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History of the BGBM Library

In 1815, Heinrich Friedrich Link, then director of the Royal Botanic Garden Berlin and professor of botany at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, started to supplement the life collection with a herbarium and a botanical library. A herbarium was indispensable not only for the purpose of comparing new aquisitions with already known plants, but also for permanent preservation of the cultivated, rare and often newly described species. In a similar way a library next to the garden and herbarium was indispensable for the comparison of the life plants and herbarium specimens with material described in the literature.

The estate of Link's predecessor Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812) formed the basis for herbarium and library. The acquisition of Willdenow's scientifically invaluable personel herbarium and library was made possible "by cabinet order of 19 November 1818" as proposed by the minister Karl Freiherr vom Stein zum Altenstein. King Friedrich Wilhelm III. agreed "to purchase the herbarium for 36 000 marks and the library for 18 000 marks; the former was given to the university, of the latter the Royal Library was allowed to take all books not present in its holdings; the remaining books (437 no.) were left as a reference library with the herbarium" (Urban 1881: 100). 1819, when library and herbarium of Willdenow actually came into the possession of the Botanic Garden, can be taken as year of the foundation of the library.

Fig. 1. Stamp in volumes of the library acquired during the first half of the 19th century

The Royal Prussian Herbarium ("Königlich Preussisches Herbarium") and the herbarium library were first provisionally kept  "in a backward wing of a building belonging to the Academy [of Sciences] in the Dorotheen-Strasse 10, in the rooms above the chemistry laboratory" (Urban 1881: 100). While the senate of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität favoured the permanent accommodation of the herbarium in a university building together with the other natural science collections, Link successfully argued for the bringing together of herbarium and library with the Botanic Garden, then situated outside the city of Berlin, in the village of Schöneberg, close to the present day Kleistpark. In 1822 the Royal Prussian Herbarium and its library thus moved into the small building on the site Neu-Schöneberg 27/28 (today at the corner of Potsdamer Strasse and Großgörschenstrasse). The unification of garden, herbarium and library is certainly one of Link's greatest contribution to botany in Berlin. This model  was a significant prerequisite for the later international importance of the Berlin Botanical Garden and Museum.

Subsequently, the rapid increase of both the garden's life collection and the herbarium caused problems of space. The site Neu-Schöneberg 27/28, separated from the garden by a busy street, was unsuitable for an enlargement of the garden, the one-storey herbarium building with a base of 17 x 20 m was far too small and structurally unsound. In 1857 the site was therefore sold. Until the completion of a first museum building in 1879, the Royal Herbarium and its library  had to be accommodated provisionally.

Fig. 2a. Stamp of the library with the Prussian eagle of the mid 19th century. Fig. 2b. Stamp of the library with the Prussian eagle of 1875

In comparison with the Botanic Garden and the Herbarium, the library remained of minor importance for several decades. While the Royal Herbarium became the main depository for conserved plants and  consequently also incorporated the herbaria of the Academy of Sciences in the 1820s, the Royal Library (today 'Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz') maintained its position as the main depository for botanical literature. Consequently, the holdings of the herbarium library increased only very slowly. Because of lack of support, its holdings, to the scientists' dissapointment, remained for a long time quite insufficient. The volumes of the library of this time carry the stamp "Koenigl. Preuss. Herbarium" [Fig. 1], "Königl. Botanischer Garten bei Berlin" [Fig. 2a] or, as a volume acquired in 1875, the stamp "Königl. Botanischer Garten zu Berlin" [Fig. 2b].

