German printed collections

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, a detail from the title page of their Deutsches Woerterbuch. Shelfmark: W9/7274

The British Library’s holdings of books printed in the German-speaking countries are among its largest non-British collections. We have some 115,000 German books published before 1801 and continue to acquire both contemporary and antiquarian material.

About the collection

Our early German collections as whole (taking ‘German’ to refer to books printed in territories where German was spoken at the time, as well as books in the German language printed elsewhere) are strong in nearly all subject areas, especially theology and church history, general history, classical antiquity, science and medicine. Unlike collections in major libraries in the German-speaking countries, the historic German collections of the British Library are not limited by regional, historical or religious criteria, and they are rich in popular and ephemeral publications. For this reason they are of worldwide importance.

Since the 19th century the Library has maintained a policy of acquiring contemporary material in a range of humanities and social science disciplines from Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland, resulting in collections that reflect the historic and continuing contribution of the German-speaking world to scholarship and literature in many different fields and genres.

Both early and modern German collections include German-published material in other languages: until the mid-18th century, about half the books printed in the German-speaking world were written in Latin, and today Germany is home to a number of international academic publishers which issue books in English and other European languages as well as German.

What is available online?

All our German printed holdings can be found in the British Library’s online catalogue, Explore the British Library.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Most post-1850 German printed books and periodicals can be ordered to any of our Reading Rooms, usually within 70 minutes, although an increasing amount of material is held at our Boston Spa site in Yorkshire and may take up to two days to arrive.

Pre-1850 material can be consulted in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room, while newspapers, maps and manuscripts are available in their own respective Reading Rooms. All the reading rooms have some reference works on open shelves, including bibliographies, catalogues, dictionaries and general reference works.

A large number of electronic resources can be accessed through the Reading Room PCs. Staff are available to offer bibliographic and other basic research assistance.

Further information

There are two specialist printed catalogues of our pre-1701 holdings:

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).