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History of the BNU

Creation of the BNU

Prior to 1870, Strasbourg was considered to be the second most important city in France for books because of the number of works conserved, more particularly in the libraries of the Protestant Seminar and the City of Strasbourg, combined at the Temple-Neuf site in Strasbourg.
During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Strasbourg was besieged and bombarded with cannon fire. In the night of 24 to 25 August 1870, the Temple-Neuf site was set on fire and destroyed, taking with it the entire collections kept there.
The loss was irreparable and many unique documents disappeared - 3 446 manuscripts, including an encyclopaedia of medieval knowledge compiled in the twelfth century under the guidance of Abbess Herrade of Landsberg, the Hortus Deliciarum, and many works by Meister Eckart, Jean Tauler and Conrad of Würzburg.

Vue en coupe du bâtiment réalisée par les architectes August Hartel et Skjold Neckelmann.: Etude préparatoire. Impression par Dorn, Sinsel et Cie de Leipzig. © BNUVue en coupe du bâtiment réalisée par les architectes August Hartel et Skjold Neckelmann.: Etude préparatoire. Impression par Dorn, Sinsel et Cie de Leipzig. © BNU

The shock caused by this destruction gave rise to an appeal for funds in scholarly and academic circles, launched on 30 October 1870 by Karl August Barack, at the time librarian to the Fürstenberg princes in Donaueschingen, and subsequently the first Administrator of the recreated library in Strasbourg. The appeal was very successful and, at the time of its inauguration on 9 August 1871, there were already 200 000 volumes available and installed in the Palais des Rohan. The library was given the name 'Kaiserliche Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek zu Strassburg' (KULBS) (imperial university and regional library in Strasbourg) by an official declaration on 19 June 1872, confirmed by an Imperial Decree on 29 July 1891. The Palais des Rohan soon proved too small and not secure enough to house the collections. On 29 November 1895 the library and its 600 000 volumes officially moved into the building in neo-Italian Renaissance style on the Place de la République (called the Kaiserplatz at the time).

La construction de la bibliothèque. Vers 1885-88.: © BNU – JPR 2009La construction de la bibliothèque. Vers 1885-88.: © BNU – JPR 2009


During the Hohenzollern Empire, 1871-1918

Under the German Empire, the BNU benefited from the support for reconstructing the university in Strasbourg. The amounts involved were generous, and the library even received part of the war compensation awarded to the St Thomas Foundation (designated in 1873 as the successor of the Protestant Seminar). Lily Greiner, former Administrator of the BNU, recalled that the interest from the capital paid to the foundation was to be used to buy manuscripts, precious works and special collections that would have been beyond the reach of an ordinary budget, but that preference was to be given to the disciplines represented at the former seminary. And indeed the German period was marked by a succession of remarkable acquisitions and gifts:
- purchase of the library of the printer and bookseller Frédéric-Charles Heitz in 1871,
- gift of the library of the Consul General of Russian in Lübeck, Karl von Schlösser, in 1871,
- purchase of the library of the law professor Eduard Böcking in 1872,
- gift of the library of the Prince of Bentheim in 1874,
- purchase of the libraries of Friedrich-August Menke and Wolfgang Menzel in 1874,
- gift of the library of the Austrian minister Reichsfreiherr J. Ph. von Wessemberg-Amspringen in 1876,
- purchase of the library of Professor Guillaume Baum in 1878,
- purchase of the collection of Baron Pierre-Rielle de Schauenburg in 1880-1881,
- purchase of documents from the Hamilton collection in 1890,
- purchase of the library of Edouard Reuss in 1891,
- purchase of the library of Charles Schmidt in 1895,
- purchase of the collections of the Comte de Gobineau in 1903.
This policy of acquiring high-profile items was coupled with no less valuable purchases in the Near and Middle East by the German Papyrus Cartel, organised in conjunction with a number of scientific and documentary institutions in the German Empire.

Vue du hall d'entrée de la bibliothèque entre 1895 et 1918 avec la statue de l'Empereur Guillaume Ier: © BNUVue du hall d'entrée de la bibliothèque entre 1895 et 1918 avec la statue de l'Empereur Guillaume Ier: © BNU

The inter-war period, 1918-1940

At the time Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France in 1918, the BNU contained 1 100 000 volumes, making it the second largest library in France. The Decree of 29 July 1926 gave the library its title and its designation as a national public administrative establishment of national, academic and regional interest.
The library received the statutory deposit of printed works for Alsace and the Territory of Belfort (until 1993), and quickly achieved the status of an institution with a regional identity.
No major alterations were made to the building on the Place de la République apart from the installation of an exhibition room on the first floor, first used for an exhibition marking the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Gobineau.

Vue de la salle de lecture sous la coupole entre 1900 et 1925.: © BNUVue de la salle de lecture sous la coupole entre 1900 et 1925.: © BNU

1940-1945

On the eve of the Second World War, the BNU prepared to remove its collections and to put the most precious documents that could not be moved (such as the papyruses and ostraca) in a safe place. As early as 1933, plans began to be made for removal, and an assessment of requirements in terms of equipment and vehicles was drawn up.
The documents were moved even before war was declared (in September 1939). The city of Strasbourg was evacuated on 2 September 1939. One and a half million volumes from the BNU and the libraries of the university's institutes followed the local population, which moved south. Various storage sites were used in the Puy-de-Dôme département to house the most valuable collections, including three chateaux near Clermont-Ferrand - Les Quayres, Cordès, and Theix. Other collections were sheltered subsequently in various places, including elsewhere in Alsace (in Barr, for example).

