Adrie van der Laan is an authority on Erasmus. As the curator of the Erasmus collection, he collects everything that is relevant, for the library and for the city. “I prefer to read him in his own handwriting. His hand is smooth, stable and fluent.”

The city library of Rotterdam is like a pyramid. Just go to the third floor of the library, to the room right next to the fire stairs. “Like in Egypt, this is a holding place of a deceased person and his crown jewels”, says Adrie van der Laan, curator of the heritage collection of the library of Rotterdam.

The library holds about thirty thousand old prints, five thousand of which are of or about Desiderius Erasmus. Van der Laan has copies of more than two hundred of all three hundred editions of The Praise of Follies. He opens the vault door, the light flashes on. Books are everywhere: from the ground up to the ceiling, around the corner, row after row. In metal shelving units, in leather bindings, on parchment and on paper. The vault has a temperature of eighteen degrees Celsius; the humidity is set at fifty percent. The air filter is cleaned twice a year.

The power of the library

Portret Adrie van der Laan
Image credit: Victor Wollaert

Van der Laan grabs a book from one of the shelves: Duplici copia rerum ac verborum [published in English as Foundations of the Abundant Style]. It’s a book about words and things. A book with synonyms for the word ‘chair’, with different ways to tell someone that you like it, full of metaphors and alliterations. All this information is available online, but people still visit the library, for instance to ascertain if Erasmus’ real name was Gerrit Geerts. This untruth has crept into Wikipedia, Van der Laan fought against it. “After a grappling with one of the editors, we managed to remove Gerrit from the Wikipedia page. That is the power of the library. We do not only store the books, but we are also a reliable source of knowledge. That’s not the same as giving information. What we say about Erasmus is true.”

Historical sensation

Vermeende schedel van Erasmus
Image credit: Victor Wollaert

Van der Laan discovered that truth by reading. He read every book that was written by Erasmus and many books that were written about him, mainly in the train from home to Rotterdam. “On my way back I am often too tired, then I listen to the blues on my IPhone.” He buys the books in antiquaries and at book auctions. The budget comes from the owner of the collection: the city of Rotterdam. “A book from 1530 can already be bought at a price of two hundred euro. I read as much as possible in Latin, the language in which Erasmus wrote. As he said: never trust a translation. If you want to get to know someone, you have to read his work. Enter his thoughts. I prefer to read him in his own handwriting. His hand is smooth, stable and fluent. We hold four of his letters here. Knowing that he personally touched it gives a historical sensation.”

Hundreds of books

That sensation brings Van der Laan back to the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Erasmus wrote hundreds of books. “The worst loss is time loss, he said. He gave his young pupil advice to make a plan for the day. For how do you write hundreds of books in a lifetime? According to Erasmus, the best time was at dawn. Begin early, do not work continuously, and take breaks.” All necessary to remain sharp: in his head and in his sentences.  “Language is a sign of civilization”, says Van der Laan, as he puts back the book about words and things. “If you don’t formulate your sentences carefully, you cannot think clearly. By formulating accurately, you get the best of yourself. If there is anything that I’ve learned from Erasmus, it is to always ask this question: how am I at my best?”

You can consult books from the Erasmus collection in the Erasmus Hall [Erasmuszaal] in the city library. You cannot take them home. The Erasmus Hall is open from Tuesdays to Fridays, from 10:00 to 17:00, only by appointment: erasmuszaal@bibliotheek.rotterdam.nl or call 0031 – 10 281 6188.

A co-operation between Erasmus Magazine and Vers Beton.

In 2016 Rotterdam celebrates the 550th birth date of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. In this series, Vers Beton explores the meaning of Erasmus’ thinking for the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Vers Beton is a journal for people in Rotterdam who like to reflect on their city.

This series has been made possible by a financial contribution by the city of Rotterdam.

This piece was published earlier in Dutch in the online magazine Vers Beton.

Translation: Melissa van Amerongen.