In memoriam Kees Gnirrep

28 April 2014

Former curator of Rare Printed Books of the University Library, Kees Gnirrep, passed away in the early morning of Thursday 24 April, at the age of 73.

Kees Gnirrep started his career in the book trade at the famous antiquarian bookshop and auction house of Menno Hertzberger. When the company was taken over by A.L. van Gendt, Kees stayed on for a short period of time, working together with his close friend and secondary-school mate, Bram Schuytvlot. In March 1973, Kees joined the Rare Books Department of the Amsterdam University Library where he could put his experience in antiquarian book sales to good use.

Besides his work for the University Library and caring for his family, Kees also managed to obtain a degree in Human Geography from the University of Amsterdam. In 1989, he graduated with distinction on a thesis about housing problems that printers experienced in the Netherlands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. From 1981 to 1990, he served as ‘custos’ of the library of the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG), which is part of the Rare Books Department as a long-term loan. Subsequently, he served as the head of this department until his early retirement in 2003, working side by side with Bram Schuytvlot (1942–2005) as an inseparable two-man unit.

In his role as curator of Rare Printed Books, Kees Gnirrep was untiring in his efforts to improve the online accessibility of early printed books. He relentlessly searched for the best way to make the specialised knowledge from the descriptions of early editions available to researchers wanting to use these books. He had profound knowledge of both early books and cultural history in general. His memory was so fabulous it was truly enviable.

His collaboration with head curators Ton Croiset van Uchelen and Piet Visser resulted in extraordinary acquisitions, from unknown almanacs, prize bindings and writing manuals to absolute top works, such as a beautifully handcoloured bible by Dirk Jansz van Santen and a unique copy of Cornelis de Bruyn’s Voyage au Levant (Delft, 1700) featuring colour-printed illustrations.

Writing was something that Kees took very seriously. Being his own worst critic, he firmly believed everything should be well founded and he carried out much more research into the library collections than is evident from his publications. Despite his meticulousness, Kees has an impressive list of publications to his name. He built on the work of librarian and professor Herman de la Fontaine Verwey, such as in his articles on master colourist Dirk Jansz van Santen and the Amsterdam bookbinder Albert Magnus.

His knowledge on the library’s collections was unparalleled, which resulted in highly diverse exhibitions and accompanying publications. Kees was just as comfortable writing about the library of the Amsteram Hortus Botanicus as he was writing about stereotype bible printing in the seventeenth century. Kees devoted special attention to bookbindings and was co-author of Kneep en binding, a terminology for the description of constructions of old bookbindings. For his research into the Amsterdam City Library, he managed to track down all ‘library bindings’ with traces from the original chained library in the library depots. His research did not only reveal a wealth of information on the earliest history of our library, but also led to many new insights on how libraries were set up and run and the bookbinder’s trade in Amsterdam in the sixteenth century.

With the patient of a saint, Kees reconstructed the library of Amsterdam priest Jacob Buyck: the first privately owned library which was donated to the City Library in the seventeenth century. This research project is another example of Kees Gnirrep’s contribution to the historiography of the library of the University of Amsterdam. Although this project has not been completed, the fundamental work that Kees did there provides a thorough foundation on which future studies in this area can be built.

The many students, researchers and colleagues whom he helped motivate and teach throughout the years are now on their own.

Published by  Special Collections UvA