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The German Collections at the Library of Congress

Margrit B. Krewson, former German/Dutch Area Specialist
Revised and updated by David B. Morris, German Area Specialist, January 2007

The Library of Congress German collections, the largest and most diverse in North America, support research in all areas of intellectual achievement. German-language holdings can be found throughout the Library and represent some of the institution's best known and most valuable collections. Works in all disciplines are included, with special emphasis on German Americana. The historical collections relating to German tribes, the medieval empire, and modern Germany are numerous and important. Systematic histories of Germany, the extensive collections devoted to politics, foreign relations and diplomatic history, and primary materials in the public government documents collection, as well as historical periodicals, enrich these resources. The literature of travel is extensive, and is supplemented by material for the individual German states, geographies, guidebooks, and gazetteers. The Library's cartographic holdings are particularly strong as they relate to Germany, as are its holdings in the fields of German literature, intellectual life, business, and science.

Nineteenth-Century Beginnings

The Library's German collections began with the acquisition of Thomas Jefferson's personal library in 1815. Although Jefferson's European interest was primarily France, he collected works from other European countries, particularly works pertaining to America. Jefferson stated that he had standing orders the whole time he was in Europe, visiting its principal bookmarts, particularly in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Madrid, and London, "for such works relating to America as could not be found in Paris." The following items in Jefferson's library attest to his interest in the Germanic area: The Constitution and Government of the Germanic Body by Karl Friedrich Necker, Oeuvres complettes de Frederic II, Roi de Prusse, and Untersuchungen über Americka's Bevölkerung aus dem alten Kontinente by Johann Severin Vater, An Account of Switzerland by Abraham Stanyan, The Chemical Works of Caspar Neumann, A Treatise of Artillery by Heinrich Otto von Scheel, and commentaries on religious works by Martin Luther.

Petrus Apianus. Astronomicum caesareum (Ingolstadt, 1540)Nevertheless, no systematic attempt to develop a German collection was made until 1867, when the exchange of public documents with foreign governments was authorized by a joint resolution of Congress. The Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, recognized that the Library was "greatly deficient" in foreign government publications and requested legislation to facilitate the exchange of public documents with foreign countries.

Although international conferences on exchanges at Paris and Brussels in 1885 failed to bring agreement from key European governments, an agent for the Smithsonian Institution in Europe was able to secure large numbers of public documents for shipment to the Library of Congress, specifically 7,000 volumes from the governments of Hungary, Saxony, Wurttemberg, Bavaria, and Switzerland. By 1891, the International Copyright Law was in effect, with Switzerland as the first German-speaking country entitled to benefits of copyright in the United States. This law was extended to Germany in the following year.

In 1874, Librarian Spofford remarked that "there is almost no work within the vast range of literature and science which may not at sometime prove useful to the legislature of a great nation." With this in mind, in 1882 the Library accepted, by a special act of Congress, the private library of Joseph Meredith Toner. This collection, numbering over 50,000 books, pamphlets, and periodicals, is primarily housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Recognized as having great historic, commercial, and political value, the Toner Collection also contains a large number of German scientific journals from the nineteenth century. Many important German-related items were acquired in the following year from the Department of State and the War Department, including a great variety of foreign newspapers and journals covering most of the century.

The importance of collecting German-language materials was emphasized in 1898 when Librarian of Congress John Russell Long noted, "the Library would be justified in spending as much money on continental literature as upon that of Great Britain... The large immigration of Germans, their widening influence in the formation of American character, their interest in German history, literature and genealogy--an interest sure to remain with their descendants--would be the highest reason for a very full German collection in our National Library." In this prescient statement, Librarian Long justified and encouraged the Library's vigorous acquisition of German-language works, an acquisitions policy which continues today. Upon the death of Prince Otto von Bismarck in 1898 the Library purchased all available material relating to his career. A good representation of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century German and northern European woodcuts and engravings was also added to the collections.

