Leiden University
Bosscha reading room

Soon after his arrival in Leiden, Paul Ehrenfest realized that several essential conditions were lacking to provide the students with the possibility of a thorough preparation in scientific research at the frontier of physics. Ehrenfest managed to provide these conditions and created for physics in Leiden a completely new culture of research and education.

One of the early innovations of Ehrenfest in Leiden was the establishment of a reading room in the physics laboratory. Although the university library was very well equipped, there was no place where the entire physics literature could be consulted, including standard text books as well as the latest books and journals.

As a student in Göttingen Ehrenfest had benefited from the mathematics reading room, established by Felix Klein in 1886. Already in his first year in Leiden, in 1912, Ehrenfest made an effort to realize a similar reading room. Hij asked Lorentz for help, who succeeded in attracting a donation of 2.500 gulden from the wealthy tea planter K.A.R. Bosscha, son of the recently deceased physicist Johannes Bosscha. The Bosscha reading room opened its doors in May 1913.

The reading room was located in the physics laboratory, so that students and scientific staff could both make us of it. As in Göttingen, this was a Präsenzbibliothek: One could not check out the books and journals but they had to be consulted in the library itself. This had two significant advantages. Firstly, it was ensured that the material was always available. Secondly, the reading room became a place where the physics students would meet. With an annual budget of 1000 gulden, the reading room had sufficient funds to purchase the latest literature.

The reading room quickly became a study and meeting place for all physicists. Ehrenfest dropped by often, and gladly gave advise to students with questions and problems. Lorentz wrote with admiration: "He accomplished in a brief time what I failed to achieve in my entire professorhip: He got the students talking."

Marijn Hollestelle, Paul Ehrenfest. Worstelingen met de moderne wetenschap (pp. 42-43)

When in 1921 the Institute for Theoretical Physics was established in a separate building on Langebrug, the Bosscha reading room was moved to that location. The reading room was discontinued in 1954, to make space for cubicles for students.

List of books and journals ordered by Paul Ehrenfest for the Bosscha reading room. The price is German Mark, a currency that was rapidly devaluating relative to the Dutch gulden. Here you can read (in Dutch) about the practical problems that created. (Letter by C.A. Crommelin.)
List of students who had paid their contribution to the Bosscha reading room. One of these was my father, Jan Beenakker.

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