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  • Beyond Belgium: Royal and Other Adventures of a Librarian Worldwide 1974–2000
  • Anthony Olden
Beyond Belgium: Royal and Other Adventures of a Librarian Worldwide 1974–2000. By Herman Liebaers . Leuven, Belgium: Van Halewyck, 2003. 520 pp. £32.00 (paper). ISBN 90-5617-993-4.

Not many librarians write their autobiographies, and to produce a second volume is more unusual still. But few could have had careers as wide-ranging as that of Herman Liebaers: director of the Royal Library in Brussels, president of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), grand marshal to the king of the Belgians, and royal commissioner for the restructuring of the federal research institutions (which included the Royal Library). In Mostly in the Line of Duty: Thirty Years with Books (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1980) Liebaers confessed that it was his exposure to American librarianship as a Fulbright visitor in 1951 that prevented him from abandoning the profession. He had entered the Royal Library before the end of World War II, filling a vacancy for a philologist trained in Germanic languages who was not pro-Nazi. His intention was to leave for a livelier job as soon as possible, but he stayed and was appointed director in 1956.

In 1973 Liebaers was on leave of absence and working in Washington, D.C., as an international consultant to the Council on Library Resources when King Baudouin invited him to become his grand marshal. His main task, he was told, would be to bring the king closer to the people and the people closer to the king. In this new volume Liebaers asks why a devout Catholic monarch would appoint a self-confessed socialist and atheist to work so closely with him. His answer is that the king strove to be representative of all his "Belgian family." Also, of course, there were Liebaers's achievements over nearly thirty years at the Royal Library and his international professional reputation. As grand marshal he helped organize the king's state and private visits abroad. Much of Beyond Belgium is taken up with accounts of these trips as well as meditations on Belgium—its history, politics, and constitutional monarchy. [End Page 209]

When Liebaers was offered the position at the Belgian court he had a number of existing professional commitments. These included his presidency of IFLA since 1969 and his work as main adviser on the Imperial Pahlavi Library that the shah of Iran was planning to build. The king was worried about the possible political implications of IFLA but told Liebaers he could continue with the shah's library project provided that he did not go to Teheran too often. Plans were derailed when an Iranian librarian living in the United States proposed to the shah something bigger than the Library of Congress, "and this in a country where 80% of the population was illiterate, where hardly any scholarly book collections existed and only half a dozen trained librarians were on hand" (86). Liebaers and a colleague halted this project, but the delay was fatal. After the fall of the shah in 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the plans for the library to be sprinkled with cognac and whiskey and publicly burned.

Liebaers says the king never spoke to him about Congo (then Zaire), his troubled former African colony. The king did not go to Zaire during the eight years Liebaers was grand marshal, although Congolese President Mobutu visited the king's palace in Brussels on ten occasions. One of Baudouin's predecessors, Leopold II, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, had exploited Congo ruthlessly, and Belgium had done little to develop the territory before its rushed independence in 1960. As in Mostly in the Line of Duty, Liebaers recalls being sent by the minister of colonies on a six-week library inspection tour in 1957. This turned out to be a "marvellous joke" because "there were no libraries in the Congo" (Beyond Belgium, 26). He visited national parks instead. What Liebaers meant was that there were no public libraries, because he did find collections at the headquarters of the National Research Council and at the Institut national pour l'étude de l'agronomie du Congo...


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