Ackersdijck collection

The private collection of a well-organised person who loved to travel

When thinking about scholars, often an image of the absent-minded professor springs to mind. This certainly does not apply to Jan Ackersdijck (1790-1861), Utrecht law professor. On the contrary: he was a man of  extreme order and accuracy. He was also a man who loved to travel and these two factors resulted in a beautiful collection of maps, atlases and books, measuring forty linear metres. Moreover he meticuloulsy recorded his own life and career in diaries, letters, meeting documents and reports: fantastic sources for historical research.

Portrait of Jan Ackersdijck

Jan Ackersdijck was born in 's Hertogenbosch, as the son of lawyer and regent Willem Cornelis Ackersdijck Jr (1760-1843). His father, Willem Cornelis Sr (1735-1794) was also a man of the law. Jan studied law too. He did so in Utrecht where he obtained his PhD in 1810. A little later he set up as lawyer in that same city.

A well-organised man

The orderly mind of Jan Ackersdijck is shown in the way in which he arranged the books and maps. Very accurately, by region and next by numbering all items. And he really did note down everything he encountered during his foreign travels. As a matter of course in neatly arranged travel diaries. And as cataloguer of the book collection of Utrecht University Library in 1816 he must have felt like a fish in water. The same goes for the position of secretary of the curators which he held between 1817 and 1825.

Detailed travel accounts

Ackersdijck had the uncontrollable urge to want to see for real all that he learned from his textbooks. After all, as a student of De Rhoer, professor of international law, Ackersdijck had 'the knowledge of people and races as the main subject of his study'. After the Napoleonic era he made journeys lasting a few months each year and visited all kinds of places. From France to Russia and from Lapland to Gibraltar. This wanderlust lasted until his death. And in the evenings he meticulously recorded his experiences in travel diaries. At taking up the office of professor of economics in Liège in 1825, he emphasised the great benefits of travelling for scholars in his inaugural lecture.

Detail dagboek reis Zwitserland, Ackersdijck

Travel experiences applied in practice

After the secession of Belgium Ackersdijck became assistant professor at the Utrecht Faculty of Law in 1831. In 1840 he was appointed professor, with a focus on General Statistics. Research subjects are the civilisation levels of peoples, the character and habits of races, but also the influence of the physical environment on the prosperity and civilisation of its inhabitants. Pre-eminently affairs that Ackersdijck could illustrate by his travel experiences and his collection of maps, atlases and books.

Important thematic maps

Undoubtedly the neatly arranged maps of Ackersdijck played a part in his teaching and research. As to content, the collection falls into two categories: in the first place we have a collection of mainly 17th and 18th-century printed maps covering all parts of the world and secondly a group of 19th-century thematic maps. The map of illiteracy in the Netherlands is a good example. The latter is the most important group, viewed from a history of science perspective, because this material is relatively rare and characteristic of the level of economic and statisticial cartography of those days.

Geschiedkundige kaart van Priestley, ca. 1775

Archive of forty linear metres

Ackersdijck's collection consists of almost 1,000 separate maps and about 500 atlases. In addition, the collection contains around 500 rare prints with statistic themes, historical tables, family registers, divisions into administrative regions, flags and such like. Ackersdijck left an archive as large as forty linear metres:  for the most part handwritten letters, travel accounts, copies of reports and meeting documents. He also owned a private library which was put up for auction at Frederik Muller. Utrecht University Library bought around 250 titles.

Bedijkingsplan voor het Haarlemmermeer, 1726

Ackersdijk Museum?

In 1864, three years after Ackerdijck's death, his widow donated the entire collection of maps, atlases and archive records to Utrecht University on condition that, together with some furniture, the gift would be turned into a kind of museum. That plan was never realised. However, in 1975 a catalogue of the map collection was published. And recently Utrecht University Library has digitised Ackerdijck's maps and had them georeferenced by means of crowdsourcing. And so a kind of virtual museum has been created, one which Ackersdijck's widow could only have dreamt of.

Author: Marco van Egmond

Statistische kaart van de Nederlandse provincies in verhouding tot hun bevolkingsgrootte, ca 1827