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Amsterdam's Reading Society for Women

The Leesmuseum voor vrouwen (Reading Society for Women) in Amsterdam was founded on 2 May 1877. Although there were reading societies in nearly all major Dutch cities there had been one in Amsterdam since 1802 these tended not to admit women. Exceptions were made only for such exceptional women as the celebrated novelist Mrs Bosboom-Toussaint and the first female medical doctor and suffragette Aletta Jacobs.

Like other reading societies, the Leesmuseum voor vrouwen targeted the upper middle class; the lower classes had their own libraries, the Nutsbibliotheken, which were operated by the Maatschappij tot Nut van ’t Algemeen (Society for the Common Good). In addition, there were the commercial lending libraries (Kloek 1978; Luger 1997).

The Leesmuseum voor vrouwen occupied the building on Hartenstraat 29, where members were welcome to read daily and weekly papers and magazines, brochures and books. At first, materials could not be borrowed and all reading had to be done in house. This soon changed. Lending started with textbooks, and within a few years members were allowed to take home novels as well, provided they had been in the Leesmuseum’s possession for more than three months.

The Leesmuseum was very popular. A membership list for the period 1888-97 that has survived shows a total of 321 members, including eight writers and translators. These women’s membership has been included in their database entries.

Unlike the Damesleesmuseum, its counterpart in The Hague, the Amsterdam reading society for women no longer exists. It was dissolved in 1966; its records were given to the City of Amsterdam and part of its book collection to the Amsterdam University Library.

The catalogue for the year 1886 has survived and been included in Prinse 1988. It lists books and brochures of which we know for certain that they were read, and selected for the Leesmuseum’s collection, by women. It is not clear how the society went about selecting books, but it is likely that until 1899 this task was performed by two committee members. And a time-consuming job this must have been, because these two women read everything. Nor did their choices meet with universal approval: the records show that the purchasing policy was the subject of occasional criticism at members’ meetings.

The Leesmuseum’s catalogue contained 1,439 volumes in four languages: Dutch (original works and translations), French, German and English. Obviously, not all these titles were by women writers. To be exact, 193 works were by women, 83 of them by Dutch women. These reception data have been included in the database WomenWriters.

Which authors were well represented in the catalogue? Among the foreign authors, George Eliot (9 titles), Ouida (14 titles) and George Sand (10 titles) stand out. It is interesting that these titles were all original versions; these authors were apparently not read in translation. Elise Adelaïde Haighton (4 titles, and herself a member of the Leesmuseum), Catharina. F. van Rees (4 titles) and Mrs Bosboom-Toussaint (14 titles) top the list of Dutch writers. This also shows that the Leesmuseum’s collection of works by authors such as Ouida, Sand, Van Rees and Bosboom-Toussaint was far from complete and that only a (small) selection was available to its members.


  • Helmers, Dini. De geschiedenis van het Leesmuseum voor vrouwen. Master’s dissertation, Amsterdam, 1987. (In IIAV Amsterdam, NED 7 1987).
  • Kloek, J.J. ‘Uitnodiging tot onderzoek: een kijkje in de Nutsbibliotheken van 1910’, in R.T. Segers (red.), Receptie-esthetika; grondslagen, theorie en toepassing. (1978), 183-198.
  • Luger, Bernt. Wie las wat in de negentiende eeuw?. (Utrecht: Matrijs, 1997), 21-76.
  • Prinse, Els. De collectie en de leden van het leesmuseum voor vrouwen te Amsterdam op het eind van de negentiende eeuw. Master’s dissertation, Leiden. Leiden University, History Department, 1988. (In IIAV Amsterdam, NED 7 1988).

Susanne Parren, February 2007
Transl.: Brenda Mudde

  • Note that when arriving in the database WomenWriters your status will be "not logged on", meaning that your access to the database is limited. For complete access (and participation in the project), contact Suzan van Dijk.

  • Sources > Dutch sources > Library catalogues (clubs) > Leesmuseum voor vrouwen, Amsterdam

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