Treasury of Knowledge

650 Years of Austrian National Library

By Austrian National Library

Evangeliar des Johannes von Troppau - Innenansicht (1368) by Johannes von TroppauAustrian National Library

Gospel book by Johannes von Troppau: The Austrian National Library’s foundation codex

The origins of the imperial court library, the predecessor of today’s Austrian National Library, can be traced back to medieval Europe. In 1368, Johannes von Troppau, the canon of Brno, completed an elaborately decorated book for the Habsburg Duke Albrecht III. It is entirely written in gold letters and adorned with miniatures and fully illuminated pages. The first important work commissioned by an Austrian duke, this object was the starting point of the Habsburg family’s book collection and is thus regarded as the Austrian National Library’s foundation codex. The motto "A.E.I.O.U." and the year 1444 show that the Codex was also once in the possession of Frederick III. (1415-1493), at that time Roman-German king.

Evangeliar des Johannes von Troppau - Detail (1368) by Johannes von TroppauAustrian National Library

Gospel book by Johannes von Troppau: The Austrian National Library’s foundation codex

For Fredericks III. motto a number of different interpretations exist. One of its most popular readings is "Austriae est imperare orbi universo" (It is Austria's destiny to rule the world). Another entry of this kind is also attached to a clasp. Fredericks III. collection of books can be regarded as the core of the later Court Library.

Erenreich (Maria von Burgund) und Theuerdank (Maximilian) by Kaiser Maximilian I.Austrian National Library

Emperor Maximilian I and the origins of the "Bibliotheca Regia"

Maximilian I (1459–1519), known as the "Last Knight", succeeded his father, Frederick III, as King of the Romans in 1493, and as Holy Roman Emperor in 1508. He himself was the author and co-author of works related to his biography and systematically added to his father’s library. Fervently interested in the arts and sciences, he was in contact with leading contemporary scholars and artists.

His sophisticated book projects included such works as “Theuerdank” (a biographical novel about his journey to his bride in Burgundy) and “The White King” which both can be seen in the exhibition.

Hugo Blotius (1593)Austrian National Library

First imperial librarian

In 1575, Emperor Maximilian II (1527–1576) appointed Hugo Blotius (1533–1608), a much-travelled Dutch scholar, the imperial library’s first official librarian. When he took office, the library was located in a room in the Minorite Monastery near the castle.

Inventarii bibliothecae S. C. Maiestatis pars posterior (M-Z) - Einband (1576) by Hugo BlotiusAustrian National Library

First imperial librarian

His most important task was to draw an inventory of the holdings, so Blotius set up an index by authors. At the beginning of Blotius’s term of office, the library comprised about 7,400 volumes manuscripts and rare books

Stimmbuch (1600)Austrian National Library

Acquisition of the library of the Fuggers

An inconspicuous vocal book with a small Fugger crest is the entry into an exciting story about one of the most extensive acquisitions of the 17th century. At that time, the Fugger family (a German trading family who became destitute) had to sell their 15,000-volume book collection. Emperor Ferdinand III. took advantage of this opportunity for his Court Library and acquired them for only 15,000 guilders - although the library was then estimated at 40,000 guilders.


Josefsplatz (1780) by Carl SchützAustrian National Library

The baroque world in the State Hall

A decisive turning point in the history of the imperial library occurred in the eighteenth century. In 1722, Emperor Charles VI initiated the construction of a library in today’s Josefsplatz. After the end of the War of the Spanish Succession and the Turkish Wars he realised a building project that had already been planned by his father, Leopold I. Based on plans by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, the library was built by the latter’s son, Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, between 1723 and 1726.

State Hall of the Austrian National Library (2017) by Johannes HlochAustrian National Library

The baroque world in the State Hall

The interior and fresco decorations were not completed before 1730, when the court library finally found its first home proper in this imperial Baroque hall. If you want to know more about the State Hall, we invite you to visit our first Google exhibition which gives detailed information about this baroque masterpiece.

