Otto Pierre Nicholas Berkelbach van der Sprenkel (1906–1978) was born in Bussum in the Netherlands. He grew up in England and was a graduate of the London School of Economics. In 1931 he was appointed a lecturer in political science at the University of Toronto. He returned to England in 1934 and lectured for the Workers Educational Association. In 1943 he began to study Chinese and in 1947 he went to China as a visiting professor at Nankai University in Tianjin (Tientsin). In the early 1950s he lectured at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University before taking up a post at Canberra University College in 1956. In 1959, shortly before the College amalgamated with The Australian National University, he was appointed Associate Professor of Chinese Civilization. He retired in 1971.
Van der Sprenkel was the co-author of New China: Three Views (1950). He also wrote a number of articles on the history of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
In 1964 van der Sprenkel conceived the idea of an annotated bibliography of Western writings on the history, thought and institutions of China from about 1800 to 1965. He laboured on this task right up to his death. Much of the work was done in the Library where he had his own study room, and over the years he became a friend of many of the staff. Sadly, the work was not published, but the manuscript is held in the Library and there are plans to publish it on the internet.
In the late 1960s van der Sprenkel donated a number of rare Chinese books to the Library. In 1972 the Library purchased from him a collection of 133 Chinese works. In 1987 Pamela van der Sprenkel donated a portrait of her husband and a collection of off-prints and other writings about China that he had collected. The manuscript of the bibliography and some personal papers were received following her death in 2001.
The typescript of van der Sprenkel’s annotated bibliography of Western writings on China is contained in 21 binders, with a page devoted to each book or article. It has a classified arrangement, with main headings such as Chinese history, History to 1644, Ch’ing (Qing) 1644–1911, Republic, People’s Republic, Geography, Religion, Social: Economic and Social: Institutions.
Among the rare books donated by van der Sprenkel was Xu Zi Zhi Tong Jian Gang Mu, published in 32 volumes by the Ming Palace Press in 1476. It can be translated as ‘Continuation of the Abridged Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government’. Compiled by a team under the leadership of Shang Lu, it is a continuation of the history of China originally written by Sima Guang in 1085 and revised by Zhu Xi. It is one of the oldest printed works in the Library.
The collection acquired from van der Sprenkel in 1972 comprised 133 Chinese titles, totalling 636 volumes. There is a small number of nineteenth-century works, but most of the books date from the 1930s to the early 1950s. About half are on Chinese history, while other titles deal with literature, society, classics, philosophy and religion.
There is a large number of off-prints and other writings on Chinese history, some of them annotated by the authors.
The collection contains a small quantity of personal papers, including a diary kept by van der Sprenkel in 1965, letters from friends and family members, photographs and notes on Chinese historiography.
The printed materials in the van der Sprenkel Collection have been catalogued individually and integrated in the Asian Collections. The off-prints are held at OC 9163 5083. The manuscripts and personal papers are held as a collection in the Manuscripts Collection (MS 3050). A finding-aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-231618083/findingaid.
van der Sprenkel, Otto, Chinese Bibliography: A Personal View of Some Basic Problems, Australian Academic and Research Libraries, vol. 1 (4), 1970, pp. 127–33.
In Memoriam: Otto van der Sprenkel, Review (Asian Studies Association of Australia), vol. 2 (1), 1978, pp. 29–31.
Gosling, Andrew, Otto van der Sprenkel: Chinese Historian, Book Lover and Library Benefactor, National Library of Australia News, vol. 15 (2), November 2004. pp. 7–10.
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)