Fig. 3. Stamp of the library used in the years after 1879

With the completion of the first museum building  in 1879 on the former Wilmersdorfer Weg and thus within the Botanic Garden in Schöneberg, herbarium and library were supplemented by a permanent botanical exhibition and a lecture theatre. The institution was renamed "Royal Botanical Museum". In the years after 1879 the library used the stamps "Koen. Bot. Museum Berlin" [Fig. 3-5].  The library was first accommodated on the ground floor of the three-storey building, vis-à-vis the Director's office, in a room of 40 m2, which was connected by a door and staircase with the herbarium and working rooms in the first floor (Urban 1886: 207). The library holdings, however, still ranged far behind the rich other collections of the Botanical Museum. The scientists' frustration with the state of the library is quite obvious in Urban's 'History of the Botanical Garden and Museum' of 1881: "Since purchase of the large personal herbaria of Link, Kunth, Braun etc. was not accompanied by a purchase of their collections of books and reprints, the library definitely cannot compete with the herbarium in completeness; in particular there is a lack of many, often used illustrated works, which, considering the large distance from the Royal Library, is quite marked. The number of volumes is 2344; the reprints ... fill 42 folders" (Urban 1881: 164), in addition a small archive with estates of botanists was kept separately. 

Fig. 4. Stamp of the library with the Prussian eagle used in 1892 Fig. 5. Stamp of the with the Prussian eagle used in 1901

Towards the end of the 19th century, the situation of the library changed significantly.  A massive and purposeful extension of the library's holdings started, by exchanging the Berlin institution's own publications internationally, by incorporating donations as well as by special financial contributions from the government. In October 1906, in the course of the transfer of the Royal Botanical Garden and Museum to Dahlem at its present place, the library moved into the new and much larger museum building in Königin-Luise-Strasse. Its grown importance is reflected by the fact that the library for the first time used an independant stamp [Fig. 6]. In the year prior to the move, the library's holdings comprised "12 139 monographs, 14 794 reprints and 2133 fascicles of serials" (Engler 1905: 17); in the first decade of the 20th century it reached a yearly growth of, on average, almost 1600 volumes (Lindau 1909).

Fig. 6. Stamp of the library  used between 1906 and 1918

The library continued to be a non-public research library, and its use was "allowed only with the permission of the Director". As for opening hours the regulations state: "For those who wish to consult the collections and library in the premises of the Botanical Museum, the building is open from 8.00 a.m. till 3.00 p.m. An extension of this period is approved by the Director only as a very special exception and in particularly justified cases" (cf. 'Regulations for the use of the collections' of 1907 according to Urban 1916: 257).  
The November Revolution in 1918 and the foundation of the Weimarer Republik as well as changes in the geographical circumscription of the city of Berlin, such as the inclusion of Dahlem and Steglitz, are also reflected in the library's stamp [Fig. 7].

By 1943 the library holdings had grown to a total of about 80 000 volumes of monographs and serials and included 200 000 reprints (Pilger 1953a). In the night from 1 to 2 March 1943 almost the complete collection was lost, when  the museum building was hit by an air attack. The archives, the herbarium and the show rooms of the museum suffered from a similar fate.

Apart from a number of 'Rara', which had been evacuated into the strongroom of a bank, only a few small holdings kept as separate libraries, such as the library in the garden office (the 'garden library', according to Pilger 1953a comprising about 400 volumes) escaped the fire. These holdings, altogether hardly a thousand volumes, were used to start rebuilding the library.

Fig. 7. Stamp of the library  
used in 1936

A special fund of 1 million marks from the government made major purchases possible, hard to believe but true, already during the closing years of WW II. These acquisitions were immediately evacuated into depositories "in Bleicherode, Friedrichswert in Thüringen, Baruth i. Sa., Pfaffendorf i. Mark and Buckow i. Mark" (Pilger 1953a: 20). However, apart from the holdings deposited in Bleicherode, which were returned in 1947-48, all other evacuated acquisitions got lost (Pilger 1953b: 29).

Under extremely difficult conditions, such as lack of space, personnel and funds, a second reconstruction started after the end of WW II. Various donations, the acquisition of the personal libraries of J. Bornmüller, W. Kirschstein and E. Pritzel, as well as further purchases slowly re-established a working basis. In 1953 the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum started again the publication of its own journal and a series of monographs, which enabled the library to take part in the international exchange of publications. 

