The city of Leuven in Belgium was not only the seat of three different universities, but also through them, the seat of notable academic libraries.
Since the founding of the University in 1425 until 1636, there was no official library of the university. Very likely the students had access to manuscripts and printed books preserved in the homes of their professors or colleges.
In 1636, however, a library that might be called Central Library was founded in 1636 in the Cloth Hall.
This library and its various additions was sent in 1797 to the Central School of Brussels, official successor of the former university, while its books and most precious manuscripts were deposited in Paris among the national treasures of the National Library.
It is also very likely that during the troubles of the wars of the French Revolution many books and valuable documents surreptitiously followed an “unofficial journey", sometimes with the lofty aim of saving them from disaster, sometimes with the sordid aim of making money from them. It is thus that many libraries across Europe have books and manuscripts that certainly come from the Old University of Louvain, such as the founding charter of 1425 which was located in 1909 at the seminary of s'Hertogenbosch, or the courses of the law professor Henricus de Piro which were located in the late 20th century in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest.
The State University of Leuven, founded in 1817, also established a library. In 1826 the librarian was the great scholar Karl Bernhardi. He was succeeded by P. Namur.
The nucleus of its collection was formed by the works of the municipal library of Leuven that the city offered the State University in 1817. In addition, the State University received from the government of the Netherlands the sum of 20,000 guilders to enrich its book funds.
This library was established at the very beginning of the Catholic University of Mechlin in 1834. Until 1914 it had its headquarters in a 17th-century building in the rue de Namur. It was this new library that was burned by German soldiers at the beginning of the First World War, on which occasion many valuable works disappeared that had been assembled since 1834 by gift and purchase.
However, contrary to what many believe and write, it was not the books of the Old University of Leuven which disappeared in smoke; indeed, in 1797, the manuscripts and most valuable works of this university were transported to the National Library in Paris and much of the old library (as noted above, some books took an "unofficial course") was transferred to the Central School of Brussels, the official and legal successor of the Old University of Leuven. The library of the Central School of Brussels had about 80,000 volumes, which then came to enrich the library of Brussels, and then the future Royal Library of Belgium where they are still.
Similarly, all the rich archives of the Old University are still located in the General Archives of the Kingdom.
The new university library of the Catholic University of Louvain (1834-1968) is now located in the Ladeuzeplein in a building of neo-Flemish-Renaissance style, designed by the American architect Whitney Warren and built between 1921 and 1928. The library, whose book collection had been rebuilt with donations coming from all around the world which had been outraged by the barbaric act from which it had suffered, unfortunately burned again in 1940, probably following exchanges of fire between belligerents.
The library was again restored after that date and holds approximately four million books.
Since 1970 the collections have been divided between the French-speaking Université catholique de Louvain and Dutch-speaking Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.
The University Library of the Catholic University of Leuven has acquired not only modern books but also many old books and valuable incunabula.