As is the case for most of the princely libraries of Europe, the former Court Library has origins that go back to the second half of the 14th century. From the collection of Emperor Friedrich III (ruled from 1440 to 1493) over 50 manuscripts and a few incunabula (probably 4) are extant. The incunabula, in total about 8,000, constitute the most valuable section of the collection of incunabula, old and valuable books. The Austrian National Library has the world’s fourth largest holdings. Approximately a fifth of all books published in the 15th century are held by us. Of particular interest ist e.g., the only extant copy in Austria of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible (Mainz 1454/55). The collection is distinguished by both valuable individual pieces and complete groups of holdings. It has i.a. one of the total of 13 extant copies of the 36-lined Bible (Bamberg, about 1460), a complete parchment print of the Mainz Psalter (Johann Fust, Peter Schöffer 1457), and examples of nearly all bibles printed up to 1500.

Friedrich III’s son, Maximilian I (ruled 1493 to 1519), had manuscripts and prints systematically reproduced, for their material value as part of the Court’s treasures, and according to scholarly and artistic criteria. In addition there were many works written by  Maximilian or commissioned by him. Among the most important cimelia is the „Theuerdank“ (expression of gratitude) made up of over 100 woodcuts, an allegorically embellished knightly romance novel, in which Maximilian celebrated his journey to his bride in Burgundy. To enrich the imperial book collection with the increasingly growing number of new editions regulations were established as early as the 16th century ordering delivery of a free copy of new prints. Those so-called privileged and censorship copies served the publisher as a protection of his works against illegal reprints. In 1569 an imperial institution was created by the introduction of a book commission at Frankfurt am Main; its duty was, as well as exercising political and religious censorship, to watch from the very beginning over the delivery of those free copies to the imperial chancellery. Because of that obligatory delivery, even though it was not thoroughly observed – and it was later extended to the whole of the Danube Monarchy – the royal and imperial Court Library experienced a significant growth.

The holdings were enlarged by the private libraries of prominent Viennese humanists, such as  Johannes Cuspinianus (1473 - 1529), of the Viennese orientalist "Joseph Hammer-Purgstall" (1774 - 1856), and several prefects, such as Sebastian Tengnagel (1573 - 1636), Peter Lambeck (1628 - 1680) or Gerard van Swieten (1700 - 1772). In 1655 one of the book collections of the Fugger family was bought. The approximately 15,000 volumes were a huge enlargement of the library which caught the attention of the whole world of scholars. Among the most outstanding books, from the point of view of scholarship and bibliophilia, was the library acquired in 1738, the „bibliotheca Eugeniana“ with about 15,000 titles, of the imperial field commander Prince Eugene of Savoy.

For various reasons the library got again and again book holdings from public institutions such as the University of Vienna Library (1756) and the Municipal Library of Vienna (1780). There was a great extension of the library due to the dissolution of monasteries in the time of Joseph II (ruled 1780 to 1790). Finally we must mention the many book collections of members of the House of Habsburg themselves that enriched the holdings through several centuries. For example, in the Austrian National Library is to be found the library of Castle Ambras; after the extinction of the Tyrolean line of the Habsburgs most of it was taken to Vienna; also parts of the Castle Library of Graz of the Styrian line of the Habsburgs (1758), and the Habsburg family Fideicommis Library (1920), which is now in the Picture Archives.

An overview showing numbers concludes the explanations on the book holdings.

In total the historical printed holdings of the Austrian National Library are the fifth largest in the world.

Chronological Overview of the historical book holdings before 1900

Of the approximately 44,000 works from the 16th century most come from the German-speaking areas (c. 24,000 titles), followed by Italy and France. In the Netherlands more than 2,000 were published, in Spain about 900, in England about 100. Most works from that period were written in Latin; apart from that more than 8,000 texts were in German, about 5,000 in Italian, more than 2,250 in French, about 1,000 in Spanish, and the rest mostly in Greek (about 300), Hebrew (about 300), or a Slavic language.

Of the more than 64,000 volumes from the 17th century about 38,300 were in Latin, about 7,800 in German, 5,500 in Italian, about 6,500 in French, about 4,000 in Spanish, and more than 800 in Hebrew.

Among the approximately 115,000 works from the 18th century there are about 41,500 with German titles. The rest consist of about 40,000 in Latin, about 15,400 in French, about 8,700 in Italian, about 1,300 in Spanish, the rest in English (about 900), Greek (about 300), Hebrew (about 200), and there are works from the Slavic-language areas (about 300).

Among the more than 458,000 titles from the 19th century (of them about 200,000 up to 1850) there are about 242,000 works in German (of them about 100,000 up to 1850). Of significance are the holdings in Slavic languages (in all about 40,200, of them about 19,000 up to 1850) and Hungarian (in total about 10,500, of them about 4,200 up to 1850). Apart from that there are about 48,800 in French (about 20,000 up to 1850), Italian 41,200 (about 17,000 up to 1850), 26,650 in Latin (about 16,000 up to 1850), 5,000 Spanish (2,00 up to 1850), 4,400 in English, 900 Greek, and about 900 Hebrew titles. As well as the cited works there are altogether about 10,000 further titles without information on the year of printing.

Finally there are noteworthy holdings of newspapers and periodicals. In Vienna, where the production of books had been going through a prosperous period since the end of the 15th century, there was a special tradition in the field of irregularly appearing newssheets, the so-called „neue Zeitungen" (new newspapers). Of the total of 246 verified newssheets between 1492 and 1705 Vienna accounted for 195 as place of appearance. However only a small fraction is extant, and the holdings at the library are correspondingly small. Of the regularly appearing newspapers in the 17th century one can name as the oldest Viennese example the „Ordinari Zeittungen“, published from 1621 in Matthäus Formica’s workshop. As a supplement to that paper, limited to announcements from outside Vienna, Formica initiated in 1622 the "Ordentliche Postzeittungen", that reported exclusively news from Vienna, above all from the imperial court, but also from eastern and southern Europe. Also represented in the holdings is the "Wienerische Diarium", founded in 1703, which continues life today as the "Wiener Zeitung". In the 18th and 19th centuries the main focus of the periodicals is the area of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, written in Italian, Czech, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Hungarian, but also in Latin.

The overview of the holdings offered here with some chosen examples is partly presented in specialised expositions such as "Cimelia Palatinae", "Rara", "Erotica", "Einbandsammlung (collection of bindings)" and "Luxusausgaben (luxury editions)". In summary, the holdings of incunabula, old and valuable books mirror the development of scholarly and literary book production in modern Europe, and also the position of the former Court Library as the central library of the Habsburg Monarchy.

Processing of old books

Gertraude Loger
Josefsplatz 1
1015 Wien
(+43 1) 534 10-575
(+43 1) 534 10-683

last update 8/24/2012