A short journey through time: The historical roots of the Austrian National Library go a long way back in history. Its oldest book was dated 1368, it received its first librarian in 1575, and it got its modern name in 1946. Here is a rapid journey through the most important stations in the Library’s history.
1368 – the medieval treasure
Duke Albrecht III (1350-1395) was very fond of books, and from his possessions came the oldest book verifiably meant for the Library: it was an evangeliary made in 1368 by Johannes von Troppau. Today it is held in the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books, and is regarded as the foundation book of the Austrian National Library.
1440 – Emperor Friedrich III
The first major step on the road to an imperial library was taken under Emperor Friedrich III (1415-1493), who made it a task of his reign to gather all of the artistic treasures in the Habsburg heritage. 110 particularly valuable books he had brought to Vienna Neustadt, among them the Wenceslaus Bible and the Golden Bull of King Wenceslaus I.
1500 – Emperor Maximilian I
Maximilian I (1459-1519) was no less keen a book collector than his father Friedrich III and systematically expanded his library. Luxury manuscripts from the centres of culture in Europe of that time, such as the book of hours of Maria of Burgundy, reached Austria thanks to Maximilian. But as yet the imperial library was not a unity. As well as in Vienna Neustadt there were holdings in the Burg of Vienna and in Tyrol.
1504 – Bibliotheca Regia
While the costly books were always in the surroundings of the Emperor, those held in the Viennese Burg had an academic character. The humanist Conrad Celtis (1459-1508) ordered and expanded those holdings and so he could for the first time speak of a Bibliotheca Regia, a royal library.
1575 – Hugo Blotius, imperial librarian
Today there are more than 3.5 million books in the Austrian National Library. When the first official librarian took up his post in the then Imperial Library, there were only 9,000. But the Dutch scholar Hugo Blotius (1533-1608) did not merely count up the books, he also made an inventory and catalogued them. By doing so, he lay the groundwork for a library adequate for the time. After that the holdings grew, not least because of an imperial law commanding that an obligatory copy of publications be delivered to the library.
1723 – the baroque world in a splendid room
There were books and there were librarians. But what was missing was a reading room. Emperor Charles VI (1685-1740) therefore ordered the construction of a library building, today’s State Hall. Constructed from 1723 till 1726 by Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach according to the design of his father Johann Bernhard, it was the first home for the Court Library. All holdings were now kept here – available to the public from 8 a.m. till 12 noon: „The client does not have to pay, he should leave the place richer and return many times,“ announced Charles VI in the rules of the house.
1780 – the world’s oldest card index
So that users could in fact go home from the Library richer, Gerhard van Swieten, prefect of the Court Library from 1745 to 1772 and later personal physician to Empress Maria Theresia, had current scientific literature bought. A central step toward a modern library. However, his son, Gottfried van Swieten, prefect from 1777 to 1803, was now confronted by the challenge of not losing an overarching view of the mass of newly acquired materials. As bound books the old catalogues were not suitable for constant updating. So in 1780 Van Swieten invented the first card index in the history of libraries. Expandable to any dimension. Now new material could be added at any time.
1806 – The National Library of the Empire
„The Imperial Court Library ... is the National Library of the Austrian Empire,“ wrote the curator Paul Strattmann at the beginning of the 19th century. For the first time it was conceded that the function of the Library as a national memory institution took precedence over its role as representative of the Empire. That was also mirrored in later years by the collection policy. Special collections of individual groups of holdings, such as papyri, manuscripts, maps, music items, portraits, and prints were founded and outfitted and expanded according to scholarly criteria.
1848 – The Hofburg is burning
When imperial troops fired on the city in 1848, the year of revolutions, the Hofburg caught fire. Just in time the irreplacable library holdings could be rescued. But soon after the crushing of the revolution and the accession to the throne of Emperor Franz Josef I (1830-1916) reading started up again and the times of opening were even extended. Gradually the Library became accessible to a wider public. By the start of the 20th century libraries all over the world had developed into information centres, as did the Court Library. With the Augustinerlesesaal the Library received its own reading room, the times of opening were further increased, and large exhibitions in the State Hall for the first time offered the public an insight into the rich holdings of the collections.
1920 – From the Court Library to the National Library
The end of the monarchy in 1918 meant also the end of the Court Library. In 1920 occurred the official renaming to National Library. That was meant to show not so much that it belonged to the Austrian nation but rather that it „belonged to general public“, as was carefully formulated at that time when people were uncertain of their Austrian national identity.
1938 – The National Library during the Nazi period
With Austria’s „Anschluss“ to Hitler’s Germany in 1938 began one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Austrian National Library. Just a few days after the Anschluss the officiating director general Josef Bick (1880-1952) was arrested and his office was taken over by Paul Heigl (1887-1945), a convinced National Socialist. Heigl conducted from the very start an aggressive policy of acquisition. Whole libraries and collections, above all those of Jewish victims of the Nazi regime and other politically persecuted people, came into the Library as booty. Since the completion of its 2003 report on provenance according to the Law on Restitution of Art Objects of 1998, the Austrian National Library is pursuing a consistent and thorough restitution of all illegal acquisitions from the Nazi period.
1945 – The Austrian National Library
After the end of the Second World War one of the first initiatives of the reinstated director general Josef Bick was to apply to have the National Library remamed as the Austrian National Library. In the years that followed the Library became, in keeping with the social and political development of the country, a symbol of the identity of the Austrian nation. Simultaneously it developed into a central, modern provider of scholarly services.
In 1966 large parts of the Neue Hofburg were taken over and the main reading room set up, which together with the work areas was given a general refurbishment in 2004. In 1999 the ground floor beneath the State Hall was enlarged to become a multi-functional events area. In 2005 the rehabilitation of the Palais Mollard followed, with adaptation of new rooms for the Department of Music, the Globe Museum, the Esperanto Museum, and the Department of Planned Languages. The Department of Maps and the baroque Augustinian reading room were given a general overhaul in 2009, and in 2010 the Austriaca reading room was opened at the Heldenplatz. As the last building activity for a time, the Ludwig Wittgenstein research room was established in 2012 for exclusive use of academics.
At the same time as those building projects were going on there was investment in the first-range library services, such as the setting up and extension of the digital reading room, in the major extension of times of opening, the implementation of an automatic loan registration, the extension of a free-of-charge database offer, the introduction of digital reproduction services for all groups of holdings, and the expansion of the comprehensive information services.
The most important contribution to the development of the Library and its museums to an up-to-date and multi-faceted centre of education and culture is meanwhile being made by the readers and visitors themselves, in that they make use of the many-sided knowledge on offer and fill the rooms with life. This makes the Austrian National Library, with its history of over 600 years, a living bridge between the rich cultural heritage of the past and the wealth of information of a modern knowledge society.