Our history

Bibliothek ca. 1900 / Kaztalogsaal 1956

The library's origins

The origins of today's State and University Library lie in the Bibliotheca Bremensis, which was founded on 7 November 1660 in the theological auditorium of Bremen's Gymnasium Illustre, in the former Dominican Monastery of Saint Catherine (Katharinenkloster). The Bibliotheca Bremensis primarily served as the library of the Gymnasium Illustre. The Gymnasium, a Reformed College founded in 1610 under the leadership of Matthias Martinius comprised the faculties of theology, jurisprudence, medicine, philosophy, and philology. The Gymnasium Illustre soon emerged as an important institution within the Calvinist education and university system, establishing links to reformed regions in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Scotland. The Gymnasium Illustre had many of the hallmarks of a university, but lacked the Imperial privilege necessary to award academic titles.

Approximately 7,680 students enrolled at the Gymnasium Illustre in the two hundred years spanning the period from 1610 to 1810.

The Bibliotheca Bremensis united a number of disparate collections, including parts of the church library established in the aftermath of the Reformation, the City Council Library (presumed to have been established sometime in the Late Middle Ages), various private donations from professors, and the library of the Latin School (the predecessor to the Gymnasium Illustre).

The single most significant contribution to the new library was the collection of Melchior Goldast von Haiminsfeld, a universal scholar and jurist, whose collection of approximately 2,000 volumes was purchased from his estate by the council in 1646.

The Bibliotheca Bremensis was open to the public, if only for a mere two hours a fortnight. Moreover, access was restricted to the Lord Mayor, Councilors, and officials of the church and schools. Nevertheless, with the establishment of the Bibliotheca Bremensis, the city now had access to a modern sectarian and humanistic library.

Melchior Goldast von Haiminsfeld

Melchior Goldast von Haiminsfeld

In 1646, in what can only be described as a moment of historical providence, Bremen's City Council was able to acquire one of the most significant contemporary private libraries at a price of 1,350 thalers. The library was the property of jurist and universal scholar Melchior Goldast von Haiminsfeld (1578-1635).

Goldast was a passionate collector of books, and his collection was both a personal scholarly library and an expression of his ardent bibliophilia. Forced to move from Bückeburg to Frankfurt in 1624, Goldast feared that his library might be lost in the tumultuous upheavals of the Thirty Years War, and chose instead to leave his collection in the care of the Monastery of Saint Catherine (Katharinenkloster) in Bremen. Goldast died in 1635.

In 1646, the City Council purchased the collection from Goldast's heirs. Scholarly works and treatises on history, jurisprudence, and classical philology formed the main body of the collection. The City Council was particularly interested in securing the printed works, which reflected the state-of-the-art in these fields. The collection also included a significant number of manuscripts, transcriptions of lectures and medieval codices, including an evangelistary manufactured in the Abbey of Echternach between 1039 and 1042 for the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, currently the State and University Library's most valuable holding.

The 18th century: a period of stagnation

The scope of the Bibliotheca Bremensis remained virtually unchanged for one hundred years, and its specifically sectarian-humanistic character soon became obsolete. In 1711, the library is believed to have held roughly 5,000 items. In the absence of regular funding for new acquisitions growth had stagnated, with occasional donations from the council and revenue from penalties for late returns  forming the library's sole sources of income. Moreover, the librarian – one of the Gymnasium's professors – was required to obtain the express permission of the senatorial inspectors before making any acquisitions. The development of the collection was thus determined primarily by donations.

Due to the restrictions on its use, the Bibliotheca Bremensis played a relatively minor role in the public life of Bremen's citizenry, and was clearly incapable of sating the public's growing appetite for books in the Enlightenment period; a task that was fulfilled by the city's various reading societies and circles. Indeed, the library did not make any further significant acquisitions until the late 18th century. In 1783 the library was bequeathed the estate of Bremen scholar Johann Philipp Cassel (1707 - 1783). A Professor of Rhetoric and the Liberal Arts, Cassel was also a historian, librarian and philologist. His estate was comprised primarily of theological and legal disputations from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Then, in 1793 the Bibliotheca Bremensis acquired the seven-thousand-volume library of the German Society of Bremen (Bremische Deutsche Gesellschaft). Founded in 1748 by the preacher and historian Samuel Lappenberg (1720 - 1788), the Society's mission was to foster public awareness of history, literature, rhetoric, and poetry. The acquisition of the Society's library provided the Bibliotheca Bremensis with an extensive stock of contemporary German literature.

