The town of Neuchâtel in western Switzerland owes much to its most generous denizen, David de Pury, who might have gained his fortune through the exploitation of slave labour. The ambitious Neuchâtel native left his landlocked home on foot in 1726 at the age of 17 to seek employment in the maritime trade and eventually build a shipping and colonial empire. Even though the jury is still out on whether or not de Pury’s participated in the horrendous and violent exploitation of enslaved people that fueled so much of European wealth in the 18th century, it seems very likely that he at least indirectly benefited from it.
Upon his death in 1786 in Lisbon, de Pury bequeathed most of his considerable fortune to his native town of Neuchâtel. This windfall enabled the city, which back then was a small principality under the unexpected patronage of the Kingdom of Prussia (it’s complicated), to build a series of impressive capital projects, such as hospitals, churches, railways, museums and a new city hall.
An project that benefited early from de Pury’s riches was a new public library, founded in 1788, and allegedly the first of its kind on the territories that now compose Switzerland (Neuchâtel joined the Swiss Confederation in 1848). First seated in the Maison du Trésor (also known as Maison des Halles), the new library grew rapidly by scouring Paris’ auction houses and thanks to private donations. The library gained international recognition when it received a large collection of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s manuscripts in 1795.
The cramped and humid quarters at the Maison du Trésor soon proved insufficient, but the library would not get a dedicated space until another project made possible by de Pury’s funds was erected in 1838. Designed by Josef-Anton Froelicher, an architect from nearby Solothurn established in Paris, the Collège Latin was built to welcome a whole list of cultural institutions. Besides the library, the neoclassical building was home to the city archives, a natural history museum, classrooms and painters studios.
Despite its status as a public library, the Neuchâtel library wasn’t actually open to the broader public until 1909, when a “popular reading” section opened. The same year, the library also became a university library when the local academy was recognized as a University. Since 1983, the institution is known as the “Public and University Library” and follows the triple mandate of maintaining the local cultural heritage, serve as a research and teaching library for the university and higher education institutes, and as a public library.
The reading room pictured above is dedicated to Félix Bovet, who was the city librarian from 1848 to 1859.
- Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Neuchâtel. Historique.
- Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Neuchâtel. Le Collège Latin.
- Gehrig, Emmanuel (2017). David de Pury, l’embarrassant bienfaiteur. Passé simple. Mensuel romand d’histoire et d’archéologie. N° 29, November 3, 2017, pp. 19-21.
- Ville de Neuchâtel : Conseil communal section des affaires culturelles (1965). Bibliothèque et Musées (Rapport annuel 1965), p. 6.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!