History of the library

The Herzog August Library is one of the oldest libraries in the world to have survived to the present day without sustaining any losses to its famous collections. The library can look back on a peaceful history of over four hundred years of book collecting to which many individuals have contributed, both members of the ducal family and the librarians and scholars in their employ.

The library thus constitutes an authentic and undiminished segment of culture memory which allows the printed works and manuscripts housed here to be viewed and read in their historical context.

The Wolfenbüttel collection was founded in 1572 by Duke Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, but it was the systematic collecting activity of Duke August (1579-1666) which led to the creation of one the largest European libraries of his day, composed of 135.000 valuable printed works and manuscripts and hailed by some of the Duke’s contemporaries as another wonder of the world. Of the one million imprints which make up today’s collection, 410.000 were printed before 1850. Of these works, 3.500 are incunables printed before 1600, 75.00 were printed in the sixteenth, 150.000 in the seventeenth centuries.

The Wolfenbüttel library has been open to the public since the death of the Duke August in 1666 and ever since its foundation it has been the location of research and intellectual activity.

Among its librarians, for instance, were such famous figures as the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (librarian 1690-1716) and the German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (librarian 1770-1781), who wrote his famous play on religious toleration “Nathan the Wise” in his house in Wolfenbüttel. The library collections were housed in the first purpose-built secular library in Europe, a building that was constructed by the ducal architect Hermann Korb and erected between 1705 and 1713. This famous building was demolished in 1887 and replaced by the representative Wilhelminian “Bibliotheca Augusta”. The Bibliotheca Augusta as it presents itself to today’s visitors is the result of extensive renovation work undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s under the directorship of Erhart Kästner. He also managed to regain the Lessing House, which became part of the library in 1968. Kästner gave the library a new profile and redesigned it according to his ideal of a "bibliotheca illustris". It was Kästner who founded the actual famous artist book collection with many valuable works by Picasso and Miro.

In 1968 Paul Raabe took over as director and promoted new ways of developing the library into a international study and research centre for the Middle Ages and early modern period. Benefiting from the positive economic climate at the time the library experienced a significant upturn. The acquisition budget was increased substantially and the number of library staff grew significantly. The implementation of scholarship and research program, the establishment of a publishing division and the development of a programmes for schoolchildren were all especially important for the development of the library as we know it today. The renovation of the Zeughaus and its transformation into a modern reference library consolidated the library’s official function as a non-university research institute.

Since 1989 the Herzog August Library has been funded and supervised by the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture. Nationally and internationally both its collections and its function as an innovative research centre enjoy a high reputation. The library’s guests, users and the general public are invited to participate in its extensive and diverse programme of research-related and cultural events.