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Library of the Month: The Warburg Institute Library

Posted By Administration, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: The Warburg Institute Library

The Warburg Institute Library in London is our Library of the Month for October. Thank you to François Quiviger, Assistant Librarian at the Warburg Library, for the contribution.


The Warburg Library stems from the personal library of the Hamburg scholar Aby Warburg (1866-1929), whose research centred on the intellectual and social context of Renaissance art. In 1921 this library became a research institute in cultural history, and both its historical scope and its activities expanded as a centre for lectures and publications. In 1933 it moved from Germany to London to escape the Nazi regime, and in 1944 it was incorporated in the University of London. The Warburg Institute Library holds a collection of international importance in the humanities. Its 350,000 volumes make it the largest collection in the world focused on Renaissance studies and the history of the Classical tradition. It includes a large number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century continental books and periodicals (especially German and Italian), unavailable elsewhere in the UK, as well as several thousand pre-1800 items, many of which are extant in only a small number of copies. The collections also include many gifts and bequests from scholars, including the books of Fritz Saxl, Gertrud, Bing, Ernst Gombrich, Frances Yates, D.P. Walker, Charles Schmitt and Elizabeth David. A digitisation programme is in progress, resulting in several hundreds of books being made available in open access online. The unique classification system of the Library was established by Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl, and has been refined, extended and reorganised in particular sections by three generations of scholar librarians. It structures Western cultural history under four categories: Image, Word, Orientation and Action, corresponding to the four floors of stacks above the Reading Room. Broadly, these correspond to History of Art (Image, first floor, with classical art and archaeology in the basement), Literature, Libraries and Education (Word, second floor and basement); Religion, History of Science and Philosophy (Orientation, third and fourth floors); Social and Political History (Action, fourth floor). The Library also holds around 2,500 runs of periodicals, about half of them current, on mobile stacks in the basement. The detailed organisation of the Warburg Library, which can also be consulted online, makes inspired connections between different fields of endeavour and study. The open shelves lead readers to books which they might not otherwise find, while the unique arrangement of the sections aids intuitive connections.

François Quiviger

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