Early Twentieth-Century Acquisitions

In 1900, the Library acquired many important German works, including some of the great national bibliographies, such as the forty-four-volume Allgemeine deutsche Biographie. The Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for the year 1900 provides insight into the development of the fledgling German collections. At that time, the Library's holdings consisted of 268 volumes from Austria-Hungary and 1,397 from Germany, including early historical material and collections from the states of Prussia, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Wurttemberg. Some of the German-language newspapers on file represented the cities of Vienna, Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich, Strasbourg, Bern, Geneva, Lugano, and Zurich. By 1901, Librarian Herbert Putnam could report that "the great deficiencies in continental literature have been alleviated." In 1902, important manuscript accessions contained materials relating to the Franco-Prussian War. By 1904, the Library was receiving 262 German-language periodicals and 11 German-language newspapers.

The German collections were further enhanced by two private collections. The first was the Albrecht Weber Collection, which contained "the foundation for all work in Indian philology" and comprised 3,018 books and 1,002 pamphlets. The second was the Kohl Collection of manuscript maps depicting the progress of the discovery of America which the German-born geographer and cartographer, Johann Georg Kohl, made for the U.S. government in the mid-nineteenth century. During the mid-1850s he undertook several seminal geographical studies that focused on the discovery and exploration of the East, West, and Gulf coasts of North America and the Gulf Stream. Well into the twentieth century the Kohl Collection was considered the most comprehensive compilation of cartographic reproductions in America. In addition to the Kohl Collection, the Library acquired Caspar Vopell's manuscript globe dating from 1543.

In 1905 Librarian Putnam inaugurated the Foreign Copying Program, which began by transcribing manuscripts relating to American history in the British Museum (now British Library) and later was extended to other overseas libraries. The collection of manuscripts documenting aspects of American history from the German-speaking countries alone totaled 300,000 items. Putnam's observations on the need for a "full" German collection were reflected in a 1906 Library publication entitled A List of Works Relating to the Germans in the United States. Important German acquisitions over the next two years were the Calendar of Papers Relating to the German Troops in the American Revolution and the papers of Carl Schurz (1821-1906)--soldier, senator, Secretary of the Interior, reformer, and editor--which numbered over 23,000 items. Subsequently, over 1,500 pieces of private correspondence between Schurz and his wife Margarethe, which the Schurz family had withheld, were added to the manuscript collection.

The music collection grew throughout the early years of the twentieth century with the addition of works by such prominent German composers as Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Franz Liszt, and Richard Strauss. In 1909, the Music Division purchased the Albert Schatz Collection, originally located in Rostock, which comprised over 12,000 German and Italian librettos from the seventeenth century and 4,000 from the eighteenth century. This extraordinary collection constitutes a chronology of opera performances from 1541 to 1901 and is accompanied by a catalog prepared by Mr. Schatz himself. In the following year, the division acquired the Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin and Marquise Martorell collections, which contained works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and nearly thirty full manuscript scores of operas by Joseph Haydn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and others.

In 1910 the Library purchased the Deneke Collection, which includes rare materials by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. In the same year President William Howard Taft signed a general copyright proclamation declaring reciprocal copyright relations with Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

One of the most notable events of 1911 for the Library's German collections was the Law Library's publication of the Guide to the Law and Legal Literature of Germany. The first of its kind, this publication was as well received in Europe as it was in the United States. The year 1912 brought additions to the German collections in the form of gold medals sent to the Library from the Emperor of Austria, the King of Prussia, and the Hanseatic City of Bremen.