Le déménagement des collections en 1939: © BNULe déménagement des collections en 1939: © BNU


The northern part of the building on the Place de la République was hit by bombing in September 1944; this caused substantial damage, but the outside of the building was not affected. Barr suffered an extremely violent air attack, and the collections stored there by the BNU - particularly the extensive collections on medicine, the only survivors of the disaster in 1870 - were wiped out. Before leaving Strasbourg, the German occupation troops transferred large quantities of the collections to the interior of the Reich. At the time of the Liberation, no fewer than 44 crates were found at the chateau in Zwingenberg, 33 000 volumes at the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Göttingen, in Hohenheim, etc. The search continued in many areas, including Hesse, Lake Constance, and the Black Forest. In all, during this period, the BNU's losses are reckoned to have been several hundred thousand works (as a result of destruction, theft, and censorship). After the war, the very ornate Wilhelminian decoration was removed, making way for a substantial restructuring project (from 1951 to 1956) that resulted in the disappearance on this interior decoration (recent investigation has shown that absolutely no trace of it remains today).

Château de Cordès près Orcival: © BNUChâteau de Cordès près Orcival: © BNU

Since 1945

Since the restructuring carried out in the 1950s, little change has been made to the interior of the library. Some modest work has been carried out. The most notable change took place in 1992, involving the reading rooms on the first floor.
In the 1960s, two sections were moved from the central building on the Place de la République (Medicine and Science & Technology) to the university campus. In 1976, the administration and the sections on Alsace-related items and Law were transferred to two buildings the library had acquired in the Rue Joffre. A tunnel was built between the building on the Place de la République and the buildings in the Rue Joffre.
In 1992, the three Joint Documentation Services ('SCD's) of the Strasbourg universities were created. The BNU's sections on Science, Medicine and Pharmacy were transferred to the SCD at the Louis Pasteur University.

Vue du hall d'entrée de la bibliothèque et de la salle de lecture centrale sous la coupole à la fin des années 1950: après le réaménagement mené par François Herrenschmidt. © BNUVue du hall d'entrée de la bibliothèque et de la salle de lecture centrale sous la coupole à la fin des années 1950: après le réaménagement mené par François Herrenschmidt. © BNU

The BNU is still the second largest library in France in terms of numbers of works, one of the very best collections on Egyptology in Europe, the leading library in higher education, and the biggest supplier of inter-library borrowing in France for human and social sciences; it continues to develop its specialist centres:
-Germanic cultural area, for which it is the centre for acquiring scientific and technical documentation and information (Centre d'Acquisition de la Documentation et de l'Information Scientifique et Technique - CADIST) and associate centre of the French National Library (BNF),
-religious sciences, for which it is also the centre for acquiring scientific and technical documentation and information (Centre d'Acquisition de la Documentation et de l'Information Scientifique et Technique - CADIST) and associate centre of the French National Library (BNF),
-Alsace,
-ancient history, and
-European issues.

Vue de la salle de lecture 4 en 2010 avant les travaux du chantier BNU Nouvelle: © BNU – JPR 2010Vue de la salle de lecture 4 en 2010 avant les travaux du chantier BNU Nouvelle: © BNU – JPR 2010


For more information:

Barack, Karl August. Die Neugründung der strassburger Bibliothek und die Goethe-Feier am 9 August. Strasbourg, 1871.
Borchardt, Peter
. Die deutsche Bibliothekspolitik im Elsass. Zur Geschichte der Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Strassburg 1871-1944. Cologne, 1981.

Didier, Christophe
. Portrait d'un fondateur : Julius Euting. In: La Revue de la BNU, 2010, no.2, pp. 105-115.
Dubled, Henri. Histoire de la bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. Strasbourg, 1960. 2nd edition: 1973.
Gass, Joseph. Strassburgs Bibliotheken. Ein Rück- und überblick auf Entwicklung und Bestand. Strasbourg, 1902.
Greiner, Lily. Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. In: Francis Gueth (dir.). Douze siècles d'histoire du livre à travers les collections des bibliothèques d'Alsace. Strasbourg: Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace, 1973.
Klein, Charles. La Bibliothèque universitaire et régionale de Strasbourg d'avant guerre et la recherche scientifique. Strasbourg, 1924.
Lebeau, Christine. La Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg de la fondation aux Mélanges Charles Andler : de l'instrument et de son usage (1870-1924). In: Histoire des études germaniques en France (1900-1970), M. Espagne and M. Werner (dir.), p. 109-132.
Mehl, Charles. Les bibliothèques publiques de Strasbourg. Strasbourg, 1867.
Poirot, Albert. Le rayonnement de la BNU dans l'aire culturelle germanique. In: Henri de Grossouvre et Eric Maulin (dir.). Eurodistrict Strasbourg-Ortenau. La construction de l'Europe réelle.
Poulain, Martine. Livres pillés, lecture surveillée. Paris: Gallimard, 2008.
Reuss, Rodolphe. Les bibliothèques publiques de Strasbourg, incendiées dans la nuit du 24 août 1870. Paris, 1871.
Thiaucourt, C. Les bibliothèques universitaires et municipales de Strasbourg et de Nancy. I, la Bibliothèque de l'Université et du pays de Strasbourg, Annales de l'Est, 5 (1891), p. 36-61.
Sansen, Jean. Les transformations de la Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. Offprint. In: Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France, 1977, vol. 22, no.1.
Vogler, Bernard. Les très riches heures de la B.N.U.S. In: Saisons d'Alsace, 107. Strasbourg, 1990, p. 27-35. Littler, Gérard. La Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg. Constitution de collections dans la période allemande (1871-1918). In: Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France, 2002, no.4, pp. 36-46.

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