History of the Library

The Berlin University which was founded in 1810 and renamed as Humboldt University in 1949 initially possessed no library of its own. Literature was provided by the Royal Library (today: the Berlin State Library, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation).

Soon an own library for the students of the University became inevitable and consequently the University Library was founded in 1831. Housing 1,668 volumes in 1832, it did initially not have a rather substantial collection. Its accession budget was low and it was subordinate to the Head of the Royal Library. At first, new accessions came mainly from the right to legal deposits (the University Library had this right until 1970), book exchanges and the acquisitions of large libraries of scholars. However, only from the 1870s on a fixed budget was granted by the state and this allowed the University to pursue a continuous accession policy.

Exterior view of the University-Library

Façade of the University Library, Dorotheenstraße corner Universitätsstraße, at about 1929

Eventually one of the most efficient university libraries in Germany developed towards the beginning of the 20th century fostered by further steps like the increase of staff, the temporary move-in at the rearward building of the Royal Library (today: Haus 1 Unter den Linden of the Berlin State Library) and above of all the continuous budget rise which included special allocations to fill collection gaps.

The development of the library stagnated as a result of the insecurity which was brought about by events like World War One, times of inflation and the Great Depression. Fluctuations in the budget hampered the continuing extension of the collection. However, the further development of the University Library was positive and up to the 1930s it recorded an ever-growing number of accessions and users. In 1922 the library eventually moved into its new rooms with a trendsetting reading room.


After their takeover in 1933, the Nazis orchestrated a burning of books very near to the University Library, on the ‘Bebelplatz’. But its holdings remained unscathed and thus it shelves today a considerable number of copies of those books which were destroyed.

The Old Readingroom Collection

The old reading room which was largely destroyed during World War Two; about 1929, Titzenthaler.


The forced alignment by the Nazis also showed effect in the University Library. R.Hoecker, the director of the library at that time was forced to retire pursuant to the ‘Law of the reintroduction of the Civil service system’. Hoecker played an important part in the Berlin libraries after 1945and became Director of the Public Academic Library (later State Library) in East Berlin, before he was dismissed again.

Astonishingly, the University Library suffered hardly any losses during the Second World War considering that the collections were not taken to off-site depositories but remained to provide the Berlin population with literature.

The period between 1945 and 1989 was characterized by efforts to centralize and coordinate the library activities more stringently. In particular, this refers to those structural changes which combined the libraries of the institutes and faculties in a system under the leadership of the Director of the University Library.

The compilation of guidelines, derived from the manuscripts of W Goeber, Director of the University Library in those days, was the basis of the ‘Directive 22/69 of the Ministry for Higher and College Education. It settled, among other things, that in Higher Education all branch libraries were subordinate to a central library. Thus was laid the organizational foundation which lead eventually to the one-track library system after the Fall of the Wall in 1989.

Stack stairs

Stairs to the stack in the former central library (Dorotheenstraße 27)

In the GDR, the plan for the area of collection emphasis focused on international and national higher education, mathematics, special zoology, veterinary medicine, Romance studies, finance and insurance studies and Finno-Ugric studies. But a problem is the rather limited collection which concentrated largely only on research publications in Eastern countries. However, due to extensive relations for exchange those publications there were completely acquired. Items from Western countries were scarce because of the foreign currency shortage and political reasons as well. This lead up to decisive holding gaps which now can hardly be filled anymore in order to build up a balanced collection of those days.

After the reunification in 1990, a new chapter in the history of the University Library has begun. Considerable special funds for the completion of the holdings have been spent and partly helped to reduce the book deficits mentioned above. A state of the art IT system has been implemented and new forms of media have been acquired. The registration in card catalogues came to an end and an efficient online catalogue has been introduced.


The EDP centre in the lounge of the former central library (Dorotheenstraße 27)

On January 1st 1998, the University Library of the Humboldt University was admitted to the German Research Community. Thus it acquired the status of a library with special collection areas and has been taking care of ‘the general and comparative social anthropology/folklore studies and ethnology’ and ‘higher education, organisation of sciences and their institutions’

As member library of the cooperative library network Berlin – Brandenburg (KOBV) which was established in 1997, the University Library has now been involved in an important network system which is even rated as one of the technologically most advanced systems in Germany.

In 2003 the holdings of the university departments of Mathematics, Physics, Information Science, Chemistry, Geography and Psychology merged in the Science Branch Library at the Erwin-Schrödinger-Zentrum (ESZ) in Berlin-Adlershof. Beside the library, there are also lecture halls of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and the Computer and Media Service (CMS). The Erwin-Schrödinger Zentrum was opened on April 11, 2003.


(NB: more recent developments are being entered soon)