The library in the 19th century

The establishment of an interdenominational school system led to the closure of both the Gymnasium Illustre and the Lutheran Athenaeum. The latter was located in the city's cathedral precinct and was established to counteract the Gymnasium’s growing influence. The library remained unaffected by this development and continued to exist as an independent institution. The Athenaeum's holdings, however, did not pass into municipal ownership until much later (in some cases not until after the Second World War).

The 19th century saw the establishment of numerous scientific societies in Bremen, which established their own special collections and made these available to their members. Unlike the municipal library, many of these institutions had substantial funds at their disposal, and often received donations from members' private collections. Meanwhile, the Bibliotheca Bremensis (now known as the Municipal Library) operated on a modest annual budget of 100 Imperial thalers (Reichsthaler), severely restricting its ability to acquire new publications. With an inventory of just 30,000 volumes, the municipal library held less stock than several of the city's reading societies, and remained a marginal institution until the mid-19th century.

Johann Georg Kohl

The situation improved in 1863 with the appointment of travel writer Johann Georg Kohl as Director of the Municipal Library. Kohl, who was Bremen's first full-time librarian, overhauled the library's aging catalogs and secured a significant increase to the available funding for acquisitions, while also overseeing the modernization and expansion of the library's holdings. The acquisition of the libraries of the Natural History Society (Naturwissenschaftlichen Vereins) and the Historical Society (Historischen Gesellschaft), along with a collection of scientific works held by the Association Museum (today's Club zu Bremen) saw the integration of a number of regionally significant collections within the library's holdings. Increasingly, private individuals also began to donate their collections and estates to the Municipal Library, among them the well-known Bremen doctor and astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. The library's holdings grew so rapidly that in 1896 Kohl's successor, Heinrich Bulthaupt, commissioned the construction of a new library on Georgstrasse (today's Breitenweg). The building was one of the first libraries in Germany to be equipped with self-supporting stacks.

The library in the 20th century

While Kohl's successor Henry Seedorf continued to sharpen the library's academic focus, the library was not awarded the official title of Bremen State Library (Staatsbibliothek Bremen) until 1927, under the leadership of Hinrich Knittermeyer. In 1934, the library became the legal depository for the state of Bremen.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the State Library held approximately 300,000 items, including 183 incunabula and 1,660 manuscripts.

Archives, museums, and libraries throughout Germany profited from the expropriations and confiscations carried out under the National Socialist regime. Libraries served as collection points for banned political literature, and were assigned "gifts" by the Gestapo and the National Exchange Office (Reichstauschstelle). Libraries also received large numbers of books (and entire collections) confiscated or plundered by the Wehrmacht in the occupied territories. Holdings of this kind were often designated in the acquisitions records as "gifts", "transfers", or "old stock".

The Bremen State Library also expanded its collection through the acquisition of books belonging to Jewish refugees seeking to flee the Nazi terror via Bremen's international port. Baggage and belongings confiscated at the port were publicly auctioned in 1942, with the Library acquiring approximately 1,600 books at these auctions; just over 40% of the total annual acquisitions. The looting of cultural works under the National Socialist regime was not significantly addressed until the 1990s. For a detailed account of this issue, please see the project profile below: "Looted cultural property in the State and University Library Bremen".

In fall 1942, roughly 100,000 volumes were transferred from the State Library to Bernburg (Saale) to protect them from potential harm. In the aftermath of the war, these books were confiscated by units of the Red Army returning to the Soviet Union. The areas affected by these confiscations included the philology department and the library's collections of author's editions, reference works, bibliophilic woodcuts and copper etchings from the 16th to 19th centuries. Much of the library's collection of portraits and maps relating to Bremen was also lost.

