The Danish Collections of the British Library are the largest in the United Kingdom and probably the most comprehensive anywhere outside Scandinavia. Our holdings are listed in Explore the British Library. An information service is provided both for specialist enquiries about the Danish Collections and for requests for bibliographical information relating to Denmark.
History of our Danish Collections
When the Library of the British Museum opened in 1759, created from the Sloane, Old Royal and other collections, it is estimated that there were already some 1,250 Scandinavian works in the foundation collections of its Department of Printed Books. The bulk of these came from the library of Sir Hans Sloane, largely in the fields of medicine (including many by Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin) and natural sciences but also in those of antiquities, history, topography, philosophy, theology and law. One striking item was a Danish herbal, Buchwald’s Specimen medico-practico-botanicum (Copenhagen, 1720) with real plant specimens pasted in blank spaces on each leaf (British Library shelfmark 442.f.10). Among the works from the Old Royal Library were Johannes Meursius’s Historica danica (Copenhagen, 1630) (C.77.a.32), two Danish Reformation works of 1537 and 1538 once owned by Henry VIII, and Ole Worm’s antiquarian tract of 1641, in Latin, on the golden horn found at Gallehus (C.75.d.1).
In the early years of the British Museum there was no regular acquisitions grant and each purchase had to be approved in advance by Trustees. Identifiable examples of Danish purchases in that period include the Danish Laws of Jutland (Quedam breues expositiones (Copenhagen, 1508)) (112.b.16). Another interesting early acquisition was a collection of political ephemera containing 66 broadsides, leaflets and engravings relating to the arrest, trial and execution for high treason of Count Struensee in 1772. During this period however, there were also many donations and it was common practice for Trustees to present books to the Library. From Thomas Tyrwhitt and C.M. Cracherode came a number of important antiquarian works including a copy from each of an edition of Saxo’s Historica danica (Sorø, 1644) (590.i.11 and 686.1.12), the oldest known Danish history and probably the greatest literary monument of the Danish Middle Ages.
The most significant addition to the Scandinavian holdings during this time, however, came with the gift of Sir Joseph Banks’s Library, which arrived in the British Museum in 1827. A significant number of Banksian items were Scandinavian, largely on natural history subjects. The Banks Library included the proceedings of the Danish Royal Academy of Science, as well as of other societies. Banks also collected works on travel including several dozen Danish maps and charts.
The King’s Library, which was acquired in 1823 and finally came to the Museum in 1828, contained over a thousand Scandinavian books and pamphlets dating from before 1801, mostly in the humanities, and many of which were acquired in 1786 from Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, an Icelander who had spent some years in Britain with an official commission to seek out documents relating to the history and antiquities of Denmark. Scandinavian material in the King’s Library was carefully selected, with particular strengths in history and biography, topography and law. It included a dozen scholarly journals, many university theses, bibliographies and text collections, amongst which were Levninger af Middel-Alderens Digtekunst, (Copenhagen, 1780-84) (243.a.10). It also included the first Danish Bible of 1550 as well as law codes for Denmark and other Scandinavian countries. With the King’s Library, there also came a collection of all the main regional maps of Denmark, Norway and Iceland produced in the late eighteenth century.
The acquisition of the Grenville Library in 1847 added yet more rare Scandinavian items to the collections but the middle of the 19th century onwards saw the adoption of a more deliberate collection policy. In 1837, the new keeper, Antonio Panizzi proposed that the Museum should acquire more standard foreign works, including "literary journals, transactions of learned societies … newspapers and collections of laws". This approach was certainly reflected in the materials purchased from Scandinavia during the next years. One striking acquisition from 1864 was an extra-illustrated set of Tycho de Hofman’s collection of biographies of notable Danes, printed in 1746 (Portraits historiques des hommes illustres de Dannemark), with almost 2,600 engraved portraits, views, maps and plans from the 17th and 18th and early 19th centuries (136.c.1).
In a report to Panizzi in 1861, his assistant, Thomas Watts, expressed the view that the Museum should aim to build up "the best collection of books in every European language outside the countries of origin". That aim was undoubtedly realised for Scandinavian material over the next decades and into the 20th century, despite financial cutbacks at various times.
Present scope and development
In 1973, the British Library was established: the Danish Collections, along with the other library collections of the British Museum, became part of the new national library of the United Kingdom. Nowadays, the Library does not generally acquire complete collections, whether from institutions or individual donors. Instead it carries out the systematic selection of newly-published materials on a regular basis.
It is difficult to give exact figures for the total number of Danish books in the British Library since there is no separate catalogue of Danish holdings. The Library’s catalogue of items acquired since 1975 shows approximately 13,000 records for titles published in Denmark. The present growth rate is somewhere in the order of 400 separately published monographs per annum. We also subscribe to approximately 340 monographic series and periodicals. Selection is carried out systematically from the fortnightly lists of Dansk Bogfortegnelse, the Danish national bibliography. Present collecting policy is to acquire research level monographs and serials within the humanities and social sciences including bibliographies, reference works, official statistics and reports and a representative collection of significant modern literary works.
We also operate an exchange scheme with major institutions in Denmark (including government bodies, libraries, and museums) and currently receive many of their publications, and therefore have major holdings of official and government publications.
Occasionally, we do still receive major donations. The Hannås Collection of Scandinavian Linguistic Literature was donated to the Library in 1984 by Torgrim Hannås, a Norwegian-born antiquarian bookseller living in Britain. The collection includes some 710 items, in all the Scandinavian languages, of which about three quarters date from before 1851. Just over half of the collection consists of dictionaries, the rest being divided between textbooks, readers, phrase books etc and linguistic monographs.
Within the Danish Collections many languages are represented; as well as Danish, Faeroese and Greenlandic as one might expect, material is bought in other European languages, including a significant number of Danish books published in English. Within the field of Danish studies, the collection has particular strengths in linguistics, literature and history. However the British Library’s Danish Collections are not focused exclusively on material relating to Denmark; their coverage is international in scope and includes an extensive range of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.
Hogg, Peter: The Hannås Collection: catalogue of a collection of Scandinavian dictionaries, grammars and linguistic literature presented to the British Library by Torgrim Hannås. London, 1994.
A Scandinavian short title catalogue to 1800, begun in 1992, is now nearing completion.
The Danish Collections are normally consulted in the Humanities Reading Room at St Pancras, except for pre-1851 books and periodicals which are consulted in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room there. For our extensive collection of Danish official and government publications, it is also worth consulting the Social Sciences and Official Publications collections - formerly known as the Official Publications Library.
Related Danish material is held in other parts of the British Library:
Recorded sound is held by the Sound Archive. Manuscripts are held by Manuscript Collections. Scientific monographs are held by Science, Technology and Medicine Collections. Social sciences and scientific serials and conference proceedings are also held by the Document Supply Service in Boston Spa. Other Danish material is held by Maps, Music, and Philatelic Collections.
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