Acquisitions During the War Years

German acquisitions were hampered only slightly by World War I. Librarian Putnam reported that receipts of foreign official publications for 1915 were "but little less than those of the preceding year." The Librarian's report for 1915 noted a twelve percent decrease in German-language accessions; yet the Library was still able to obtain such items as the untrimmed 1790 copy of Goethe's Faust and eight full-page woodcuts attributed to Albrecht Dürer. The personal library and manuscripts of jurist Paul Krüger were purchased in 1920, prompting the systematic development of the Library's collections of Roman Law materials. The foreign law collections in German also continued to grow throughout the war years, leading the Librarian to state that "now a representative collection of the important legal literature of the world has been assembled in the Library." Similarly, the map and music collections grew despite the war, with only the Print Division (later Prints and Photographs Division) reporting that "the war in Europe has possibly interfered more with accessions of importance to the... collections of the Division... than with other divisions of the Library." The poster collections now contain approximately 4,000 German posters, and the Graphic Design collection contains samples of American and European commercial prints from the period 1875-1925.

At the end of the war the Library purchased several collections of war-related materials and other items previously ordered but not delivered, as well as a collection of several hundred German-language broadsides issued in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Poland, and Italy. With these acquisitions, the Library's accessions reached their prewar level. Other notable acquisitions included a collection of 20,000 typewritten cards containing summaries and translations of articles that had appeared in newspapers and periodicals published in the states of the Central Powers during the war.

The Library's German collections continued to grow in the 1920s and 1930s. Receipts of German government publications, which had decreased during the war years, were renewed and greatly strengthened following a series of official visits to Germany in the 1920s by the noted bibliographer James B. Childs. The Library also acquired a large number of items of German interest, both through purchase and as gifts from Otto H.F. Vollbehr during this period. Most noteworthy were 3,000 incunabula (many of German origin), which quadrupled the Library's holdings of fifteenth-century books and provided the Library with one of the three perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum. Also acquired from Vollbehr was the Wilhelm Schreiber Collection, which contained over 20,000 book illustrations from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries and Schreiber's own handwritten inventory, as well as 142 volumes of publications relating to the Reformation, several attributed to Martin Luther and John Calvin. The collection also included decretals, papal bulls, and canon law commentaries.

In 1928, the papers of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben were purchased from the New York Historical Society as an adjunct to the papers of George Washington. The Library purchased the Paul Lowenberg Collection in 1938, which contained first editions of nearly all the works of the "Waltz Kings" of Vienna, the Lanner and Strauss families. The collection has over 1,600 published piano scores complemented by four meticulously compiled volumes of background information.

During World War II, as in World War I, the acquisition of German publications was hampered but not halted. Axis publications, while difficult to obtain, were provided primarily by neutral dealers and through government channels. The Legislative Reference Service (now Congressional Research Service) of the Library of Congress established a Defense Section to assist Congress and defense agencies and a Division of Special Information staffed by more than 100 experts on foreign countries. These bodies provided services unavailable elsewhere, in or out of the government. The Alien Property Custodian forwarded copies of 918 volumes and pamphlets reproduced from German originals to aid the war effort. The amount of wartime material made available for Congress was further expanded by the assistance of the Allied Control Commission. This included material, as Librarian Luther H. Evans stated, that "would never have been otherwise obtained, or..., if acquired through normal channels, would have arrived too late for most effective service."

Postwar Acquisitions

Immediately following World War II, the Library, recognizing the urgent need to acquire German material published between 1933 and 1945, dispatched missions to the main German cities and made arrangements to obtain wartime publications. This gave rise to the Cooperative Acquisitions Project, in which the Library became the executive arm of an effort to procure and supply U.S. libraries with important works that had appeared in Europe during the immediate prewar period and throughout the war years. Unfortunately, many of the publishing houses in Germany lost their stock during the war, and those publishers which had stock available frequently sold out before the Library agents could place orders. Nevertheless, the Cooperative Acquisitions Project did distribute over two million pieces, of which approximately 485,000 went to the Library of Congress.

