Following Leiden’s example of 1634, the decision to erect a place to observe the stars in Utrecht – on the old Smeetoren fortified tower – was taken as long ago as 1642, shortly after Utrecht University was founded by the city council. It was not until 1854 that a true observatory was put in place.
This modern meteorological and astronomical observatory was built on top of the former city bastion Sonnenborgh. When the meteorologists relocated to a new building in De Bilt in 1897, the astronomers stayed behind in Sonnenborgh. And even when the Astronomical Institute moved to the De Uithof campus of the university in 1987, Sonnenborgh still held its position as the ‘astronomy centre’.
Most of Utrecht’s collection of astronomy books came with the university’s acquisition of the Astronomical Institute. Since 2008, almost all of these books have been included in Utrecht University Library’s collection. The wealth of the collection is largely thanks to donations from and acquisitions made by former directors, including Jean Abraham Chrétien Oudemans (1827-1906) and Albertus Antonie Nijland (1868-1936).
In addition to the Astronomical Institute’s extensive collection, a large proportion of the early printed works in the Utrecht collection come from the collection of astronomy books owned by Jacob Maurits Carel, Baron of van Utenhove van Heemstede (1773-1836), which was donated to Utrecht University Library by his widow in 1837.
Shortly afterwards, the library also acquired the extensive collection of books and maps owned by the mathematician, physicist and astronomer Gerit Moll (1785-1838) from Utrecht, which includes many special and rare astronomical maps.
In addition to the books and maps, the library has also acquired – thanks to the Astronomical Institute – an almost complete collection of astronomy periodicals, from the very first series from the early 19th century to the most recent (of which many are also available digitally).
The Utrecht collection of ‘institute publications’ – astronomical observatory series and annual reports exchanged free of charge between observatories in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century – can be counted among the most exhaustive collections of their kind in the world.