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German Printed Collections, 1501-1850

Because of changes to the political map of Europe in the 20th century, it is impossible to limit the definition of early German books to the boundaries of present-day Germany. Early German collections should be understood as covering all books printed in those territories where German was spoken at the time, as well as any books in the German language printed elsewhere. Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that until the mid 18th century, about half the books printed in the German-speaking world were written in Latin.

German printer's workshop

German printer's workshop from Die so nöthig als nützliche Buchdruckerkunst und Schriftgiesserey, by Christian Friedrich Gessner (Leipzig, 1740), shelfmark: 820.b.29. © The British Library Board

Taking the above definition as a starting point, it may be stated that the British Library holds about 24,000 separate editions of German books printed before 1600, and about 26,000 from the 17th century. The Library's holdings of 18th century German books may be estimated at 65,000, bringing the pre-1801 total up to 115,000. Since many items are held in more than one copy, the total number of copies is well in excess of that figure. There are at present no reliable estimates for the period from 1801 to 1850. For the period 1501-1750, German books, as defined above, outnumber those from any other foreign-language area.

German books figure in large quantities in some of the Library's major collections, including those of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), Sir Joseph Banks, and The King's Library of George III. These collections were however supplemented by an energetic and enlightened programme of retrospective purchasing during the 19th century, and the acquisition of older German material has continued to the present day, albeit restricted in recent years by diminishing budgets. As recently as 1997, though, a major discrete collection of early printed books was acquired when the holdings of one of the oldest German church libraries in London, the St George's Church Library in Whitechapel, were purchased by the British Library.

The older German collections of the British Library are in one respect superior to those of any individual continental library, namely in their breadth of coverage. Whereas major libraries in the German-speaking countries tend to reflect the historical, geographical, and cultural emphasis of the region where they are situated, the British Library's collections may claim to be truly universal, encompassing books on all topics (including science and medicine, which are strongly represented) from all parts of the German-speaking world (including Austria and Switzerland, and from both Catholic and Protestant territories), and are not confined to serious academic works. On the contrary, they include much popular literature, and many ephemeral publications which German academic libraries did not collect in the past, but which are now seen as vital, primary source materials. War damage inflicted considerable losses, but these were less serious than in many German libraries.

Of related interest among the British Library's holdings is the Todd-Bowden Collection of Tauchnitz editions - a series of literary works in English, though published in Leipzig, which began to appear in the early 1840s and continued to be produced until 1943. It was known as the 'Collection of British and American Authors', and was published under the Tauchnitz imprint, a firm founded by Christian Bernhard Tauchnitz (1816-1895).


Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in the German-Speaking Countries and German Books Printed in Other Countries from 1455 to 1600 now in the British Museum (London, 1962); and a Supplement (London: British Library, 1990).

Catalogue of Books Printed in the German-Speaking Countries and of German Books Printed in Other Countries from 1601 to 1700 now in the British Library (London: British Library, 1994).

A computerised catalogue of German books from the period 1701-1750 is currently in preparation.

Further Information

A more detailed description of the early German collections, their history and particular strengths can be found in Handbuch deutscher historischer Buchbestände in Europa (Hildesheim, 1997-2001), Band 10, pp. 41-90 (entry for the British Library by David Paisey).

For German books and periodicals printed after 1850, see the web-pages of the modern German Collections team.


Susan Reed
German Printed Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7572
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7578