By 1947, Librarian Evans reported that the Library had supervised the completion of purchase orders in all four Allied occupation zones for other U.S. libraries. The Library was also able to procure one shipment of materials held on prewar orders for American libraries by book dealers in Leipzig, even though Leipzig was in the Soviet-occupied zone. In total, the Library acquired 615,027 wartime items from Germany, 6,984 from Austria, and 2,462 from Switzerland. Among the most notable items obtained in Europe after the war were an early verse translation of the Middle High German epic, Das Lied der Nibelungen by Johann Gustav Buschung (1815) and a first edition of Goethe's Stella: ein Schauspiel für Liebende in fünf Akten (1776). Among other German acquisitions was a portion of the archives of the Deutsches Ausland-Institut, which was staffed by Nazi officers and used to promote National Socialism abroad; collections of prints and photographs of Nazi origin acquired by the Library's mission in Europe; books belonging to Adolf Hitler that are now in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division; the Third Reich collection containing books, albums, and printed material from the Reichskanzlei Library in Berlin; the private book collections of several high-ranking Nazi Party officials, including Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and Franz Xavier Schwarz; forty-seven personal photograph albums of Hermann Göring covering 1933-1942; and twenty-five plans for the redevelopment of Berlin by Albert Speer. The major groups of documentary photographs consist of 500 lots of Nazi-period photographs and 150 lots of Rehse Archiv für Zeitgeschichte und Publizistik encompassing the two World Wars. These lots are described in the Prints and Photographs Division card catalog.

The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division holds the German Speech and Monitored Broadcast Collection, which contains recordings of special events, public addresses by Nazi Party officials, foreign radio broadcasts, news broadcasts and political speeches from more than twenty European countries and governments in exile; a film collection numbering approximately 1,200 features, over 1,000 newsreels, and more than 2,000 educational, cultural, and propaganda shorts. The Science and Technology Division acquired custody of a collection of important documents on German industry, known as the FIAT and BIOS reports, that came to the Library through Allied Intelligence shortly after World War II. These documents provide a clear picture of the nature of German technological advancement and demonstrate German industry's single-minded orientation toward war.

With the establishment of a European Affairs Division in the Reference Department in 1948, Europe was finally represented as a regional division within the Library of Congress. The new division had acquisition, reference, bibliographical, research, and liaison responsibilities.

Special Collections

When Lessing J. Rosenwald presented his magnificent collection of illustrated books to the Library of Congress, between 1943 and 1979, it included his earliest book purchases, which were fifteenth-century German illustrated books corresponding to his interest in early woodcut prints.

Biblia latina (Mainz:Johann Gutenberg, 1454-55)Included in the Rosenwald Collection are some very important early books produced in Mainz: the Giant Bible of Mainz, a spectacular fifteenth-century manuscript; the Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer printing of Durantis' Rationale divinorum officiorum (1459); and the 1460 Catholicon, believed to have been printed by Johann Gutenberg. The Rosenwald Collection has some 560 incunabula, or fifteenth-century printed books. These were added to the over 5,000 incunabula in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, giving the Library of Congress the largest number of fifteenth-century books in the Western Hemisphere. Of course, many of these were printed in Germany where western printing began in 1454.

The Library is fortunate to have the cornerstone of printing history in its copy of the Gutenberg Bible, printed in Mainz around 1454-55. This complete copy on vellum was purchased from Otto Vollbehr in 1930 through a special Congressional appropriation.

The Rosenwald Collection also brought to the Library a fine collection of modern German illustrated books. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division has continued to build in this area. The holdings of the books of the Cranach Press of Weimar are especially impressive, including a copy of Hamlet and a collection of some of the original woodblocks used for illustrating the edition.

The papers of Georg Wunderlich (1883-1951), donated by his wife, were an important addition to the manuscript collections, as reported in the May 1953 issue of the Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions. The gift comprised 2,700 manuscript pieces and eight printed works. Wunderlich, a German lawyer and jurist, lived through the imperial, Weimar, and Nazi periods and through his work provided insight into this extremely important phase of German history.