Tabula Peutingeriana (1200) by UnbekanntAustrian National Library

Tabula Peutingeriana

Until the 19th century, manuscripts, early prints, maps, globes, music manuscripts, autographs, hand drawings and more were housed in the State Hall with its side cabinets. The library of Prince Eugene of Savoy was one of the most valuable collections then and now. It included not only about 15,000 books, which are now set up in the middle oval of the State Hall, but also a unique piece of world renown: the Tabula Peutingeriana, a medieval copy of an ancient map depicting the road network of the Roman Empire. It has been included in the UNESCO world register “Memory of the World” in 2007. The Tabula Peutingeriana can be seen as an “exhibit of the month” in the State Hall in November 2018.

Zettelkatalog (around 1780) by Gerard van SwietenAustrian National Library

The oldest card catalogue

Gottfried van Swieten, a prefect of the Court Library, consolidated the transformation of the imperial collection of books into a scientific library. He also made considerable achievements in improving the library’s organisation, arranging for the creation of the oldest card index in the history of libraries in 1780. In the summers of 1780 and 1781, seven newly recruited assistants, together with four scriptors of the Court Library and a library apprentice, completed the first part of the project, the description of all the books in the State Hall on cards and their arrangement in an alphabetical catalogue. This “Josephinian catalogue”, comprising 300,000 cards in 205 capsules, is still to be found today in the Austrian National Library.

Bengalischer Tiger (1799) by Matthias SchmutzerAustrian National Library

Imperial art collector

Franz I. (1786-1835) was not only the first emperor of Austria, but also the first Habsburg emperor, who systematically collected art works. He was interested in portraits of direct contemporaries from politics and the military as well as city views and nature portraits. Matthias Schmutzer was hired by him as a painter and in 30 years, the artist captured around 1,300 plants of the imperial gardens in magnificent watercolors. But Schmutzer also worked as an animal painter for the Emperor and portrayed elephants, tigers and other exotic animals of the menagerie in Schönbrunn, which he put into fantastic landscapes. The exhibition shows some of his colorful works.

Mozarts Requiem (1791) by Wolfgang Amadeus MozartAustrian National Library

Collecting Music

The new and important role played by music in the canon of the arts from the late 18th century onwards led to numerous European libraries setting up music departments in the early 19th century. In Vienna, Moritz Graf von Dietrichstein, Prefect of the Court Library from 1826 to 1845, was particularly interested in music and arranged for the transfer of the archive of the Imperial Court Orchestra to the Court Library, which had already contained an important collection of literature on music theory since the Renaissance.

Today outstanding objects like Mozart's "Requiem" are included in the collection.The original manuscript will be shown as the "exhibit of the month" in April 2018.

Safra an ihren Ehemann (1200) by SafraAustrian National Library

History of the Papyrus Collection

In 1878/79, numerous random antique papyrus depots were found in Egypt and bought by a Viennese antique dealer. The Orientalist Josef von Karabacek recognized the importance of this discovery and brought approx. 10,000 papyri to Vienna. Archduke Rainer decided to acquire and expand this collection. Later he donated it to his uncle Emperor Franz Joseph I, who in turn incorporated it as a special collection into the Court Library. Therefore, the exhibition can show objects like this letter from the 12th century in which a wealthy cairo muslim woman is accusing her husband of playing around with her. Today, the papyrus is one of the largest of its kind in the world and was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Loiben (1848) by Jakob AltAustrian National Library

Images of the World

In the 20th century, the significance of topographical views was recognised as source material for geographical research. The basis was the “Vues” held by the former Court Library, the Albertina and the former Habsburg Fideicommiss Library which is including the series of Danube views by Jakob Alt, which was included in the UNESCO list "Memory of Austria" in 2014. During the anniversary year, several different views are exhibited in the State Hall.

Kanzler Johann Schober im Esperantomuseum (1931) by UnbekanntAustrian National Library

Library and ideology

The First World War was a caesura for the Court Library, which lost its clear function as the central library of the Austrian Empire. Its transfer to state ownership having raised the question of a suitable name, the Cabinet Council resolved in 1920 that it should bear the name “National Library”. It was only after 1945 that the name was changed to “Austrian National Library”.

In the 1920s, the National Library considered itself to be in particular the symbolic representative of the German-speaking minorities in the successor states of Austria Hungary. The integration of the International Esperanto Museum into the National Library in 1928 can be seen as a symbol of the fact that the Library, despite its adoption of a German national position, had not entirely abandoned its transnational tradition.