The profile of the library underwent a major change: since the post-war-years, the library is open to the public interested in botany and takes part in the interlibrary loan system.  The library's holdings of serials soon reached some importance again and at an early date its journals and series were completely catalogued in the German Serials Database, founded in 1973. The acquisition policy continues to be determined by the necessity, inherent in phytotaxonomic research, to go back to publications of the 18th and 19th centuries. Consequently, both modern and historical literature, published in all languages and dealing with all aspects of phytotaxonomy and phytogeography are collected. The library's stamp has remained largely unchanged [Fig. 8].

Fig. 8. Current stamp of the library

After the reconstruction of the east wing of the museum building in 1984-87, the library moved into modern, spacious, three-storied premises with stacks comprising some 9.5 km of shelfs. By 1987, when the library moved into these new rooms, its holdings of 85 562 volumes of monographs and serials had reached its pre1943 size again, 44 years after its destruction in WW II. Botanical literature of the 18th and 19th century is not yet present as complete as before 1943, but the gaps are small. Appreciating the library's importance, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; German Research Council) has started funding the extension of the library's holdings in a program for special libraries of supraregional importance since 2000.

Although there has always been a close connection with the university, the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin was not part of  an university from 1946 until 1994 but directly put under the control of the Department of Science and Culture of the Berlin Government. In 1995 the institution became part of the Freie Universität Berlin. The library has greatly benefited from its integration in the large library system of the university with its modern library management system. Being the largest library in the natural sciences of the Freie Universität, the library became in 1999 the administrational centre for the university's natural sciences libraries. Since 2000 the library shelters in its premises the newly united Biology Library of the former Department, now Institute, of Biology of the university. The two libraries share their staff and some business routines and form the "Library at the BGBM". In the course of a restructuring, the "Library at the BGBM" became in 2016 a unit of its own in the university's library system.

Appreciating the library's importance, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; German Research Council) funded the extension of the library's holdings in a program for special libraries of supraregional importance from 2000 until the termonation of that program in 2010. The digital retro-cataloguing of its holdings was funded by the "Einstein Foundation Berlin" in 2010 in the frame of the national "excellence initiative II" for the universities.

Norbert Kilian, 2000, updated 2016


Engler, A. 1905: Bericht über den Botanischen Garten und das Botanische Museum zu Berlin im Rechnungsjahr 1904. – Sonderabdruck aus der Chronik der Universität, Jahrgang 18. – Halle.

Lindau, G. 1909: Herbarium und Bibliothek. – Pp. 123-127 in: Der Kgl. Botanische Garten und das Kgl. Botanische Museum zu Dahlem. – Berlin.

Pilger, R.1953a: Bericht über den Botanischen Garten und das Botanische Museum zu Berlin-Dahlem vom 1.März 1943 bis 31. März 1947. – Mitteilungen aus dem Botanischen Garten und Museum Berlin-Dahlem 1: 1–21.

Pilger, R.1953b: Bericht über den Botanischen Garten und das Botanische Museum Berlin-Dahlem, April 1947– Dezember 1948. – Mitteilungen aus dem Botanischen Garten und Museum Berlin-Dahlem 1: 22–31.

Urban, I. 1881: Geschichte des Königl. botanischen Gartens und Königl. Herbariums zu Berlin nebst einer Darstellung des augenblicklichen Zustandes dieser Institute. – Jahrb. Königl. Bot. Gart. Berlin 1: 1-164.

Urban, I. 1886: Der botanische Garten und das botanische Museum. – Pp. 184-214 in: Guttstadt, A. (Ed.), Die naturwissenschaftlichen und medizinischen Staatsanstalten Berlins. Festschrift für die 59. Versammlung deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte in Berlin. – Berlin.

Urban, I. 1916: Geschichte des Königlichen Botanischen Museums zu Berlin-Dahlem (1815-1913) nebst Aufzählung seiner Sammlungen. – Beih. Bot. Centralbl., Abt. 1, 34: 1-457.


Library of the BGBM