In 1955, the celebrated violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler donated an extensive collection of music manuscripts to the Library, many of which were his own compositions. The composer made further additions to the collection by donating music manuscripts from Max Bruch, as well as compositions of his own.

Recent Acquisitions

The most significant German-related gains of the Library during the 1970s and the 1980s were the Johannes Brahms and Sigmund Freud Collections. Purchase of the Brahms collection was assisted by the Gertrude Clark Whittall Foundation. By the sesquicentennial of Brahms' birth, the Library of Congress held more of his manuscripts and other related items than any repository outside of Vienna. The Whittall Foundation Collection also includes manuscript sketches and scores of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Alban Berg, Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schubert, Richard Wagner, and Carl Maria von Weber. The Sigmund Freud Collection, numbering over 80,000 items, some of which have been microfilmed, contains manuscripts of Freud's books and articles. The major portion of the collection was donated or deposited by the Sigmund Freud Archives, Inc., New York, and by Freud's daughter, Anna Freud. Additional items have been received by gift and purchase from relatives, acquaintances, and associates of Freud, and from dealers. In 1975, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division began collecting first editions of Freud's works in German and English and later editions containing contextual revisions made by the author. Among these works is a first edition of Die Traumdeutung (Leipzig und Wien: F.Deuticke, 1900), a work which has come to epitomize Freud's contribution to psychiatry. This collection now numbers more than 200 titles. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division also has books from Freud's private library, most of which bear an inscription to Freud, his signature, or some other indication of ownership.

In 1975, the Geography and Map Division acquired the Hauslab- Liechtenstein Cartographic Collection. This collection, assembled by Austro-Hungarian Field Marshall Franz Ritter von Hauslab during the nineteenth century, includes approximately 9,000 map sheets, representing about 6,000 titles from the 16th to the nineteenth centuries. The collection contains much of von Hauslab's original cartographic library, including many maps depicting Austria and Germany. The Prints and Photographs Division has among its holdings the Hauslab Album of 257 original broadsides of land and sea battles (1566-1711).

Waldseemuller Map, 1507 In May 2003, the German collections were enriched by one of the most important acquisitions in the two-century history of the Library: the 1507 map of the world by Martin Waldseemüller. The first document to bear the name "America," the map is often referred to as America's birth certificate. It is also the first map to depict a distinct Western Hemisphere and the Pacific Ocean as a separate body of water. The acquisition of the Waldseemüller Map, which is in extraordinarily pristine condition, culminated a nearly century-long effort by the Library to obtain one of the rarest and most important documents in the history of European cartographic thought.

Special custodial divisions such as Rare Book and Special Collections, Geography and Map, Music, and Prints and Photographs, have regularly and enthusiastically acquired German-language works. However, the Library annually adds thousands of German-language titles to the general collections as well. The Library of Congress has the largest collection of German-language titles of any country outside of the German-speaking world. The Library's general collections are especially strong in recent German scholarship (1980-present), including German history, literature and literary criticism, politics and government, intellectual life and the arts. Particularly impressive is the Library's collection of works on the former German Democratic Republic, a collection which numbers approximately 60,000 volumes.


As one may observe from this chronology, the Library of Congress acquires material in a variety of ways--by purchase, exchange or gift. The vast size of the Library's German collections precludes frequent assessments of their strengths and weaknesses, but systematic collecting and retrospective acquisitions help maintain the collections' integrity.

In 2006, the German collections in the Library comprised approximately 3.3 million volumes, with an average annual increment of about 30,000 volumes. Although a complete survey has never been made, comments from scholarly patrons indicate that the Library's collections of German history and literature are among the most extensive in the United States. It should also be noted that the German-language items in the Library's special collections exceed those found in the general collections, numbering an additional four million pieces. Readers can use the Library's online catalog as well as the card catalog and other printed sources, to find specific works in the collections. Reference questions may be directed to the "Contact Us" link below.

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  January 6, 2020
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