitization projects, but it is not easy to find projects in this list which bear immediately on legal history. For example, one of the oldest Dutch public libraries, the Stads- en Athenaeumbibliotheek of Deventer, has an interesting digital library, but only the pamphlet from 1781, Aan het volk van Nederland [To the Dutch people] by Joan van der Cappellen tot de Pol, which inspired the Dutch Patriotic Revolt (1785-1787), is really important. Luckily for legal historians it is the first item in the digital collection with the promising name Topstukken (Highlights). This library holds certainly more treasures.

Looking at the DEN project list I increasingly become aware that digitization projects concerning books form a tiny minority. Thus I worry even whether to present at all more here when you can already find the most important Dutch digital libraries on the page for Dutch legal history. Dutch projects clearly focus on digitizing images and archival records, on education and promoting interest in Dutch cultural heritage. It will not do any harm to present here briefly some of the projects which to some extent touch upon legal history.

At the Erasmus University Rotterdam Paul Schuurman and Wiep van Bunge have created the Digital Locke Project for the digital edition of manuscripts by John Locke (1632-1704). It is curious that the website of this project is maintained in Amsterdam. The Erasmus University does not have a digital library with digitized books, but open access is advocated, and you can find publications from Rotterdam in an e-repository. The tulip books digitized at Wageningen University can offer you a good background for the study of the Dutch tulipomania in the early seventeenth century, the rage for tulips and the gulf of speculation on the prizes at which tulips were sold. In the e-Depot of Wageningen University, a university focusing on agricultural sciences, you can find for instance the study by Jaap Buis on the history of Dutch forestry. The Technical University Delft presents in its Multimedia Portal historical maps and images. At Tilburg University is no digital library, and only a part – some 20 percent – of the Tilburg e-repository is freely accessible. The catalogue of the Brabant Collectie, the rich collection on the history of the province of Brabant with books, manuscripts and audiovisual materials, can be searched online, but the interface is only in Dutch.

For Maastricht University you can check the links on the legal history of Limburg. Among the digital exhibitions of Maastricht University Library you might like The Dutch Bridge, on the historical relations between Japan and the Netherlands. When you leave out Utrecht, Leiden and Amsterdam you might think nothing can be added anymore. Academisch Erfgoed, “Academic Heritage”, is a portal of six universities in which university libraries and museums cooperate to create several digital collections; so far I have not found a collection related to legal history.

The Dutch ethnological collections have their own portal website, SVCN, but alas they do not digitize their books. The Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam has digitized exactly one book from its collections, Reize naar Suriname (..) by John Gabriel Stedman (1799), translated from the English original. However, the digital presentation gives only a selection from this book, which recently has been digitized completely for Early Dutch Books Online. All possible defects are redeemed by the variety of other activities of the RTI. Colonial maps from the RTI’s collection have been digitized, as is a fine image collection. The Royal Institute for South Asian and Caribbean Studies at Leiden supports a number of initiatives, among them, the Aceh Digital Library. In fact the link collection of this institute explains why I hesitate to create my own page on Indonesia, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. For Dutch colonial history in East Asia one can visit the Indisch Knooppunt portal with a lot of useful links.

Back to Dutch universities we find at Groningen University a very well-ordered digital repository. You can search chronologically for digitized dissertations at Groningen Law Faculty from 1920 onwards, for example the 1934 Ph.D. thesis by Herman Jan Scheltema on the actiones arbitrariae, and Thomas van Bochove’s dissertation on Byzantine law (1996). At Groningen, too, historical maps have been digitized. This is the place to refer to the Oddens link collection at Utrecht University on historical maps; sadly this repertory is no longer updated.

The digital collections of Leiden University Library offer their full strength only to subscribers and card holders. To me this situation at Leiden has always created the image of an immense treasure trove of which you can only visit the porch, but not really enter without special admission. You get a tantalizing glimpse of things, your appetite is wetted by often very extensive descriptions of holdings, but not a complete view of them. “Leiden has it, but it is not for all”, might be your quick conclusion. When you look for example at the selection of early printed books you will find among some sixty items a number of archival and manuscript collections and only a few books and pamphlets. Is it our good fortune that the two pamphlets have been digitized and are freely accessible? The first pamphlet is the famous Dutch declaration of independence from Spain in 1581 (Placaert vanden Staten Generael (..); PAMFLT 1581:237), the second a pamphlet against private trade issued by the Dutch East India Company (Pamphlet tegens den particulieren handel, Amsterdam 1630; THYSF 3516). I could not find a persistent link to these items, and therefore I give the signatures. How very old-fashioned and time-honoured! I am quite willing to applaud Leiden University, but this state of affairs seems to detract from usual Leiden standards.

