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Polish Collections

This page provides an overview of the Polish Collections, illustrated by specific examples. We acquire material across the spectrum of the humanities and social sciences published in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and material in the languages of those countries published anywhere in the world.

Polish dancers

Polish dancers by Z. Stryjenska from Tance Polskie (1938). []. Copyright © The British Library Board


The exact size of the Polish holdings is not known, since, like other country/language holdings, they have no separate catalogue and are dispersed within the rest of the collections. There are approximately 21,400 titles in Polish in the current catalogue (which covers items acquired since 1975).

The beginnings

The earliest works by Polish authors in the British Museum were books written in Latin and published both in Poland and in Western Europe. They included many distinguished authors: Nicolas Copernicus, Martin Kromer, Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski and others. Among them is the first book in Polish in the British Museum: the Psalms translated by Maciej Rybinski and published in Gdansk in 1632.

The library of King George III presented to the Museum in 1823 included few books in Polish, the most notable being the "Radziwill" Bible of 1563, once treasured property of Bishop J.A. Zaluski (1702-1774), eminent bibliographer and co-founder of the first Polish national library. But the foundation stone under the future Polish collection was laid by Prince A.J. Czartoryski who in 1832 presented the Museum with 80 books mainly on Polish history, literature on Polish affairs in the 1770s-1810's and also including early 19th century editions of classical Polish authors. The subsequent growth of the Polish collection was part of the general expansion of the Library under Panizzi's management. Ca. 1840 the firm Adolf Asher (with a branch in St. Petersburg) became a major supplier of foreign books to the Museum and the chief source of Polish acquisitions. By 1861 Polish was one of the less known language collections believed by Thomas Watts (the library's chief selector of foreign material and its first employee familiar with East European languages including Polish) to be the best outside Poland. It has remained such ever since.

Pre-1800 Collection

The antiquarian Polish collection, like the other country/language collections in the British Library, traditionally includes material published in the country concerned (within its frontiers at the time of publication) and elsewhere in the language of the country. Thus books written by Polish authors in Latin and other foreign languages and published outside Poland, as well as foreign polonica, are excluded. Within these limitations the Catalogue lists 2,231 titles. Among them are 4 Cracow incunabula and 292 16th-century books. 880 titles date to the 17th century and 1055 to the 18th, but both groups include an unspecified number of war destroyed items. Early Cyrillic material printed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is included.

There are many rare items, some of them not recorded in K. Estreicher's Bibliografia polska. Some of the treasures are Zwierzyniec (1562) and Zwierciadlo (1567-68) by the "Father of Polish Literature" Mikolaj Rej, Elegiarum libri IV (1584) by Jan Kochanowski, Commune incliti Polonie Regni privilegium (1506), the only perfect copy known of the first Polish hortus sanitatis, O ziolach i o mocy ich by Stefan Falimirz (1534), Chronica Polonorum by Maciej of Miechow (1521), "Radziwill" Bible (1563), the very rare Socinian New Testament (1577) and the first Polish grammar, Polonicae grammaticae institutio by Piotr Statoriusz (1568). Among the most notable 17th-century items are Hippica by Krzysztof Dorohostajski (1603), Historica Polonica by Jan Dlugosz (1615) and astronomical works by Joannes Hevelius. The 18th-century collection includes such landmarks in Polish history as Glos wolny by Stanislaw Leszczynski (1733), O skutecznym rad sposobie by Stanislaw Konarski (1760-63) and Ustawa rzadowa (1791), the first modern constitution in Europe.

Some categories of material are particularly well represented: (i) early Bibles, (ii) legislation issued by the 16th-18th-century diets and (iii) Socinian literature published in Cracow and Rakow (1577-1638) some of which is very rare.


After 1800 the collection rapidly expands. It is strong on 19th-century material published in both Poland and by the émigrés in Western Europe, mainly Paris, after 1830. The 19th century saw the growth of learned societies in Poland, the chief of which was the Academy of Sciences founded in Cracow in 1871 (from 1919 the Polish Academy of Sciences). Its publications are well represented along with those of other societies, academic libraries and universities.

The treasures of the 19th-early 20th-century collection include first editions of the classics of science, philosophy, history, literary criticism and other, as well as literary classics. Among the first editions of the works of the great poets of the Romantic Movement are Sonety (1826), Ksiegi narodu (1832, with a dedication in the author's hand) and Pan Tadeusz (1834) by Adam Mickiewicz; Anhelli (1838), Balladyna (1839), Lilla Weneda (1840), Mazepa (1840) and Beniowski (1841) by Juliusz Slowacki and Nieboska komedia (1835) and Przedswit (1843) by Zygmunt Krasinski. First editions of later classics include works by Norwid, Prus, Zeromski and Wyspianski, as well as the first book edition (1896) of the most translated Polish novel, Quo vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the first Slav to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1905).

The 1918-39 period, with its economic crisis, brought a sharp decline in the intake of Polish material and only in the 1960s and 70s were the gaps filled in. In 1940 a large amount of Polish material in the fields of theology, the arts and also periodicals was destroyed by bombs. Replacements have been acquired wherever possible. After 1945 and until the effects of the momentous political changes of 1989-90 were felt in all aspects of Polish life, including publishing, exchange relations with academic libraries, learned societies and universities were gradually extended and most of the Library's material published in Poland was acquired in this way. As a result, holdings of academic monographic series are particularly strong. The substantial and influential output of the London based émigré publishing houses was acquired on copyright deposit whereas that appearing elsewhere was selectively purchased. In addition we have an important collection of independent publications, books, newspapers and pamphlets produced underground from the mid-1970s onwards and known as the "Solidarity collection". The collection numbers ca. 500 books, ca. 430 serial titles (most very incomplete) and ca. 250 items of ephemera - posters, flyers, etc. Only about 500 books have been fully catalogued to date (May 1996). Anyone interested in this collection should contact the Polish curator for further information.

Since 1990, there has been a gradual move away from exchange agreements towards purchasing material where possible, but we still aim to cover, as completely as budgets will permit, the output of academic and scholarly publishers along with material published by commercial publishers which is likely to be of interest to researchers in the fields of humanities, social sciences and belles-lettres. Official publications including the proceedings of the Sejm and the Senat, Monitor polski, Dziennik ustaw and statistical publications are also acquired. In 1994-5 we acquired 1793 monographs and over 1000 periodical and irregular serial titles.

Catalogues, printed guides and other resources

Polish material elsewhere in the British Library


Magda Szkuta, Curator, Polish Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7585