A brief history of Dutch research in the Fagel collection

We all cherish the Howard Carter moments in life. The moments when you push a giant boulder to the side, enter an unopened tomb and find your book historical equivalent of Tutankhamun. The truth is, there are not enough hidden tombs for all of us. The Fagel Collection is a gem, but a hidden gem? Not really. Trinity College Library has been visited by Dutch scholars for a century and I humbly follow in their footsteps. The question is, what did our notable predecessors find and how can we build on that?

19th century

The Fagel collection was sold to Trinity in 1802. The sale was mentioned in at least one contemporary Dutch newspaper, the Groninger Courant of 26 March 1802, but things became awfully quite after that. No matter how important the purchase may have been for Trinity College at the time, it seems as if the Fagel collection was quickly forgotten in the Netherlands. There are very few Dutch references to the library in the nineteenth century and as far as I know there are no detailed accounts of Dutch travelers who came to see the Fagel collection. It would be interesting to hear if anyone has additional knowledge of notable Dutch visitors to Trinity in those days.

Walking across the gallery of the Long Room is a Howard Carter-like experience

The situation was quite different in the twentieth century. Things arguably changed in 1916, when E.C. Godée Molsbergen edited a volume about early modern travels in South Africa for the Linschoten Vereniging and concluded that the important journal of Simon van der Stel was missing from the Dutch archives. Some years later, Gilbert Waterhouse of Trinity College remarked that the manuscript survived in the Fagel Collection. It was listed in the Catalogue of the manuscripts in the library of Trinity College, compiled by Abbott in 1900, but nobody had noticed its importance or provenance at the time. Waterhouse published an edition of the text in 1932 and the story was picked up by Dutch journals.

Brummel and Braches

It would be far too easy to say that the rediscovery of this one manuscript triggered further research in the collection, but evidently more Dutch historians and librarians visited the Fagel library from the 1930s onward. Among them was Leendert Brummel (1897-1976), who spent some time in Dublin before he became head librarian of the National Library of the Netherlands in 1937. He returned to Dublin in 1955 and reflected on the acquisition of the Fagel Library by Trinity, or, as he phrased it in the final sentence of his article: ‘what we shall always have to consider as a heavy loss to our national cultural heritage’.

The first detailed bibliographical analysis of the collection from a Dutch perspective was done by Ernst Braches in 1962. The archive of his research in the Fagel collection is available at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, an annotated typoscript of a report that covers the core of his activities in Dublin can be found online.  The research of Braches was extensive and unmistakably of high quality. He catalogued over a thousand pamphlets of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, must have seen large parts of the collection and recorded information about provenances and bindings.

Braches concluded that up to 95 percent of the pamphlets were known in existing Dutch bibliographies. Unfortunately the bibliographical research of Braches was never published. All that is left from his time in Dublin is the typoscript, a collection of handwritten catalogue cards, and one small article about the afterlife of the Fagel collection in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, his work was known in circles of Dutch book historians. Some of the more interesting bindings from the Fagel collection that Braches identified are well-documented in the classic study Dutch decorated bookbinding in the eighteenth century by Jan Storm van Leeuwen. And the Constanter provenances that Braches identified were recognized by others that studied the dispersed collection of Huygens.

Catalogue cards Fagel Collection
Catalogue cards in the archive of Braches’ research of the Fagel Collection. KB, KW 1920 A 3.

Recent years

In the years after Braches’ visit, Dutch historians and librarians continued to find their way to Trinity College Library, but very little systematic bibliographical research to the Fagel collection as a whole has been carried out. The repetitive claims of the uniqueness of the pamphlets and its importance as Dutch national heritage have echoed through the decades, but the 1802 auction catalogue and Trinity’s 1872 catalogue are still the most comprehensible ways to access the collection.

In recent years my colleagues from the National Library recorded a couple of hundred  copies from the collection for the Short-Title Catalogue, Netherlands, be it with limited time and resources. Dutch historian Ingmar Vroomen worked extensively with the 1802 auction catalogue and wrote a report about it. Additionally our colleagues from St. Andrews catalogued all sixteenth and seventeenth century pamphlets for the Universal Short-Title Catalogue.

The pamphlets are rightfully mentioned as a unique source in a great number of articles about the Fagel collection, for example by Jaap Harskamp in the volume Frozen in time, and more recently, by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen in the volume Book Collecting in Ireland and Britain, 1650-1850.


So where do we go from here? There is, I am afraid, no secret door that will lead to a hidden tomb, a Howard Carter experience, but in general, the eighteenth century is still largely unknown territory in the Fagel collection. In the past month about a hundred and fifty editions turned up that had not yet been described for the STCN. Some rare eighteenth century pamphlets, smaller books in history and French literature, and also a considerable number of state publications. Take for example this treaty of 142 pages between the Dutch Republic and Brandenburg. Just one other copy could be traced, in the National Archives in The Hague.


There is a noteworthy cohesion between the Fagel collection and three libraries in The Hague, that is, the National Library, the National Archives and the Library of the House of Parliament. These four collections hold thousands of state publications between them, ordinances, treaties, placards and resolutions. Sometimes they are duplicates, sometimes they are supplementary to each other, and sometimes they have a shared provenance. It has been noted before (see for example Theo Thomassen, Instrumenten van de macht. De Staten-Generaal en hun archieven 1576–1796) that the Fagels had government administration in their collection that can hardly be understood as private.

So far, the assumption has always been that most of the government publications from the Fagel collection were left behind at the office in The Hague, and ended up in the collection of the National Library and the National Archives after a separate auction in 1803. But clearly, not all was left behind at the office in The Hague and it is not hard to understand why. It is likely that what we think of as a private collection of the Fagels, is in fact a hybrid collection of private books and public administration.

The example of the journal of Simon van der Stel suggests that there are pieces in the Fagel collection that have been transferred from public archives. Was this common practice or incidental? Did certain types of state publications perhaps survive better in a private collection? Were gaps in public collections filled with copies from the Fagels? Or they other way around? More in general: how should the relation between private and public collections be understood? And what can we learn from an integrated look into multiple collection that all have a provenance in the context of eighteenth century Dutch administration?

We can not even begin to answer these questions until the entire Fagel collection has been properly catalogued. Stating that a collection is ‘special’ without providing access to it for future researchers, would be as if Howard Carter had sealed the tomb of Tutankhamun after he had seen it, only to tell the press that there are some real treasures hidden behind that giant boulder that is blocking the entrance.

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