Special subjects

Among other research institutes the International Institute for Social History (IISH). Whenever I see the site map of this institute I am truly impressed by the width and variety of archival records, visual materials and activities. Today I would like to point to Occasio, “Digital Social History Archive”, an internet archive for social history, with in particular sources on the wars in former Yugoslavia. Checking the IISH link list on the history of internet and various efforts to archive the internet is really worth your attention. The IISH supports a number of other institutions as well, for example the Dutch Press Museum. An online exhibition on censorship includes a bibliography on this subject. However, the IISH has only a few digital collections, and the most rewarding are perhaps the William Morris Collection and the Sylvain Maréchal Collection.

Aletta, formerly known as the International Archive for the Women’s Movement, has an open access image database. The Gerritsen collection on the history of the women’s movement has been digitized, but is accessible only at subscribing libraries and their card holders, and for card holders of Aletta. This enables you to use two other digital collections as well.

The Dutch Royal Library has an impressive list of digitization projects, but it is remarkable that only a few of them concentrate on books. Often they can be searched using the Memory of the Netherlands Portal, but books form only a small part of this imposing gateway to almost one hundred Dutch digital collections. Some projects are accessible through separate website, in particular the Dutch parliamentary papers from 1814 to 1995. The latest project of the Dutch Royal Library to go live is Early Dutch Books Online with books from the period 1780-1800. You can search on a sub domain website in a growing selection of digitized Dutch newspapers from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. The interface is in Dutch. One of my few irritations with the website of the Dutch Royal Library is, its lack of consistent and updated English version of webpages.

The Second World War

The Institute for Dutch History cooperates with the Royal Library in digitizing its source editions. The Second World War looms large in the Dutch collective memory, but the Institute for Dutch History has steered safely from this period, because another research institution, the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, was originally created as the special center for war documentation. The NIOD holds a large number of archival records and maintains a number of online services and websites. The NIOD points to a large number of related websites elsewhere. Digitized pamphlets at the NIOD are accessible again through Memory of the Netherlands portal. The 2002 NIOD report on the events in Srebenica in July 1995 has been digitized. Together with the Royal Library and the Dutch National Archive the NIOD will soon launch a new portal with sources concerning the Second World War.

In view of the sheer number of printed publications on the Second World War it is difficult to envisage a digital library for this period. The indelible imprint of this war on many Dutch lives and the Dutch imagination is reinforced by the proliferation of images and image databases. The NIOD supports at least two images databases on the Second World War, a more classical one and one as part of a portal. Interviews with witnesses of the Second World War figure on a special site. Fourteen war diaries held at the Historical Center Overijssel in Zwolle can be viewed at the Memory of the Netherlands.

Changing focus

No doubt this tour of Dutch digital libraries is a bit long in comparison to the number, quality and relevance for legal history of the websites mentioned here. However, this conclusion should not cause too much distress and despair, for not only digital libraries can support research in legal history. The projects for the digitization of newspapers listed by DEN offer open quick access to an important source on public views and discussions. The list documents also the great activity of Dutch archives for digitization.

Maybe it is now time to finish my series on digital libraries and to change my focus. Digital archives are every bit as interesting, diverse and important as digital libraries. When encountering digital libraries especially American libraries have also digitized archival collections. When I will look at digital archives I will not forget books and manuscripts. In fact I have already often been tempted to look closer at digitized archival records and their role and importance for legal historians, but in earlier postings often it was more sensible to stick as closely possible with the fascinating subject of digital libraries.

A postscript

In view of the restricted number of Dutch digital libraries that I found fit for inclusion here I would like to make good the omission of the image database at the library of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. As for now you will find engraved portraits, some digitized medieval manuscripts, historical maps and clay-tablets from the Ancient Near East in the Van der Meer-Cools collection. This collection might awake the interest of some legal historians. The library promises to publish soon more digital collections. In October 2011 I have added another post on Dutch digital libraries which can be read as a sequel to this post.

Four years later

The Dutch Royal Library has created a new overview of Dutch digital projects (PDF) where you can find not only books, but also maps, journals, newspapers, images and graphic materials. In the version of December 2014 Leiden (Digital Special Collections), Utrecht (the Objects database for the Bijzondere Collecties) and Groningen (Digital Collections) are sadly absent, but even with these lacunae it is a useful overview. However, surely it is time to update the overview here at the page for Old Dutch Law and at the similar page of my legal history portal.

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