The fate of these holdings remained unknown for decades, although it was often suggested that they had been taken to the Soviet Union. Significant numbers of manuscripts were returned to the State and University Library from the GDR and the Soviet Union in 1987, 1989, and 1990.

Since 1996, a further 25,000 volumes have been restituted from the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Armenia. As much as 75% of the restituted items require extensive bookbinding and restoration work due to their poor physical condition. Cataloged works from these collections (identified by the signature prefixes 'Tiflis', 'Eriwan' and 'Restitut') are available for viewing in the manuscript / rare books reading room.

Post-war reconstruction

When the library reopened on 31 May 1948, its holdings had been reduced by a third. Significant damage to the building, half of which was destroyed when it was struck by three Allied bombs in 1944, had been gradually repaired. The reading room was reopened to the public in December 1949, and a new catalog hall and issue counter followed in 1953. With the conversion of the fourth floor into a flat-roofed stack room, only the architectural core of the 50-year-old building remained. The Bremensien collection (a collection of manuscripts, books and other items relating to Bremen) survived the Second World War unharmed, and the State and University Library now holds one of the most important collections of regional literature on north-western Germany.

The library 1932 and 1960

At the recommendation of the Science Council, planning for the establishment in Bremen of a new university began in the early 1960s with the direct involvement of the State Library. In 1965, under the leadership of Head Librarian Dr. Rolf Kluth, the project was officially designated: "University library in development". Significant funding was soon made available and planning began for the construction of a modern on-campus library. Styled after contemporary US libraries, the new library was to be an air-conditioned, open access library complete with a stack room. In 1974, the library relocated from the city center to the university campus and began to operate one year later in January 1975. With its strong, clear lines, the library's quadratic building has 8,000 m² of floor space spread across five stories. The stack room, printing office, bookbindery, restoration laboratory, and many of the administrative offices are all located on the ground floor. From the outset, the open access areas on Levels 1-4 formed the core of the library, and the open stack shelves now hold approximately one million items. The library's open access holdings are flanked by work stations facing the building's glazed exterior.

New on-campus library / Dr. Rolf Kluth

In the 1980s, the University Library was redefined as part of a larger strategic reorganization of Bremen's university and library systems.

In its new role as the State and University Library Bremen, the library is charged with providing media and information to the University of Bremen and the city's various colleges for research, teaching and study purposes. It is also the State Library of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.

The 1990s saw an explosion of new publication formats, information procurement and indexing technologies. In addition to print magazines, books and audiovisual media, the library also began to acquire electronic journals and specialized databases. With the evolution of the Internet and search engines, digital media have redefined the information landscape. The State and University Library has adopted a successful change policy from the very outset of the Digital Age. As a so-called hybrid library, the SuUB has systematically expanded its digital literature and information holdings, while continuing to acquire substantial numbers of printed publications.

Following its launch in 1999, the library has continued to develop its innovative search engine, the Electronic Library Bremen (E-LIB), enabling users to access both the library's media and a vast range of scientific publications available on the Internet. In recognition of this remarkable achievement, the library was awarded first prize at the National Library Innovation Awards in 2006.


A new design: 2002-2004

In the 1990s, the library's stacks were extended and a journals reading room constructed at the on-campus Central Library. Staff areas were equipped with new IT facilities prior to the introduction of PICA, an integrated library system, which has been used since the late 1990s to manage everything from cataloging, to acquisitions and lending across all of the library's departments and sites.

Further renovations were conducted in the Central Library between 2002 and 2004. In addition to a variety of technical alterations aimed at increasing the library's energy efficiency, the lobby, manuscript reading room and media library were all modernized. Parallel to this, the library's study desks were replaced with new notebook workstations. The branch libraries have also been revamped in recent years, with the Economics and Physics/Electrical Engineering libraries enjoying a complete overhaul, along with branch libraries at colleges in Bremen and Bremerhaven.