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).

How to guides

Guide to researching provenance of books now in the British Library

Where do the British Library’s old printed books ‘come from'? Who owned or read them in centuries past? Why does it matter?

What collection items can I view online?

You can see books, manuscripts, maps, playbills, scores and much more. Researchers can use our collection of electronic resources and databases to help them find material relevant to their research.

Can I take photographs of British Library material myself?

You can take photos of our collection items yourself in British Library Reading Rooms

Breaches of British Library Reading Room Conditions of Use

These guidelines outline the British Library’s policies and procedures with regard to breaches of its Reading Room Conditions of Use. They are to ensure consistency in the actions taken in response to such breaches and to define the appropriate roles and responsibilities in the process.

Electronic resources

We collect thousands of electronic journals, books and websites and hundreds of databases. You need to come to the Library to access the majority of these resources.

Terms of use for Google Books

This page states the terms and conditions surrounding the British Library’s out of copyright books which have been digitised by Google.

Guide to the British National Bibliography

A guide to help you use the British National Bibliography catalogue, covering: login, search, and how to manage your results

Can I copy material in the Reading Rooms?

What you need to know about copying British Library collections in our Reading Rooms

How to handle books

See the techniques you should use to keep our books in good shape.

Using gloves with books and manuscripts

Should you wear gloves? Here's some advice to help you decide.

How to handle rolled items

We show how you should unroll items like scrolls, rolls and maps.

Free Discovery and 1-2-1 sessions: 2019

We offer a range of free Discovery and 1-2-1 sessions to help you make the most of your time researching here.

Guide to Explore the British Library

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to order/view items

How to request items not in the catalogue

You can use 'Request Other Items' to order items which have no record in Explore the British Library. Also to order most items found in Expore Archives and Manuscripts.

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.

Search for resources in microforms

How to search for resources in microforms

How to handle folded items

Find out how you should hand items like large maps and book inserts.

Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to use the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)