Bergung Karls VI. (1943) by UnbekanntAustrian National Library

The Library under the Nazis

Austria’s “Anschluss” in March 1938 was the start of a dark chapter in the history of the Austrian National Library. Paul Heigl, a staunch Nazi, was appointed provisional head of the National Library, and his predecessor Joseph Bick was arrested. Due to his good relationships with the Gestapo, the SS and the SD, Heigl was able to pursue an aggressive acquisition policy. The confiscated materials came from Jewish individuals and institutions, as well as from associations classified as hostile to the regime. Despite extensive restitution in the post-war years, substantial parts of these robbed collections remained in the library after 1945. The provenance report 2003 listed more than 52,000 objects, which in the meantime have been returned to almost all the legal heirs - or the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. Representative of this period, among other objects, is a photo of the dismantling of the statue of Charles VI, which was transported in 1943 as a precautionary measure from the State Hall.

Zentralbibliothek (1937) by Werner TheissAustrian National Library

Projects for the extension

The famous 1857 handwritten letter by Emperor Franz Joseph I (reigned 1848–1916) on the construction of the Ringstrasse includes a proposal for the building of a new Court Library. In the plan approved in 1859 the Library was to be located on the outer Burgplatz, today’s Heldenplatz. However, the construction was never implemented as well as the design of the architect Werner Theiss. In 1933 he proposed building a central library, an utopian design in the form of a skyscraper, intended to combine the libraries of the Technical University and the University of Vienna with the National Library.

Hauptlesesaal der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek (1966)Austrian National Library

Projects for the extension

What was implemented, on the other hand, was the extension of the Austrian National Library towards the Neue Burg. The reading rooms located there where opened in 1966. A high-quality example of post-war modern Austrian architecture, every detail of the interior was designed by Margret Gressenbauer-Scherer of Theiss & Jaksch architects, from the catalogue boxes to the bookshelves and the tables and chairs of the reading room.

Bücherspeicher der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek (2015) by Österreichische NationalbibliothekAustrian National Library

Projects for the extension

Following preliminary studies extending back as far as 1962, the book storage facility under the Burggarten was finally put into operation in 1992. Books that were published after 1850 are being stored here on four floors.

Palais Mollard mit dem Globenmuseum und dem Esperantomuseum der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek - Außenaufnahme (2015)Austrian National Library

Projects for the extension

Further milestones in spatial development are the relocation of the Globe and Esperanto Museums, as well as two collections in 2005 in the Palais Mollard at Herrengasse …

Literaturmuseum der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek - Innenaufnahme (2017) by Österreichische NationalbibliothekAustrian National Library

Projects for the extension

… and in 2015 the establishment of the Literature Museum in the "Grillparzerhaus" in Johannesgasse. The Literature Museum shows that literature also includes much that does not fit between two book covers: original manuscripts, photos, posters, films, sound recordings as well as traces of everyday life and extraordinary archive finds relating to major Austrian authors. These include for instance Ernst Jandl’s shopping list with the food and everyday goods that always had to be at hand, an official residence confirmation of Ingeborg Bachmann, or a letter by Peter Handke written on the bark of a birch tree.

Wien, Ausstellungsstraße mit Praterstern und Riesenrad (1915) by Ledermann PostkartenverlagAustrian National Library

Digital library

For many years, the Austrian National Library has been conducting large-scale digitisation projects. In a public-private partnership, the historic stock of books in the public domain (600,000 works with a total of 200 million pages) is being digitalised and made accessible to full-text search. 25 million pages of historic daily newspapers and legislative texts, 75,000 postcards and other items from the collections such as photos, portraits, posters, manuscripts and papyri are available online free of charge.Visit our website and browse through the various opportunities. Maybe you will find an old postcard of your hometown?

Kaiser Karl VI.Austrian National Library

Treasury of Knowledge

From January 26, 2018 to January 13, 2019 more than 170 valuable objects do not only tell the story of 650 years of library history, but also the history of Austria. We hope to see you soon at the State Hall.

Credits: Story

Austrian National Library

Project Management and Editorial Services: Heidrun Kubart, Thomas Zauner

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