First Modern Libraries in Europe

The development of new ways to record, acquire, and house fast-accumulating knowledge and the shift from feudal to Humanistic values during the Renaissance combined to create a demand for more and better libraries throughout Europe. This movement began with the founding of the Bavarian State Library in 1558, gathered momentum with the founding of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1602, and provided critical resources for the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

Summary of Event

The modern public libraries that emerged from the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century were rooted in the royal, national, and academic libraries of the seventeenth century. Before the time of the Renaissance, libraries in Europe were made up of the private collections of kings, nobles, cardinals, and the wealthy, as well as a few collections that were affiliated with universities. These collections burgeoned after Johann Gutenberg invented printing with movable type about 1450. [kw]First Modern Libraries in Europe (Nov., 1602)
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[kw]Libraries in Europe, First Modern (Nov., 1602)
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Libraries, Europe

In the next 150 years, better methods of recording and transmitting knowledge in turn led to an increase in how knowledge in natural science, social science, philosophy, art, literature, and politics was gained, analyzed, and used. Transcending the gulf between Roman Catholic and various Protestant worldviews that arose through the Reformation, the Humanistic, inquiring spirit of the times demanded new and larger repositories for its books and other written and artistic products. These new libraries helped to solidify cultural gains and promote further intellectual and artistic progress.

Duke Albert V Albert V (duke of Bavaria) of Bavaria, a prominent patron of intellectuals, artists, and musicians, founded the Wittelsbach Court Library Wittelsbach Court Library in 1558 as an ornate home for his prolific book collection. Other rich nobles, who felt they needed to compete with him, quickly followed suit. This trend of aristocrats establishing libraries was well under way when University of Oxford alumnus Thomas Bodley, Bodley, Sir Thomas recalling the lack of a comprehensive library at Oxford during his student days in the 1570’, began in 1598 to collect books, donate money, and plan library facilities for his alma mater. The previous library at Oxford, that of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the youngest son of King Henry IV, dated from the 1440’s but was mostly lost by the 1550’s through a combination of carelessness and religious censorship. Bodley intended its replacement as a public library for everyone associated in any way with the university. Opened officially as the Oxford Public Library in November, 1602, it soon became known as the Bodleian Bodleian Library , the Bodley, or just The Bod. Literature;libraries and

In 1610, Bodley arranged for the library to receive free copies of every title registered at Stationers’ Hall, thus laying the foundation for legal deposit and, eventually, the concept of copyright. Legal deposit got a boost in 1624 when Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II Ferdinand II (Holy Roman Emperor) decreed that a copy of every book published in the Holy Roman Empire or exhibited at the annual Frankfurt book fair be sent to the Habsburg Court Library Habsburg Court Library in Vienna. The court library in Vienna had existed since the fourteenth century, but this change to a mandatory legal deposit library marked the beginning of its road toward becoming the Austrian National Library.

Several other national libraries in Europe originated around this time. The Swedish Royal Library Swedish Royal Library under Queen Christina Christina (queen of Sweden) became one of the greatest collections in Europe, but when she abdicated and moved abroad in 1654, she took much of the collection with her. Some of this collection was dispersed, but most became part of the Vatican Library Vatican Library in 1690. What she left behind in Sweden was reestablished in 1661 and designated as the national legal depository library, but in 1697, a fire destroyed most of it. The collection was not redeveloped until the nineteenth century.

The Academy of Turku in Finland established its library in 1640. After a catastrophic fire in 1827, the school moved to the new Finnish capital, Helsinki, and since then the Helsinki University Library Helsinki University Library has been recognized as the national library. In 1653, King Frederick III Frederick III (king of Denmark and Norway) established the Danish Royal Library Danish Royal Library , which evolved through a series of mergers into the national library. In Paris in 1692, the royal library, which dated from the fourteenth century, was first opened to the public, thus laying the groundwork for what would become the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

As an integral component of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation] in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, several popes supported initiatives for intellectual and cultural progress. The founding of the library of the Royal Monastery of El Escorial in 1575 in Madrid and the refounding of the Vatican Library Vatican Library in 1588 were part of this movement.

The Biblioteca Angelica, Biblioteca Angelica founded in Rome by Angelo Rocca Rocca, Angelo and named for him, is generally acknowledged as the first truly public library in the modern world. Its predecessor, the library of the Convent of St. Augustine, had been collecting books and manuscripts since 1328. In the 1590’, the convent library’s new director, Rocca, who had been in charge of the papal press, charted a completely different course for the library. He accumulated and donated about twenty thousand volumes to enrich its holdings, then opened it to the public, probably in 1604, although some sources say 1614.

Other Roman Catholic leaders followed Rocca’s example. Archbishop of Milan Federico Borromeo, Borromeo, Federico influenced by both Rocca and Bodley, bought the huge library of the estate of Gian Vincenzo Pinelli Pinelli, Gian Vincenzo at auction in 1608, built a magnificent new home for it, and thus founded the Biblioteca Ambrosiana Biblioteca Ambrosiana as a public library in 1609. It remains one of the greatest libraries in Italy.

Some of the most important Roman Catholic repositories began as libraries of religious orders. Most active were the Jesuits Jesuits;libraries and . In 1622, they transferred the collections of Charles University in Prague to their own Klementinum, whose library evolved, with others, into the National Library of the Czech Republic National Library of the Czech Republic . A Jesuit library accompanied the founding of the University of Malta in 1592, but many of its collections were lost through the expulsion of the Jesuits from Malta in 1768, Napoleon’s closing of the university in 1798, and several wars, including World War II. The National Library of Malta National Library of Malta began in 1649, when housing was built in Valleta for the books of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, which had been collected since 1555.

The most celebrated Protestant thinker involved in the seventeenth century growth of libraries was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm . From 1676 until his death, he held a variety of positions in the service of the House of Hanover, including librarian to the dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg and, from 1691, director of the Bibliotheca Augusta Bibliotheca Augusta at Wolfenbüttel, Germany. His skill and vision in collecting, arrangement, cataloging, and general librarianship became so well regarded throughout Europe that major Roman Catholic libraries in the Vatican, Paris, and probably Vienna offered him directorships, all of which he refused because he would not convert. Unfortunately, most of his suggestions, though based on sound bibliographic and preservationist instincts, were ignored early in the eighteenth century when the dukes moved and reorganized the Bibliotheca Augusta.


Many of the European libraries founded before 1700 remain among the world’s most important repositories. The Wittelsbach Court Library evolved into the Bavarian State Library, which owns the world’s largest collection of incunabula, or books printed before 1501. With 19,900 copies of 9,660 editions, this collection holds about one-third of all known surviving incunabula. The Bodleian Library has almost 7 million volumes, including 7,000 incunabula and 170,000 manuscripts. The other surviving libraries have smaller but highly specialized collections with exceptional research value, particularly manuscripts and incunabula. Together, these libraries provided the resources from which the Enlightenment emerged in the eighteenth century.