History of the Warburg Library

The arrangement of the books was equally baffling and he may have found it most peculiar, perhaps, that Warburg never tired of shifting and re-shifting them. Every progress in his system of thought, every new idea about the interrelation of facts made him re-group the corresponding books. The library changed with every change in his research method and with every variation in his interests. Small as the collection was, it was intensely alive, and Warburg never ceased shaping it so that it might best express his ideas about the history of man. Those were the decades when in many libraries, big and small, the old systematic arrangements were thrown overboard since the old categories no longer corresponded to the requirements of the new age. The tendency was to arrange the books in a more ‘practical’ way; standardization, alphabetical and arithmetical arrangements were favoured. The file cabinets of the systematic catalogue became the main guide to the student; access to the shelves and to the books themselves became very rare. Most libra­ries, even those which allowed the student open access (as for instance Cambridge University Library), had to make concessions to the machine age which increased book production from day to day and to give up grouping the books in a strictly systematic order. The book-title in the file catalogue replaced in most cases that other and much more scholarly familiarity which is gained by browsing.

Warburg recognized this danger. He spoke of the ‘law of the good neighbour‘. The book of which one knew was in most cases not the book which one needed. The unknown neighbour on the shelf contained the vital information, although from its title one might not have guessed this. The overriding idea was that the books together – each containing its larger or smaller bit of information and being supplemented by its neighbours – should by their titles guide the student to perceive the essential forces of the human mind and its history. Books were for Warburg more than instruments of research. Assembled and grouped, they expressed the thought of mankind in its constant and in its changing aspects.


Warburg did not have an exceptionally good memory for book­ titles – he had little of the scholar whose brain holds a neatly arranged encyclopaedia of learned literature – and bibliographical lists were hardly ever used in building up the Library. Since he had begun research he had noted every book-title that interested him on a separate card, and the cards were filed in a system which became more and more complicated as the number of boxes grew. They grew from twenty to forty to sixty, and when he died there were more than eighty. Of course, a great number of entries became obsolete in the course of the years, and it was often easier to establish in a few minutes a more up-to-date bibliography of a subject from modern standard lists than from Warburg’s cards. Yet apart from the fact that they contained so much out-of-the-way material never included in standard lists, this vast card-index had a special quality: the titles noted down were those which had aroused Warburg’s scholarly curiosity while he was engaged on a piece of research. They were all interconnected in a personal way as the bibliographical sum total of his own activity. These lists were, therefore, his guide as a librarian; not that he consulted them every time he read booksellers’ and publishers’ catalogues; they had become part of his system and scholarly existence. This explains how it came about that a man whose purchases were so much dictated by his momentary interests eventually collected a library which possessed the standard books on a given subject plus a quite exceptional number of other and often rare and highly interesting publica­tions. Often one saw Warburg standing tired and distressed bent over his boxes with a packet of index cards, trying to find for each one the best place within the system; it looked like a waste of energy and one felt sorry. Better bibliographical lists were in existence than he could ever hope to assemble himself. It took some time to realize that his aim was not bibliographical. This was his method of defining the limits and contents of his scholarly world and the experience gained here became decisive in selecting books for the Library. His friends used to admire his ‘instinct’ for the interesting and valuable book, his quick grasp of what was es­sential and what unimportant. In Warburg’s system of values instinct did not rank highly ; he valued the experience gained by the hard and pains­ taking work of making innumerable notes in writing and arranging them into a system.

One thing made life especially burdensome to Warburg: his supreme
lack of interest in library technicalities. He had wooden, old-fashioned
bookcases; cataloguing was not done to fixed rules ; business with book­
sellers not efficiently organized-everything had the character of a private
book collection, where the master of the house had to see to it in person
that the bills were paid in time, that the bookbinder chose the right
material, or that neither he nor the carpenter delivering a new shelf over­
charged. To combine the office of a patriarchal librarian with that of a
scholar, as Warburg did, was a hard undertaking.


A new situation arose in 1920. The intellectual hunger of the aftermath of the war and enthusiasm for the works of peace animated the assembly of republican city-fathers, and the founding of Hamburg University was decreed. This new fact would automatically have changed Warburg’s po­sition and that of the Library. But at this very moment Warburg fell gravely ill; he had to leave his home and it was uncertain whether he would ever be able to come back. Up to the last hour before he left the house he continued his studies, convinced, however, that he would never return, and he left the present writer in charge of his work.
The responsibility was heavy. What the Library was, it had become through Warburg’s genius, every book had been selected by him, the systematic arrangement was his, his the contacts with a wide circle of scholars. The problem was to develop the heritage of an absent master and friend and to develop it without his guidance into something new in accordance with the circumstances within Hamburg’s new educational system. The family generously provided the funds for this enterprise.
The year 1920 was, therefore, decisive in the development. Up to then Warburg had never felt the need of defining the aims of his Library before a wider public, and the emphasis on its component parts could con­tinuously change with his changing interests and needs. The longer he was absent, the more one realized that preservation was not enough and that one would have to develop this intensely personal creation into a public institution. It was, however, obvious from the beginning how much would be lost by this undertaking. In every corner of the Library there were small groups of books indicating a special trend of thought-it was just this extreme wealth of ideas which on the one hand made it the delight of the scholar but on the other hand made it difficult for him to find his way about. When Professor E. Cassirer first came to see the Library he decided either to flee from it (which he did for some time) or to remain there a prisoner for years (which for a certain period he enjoyed doing in later years). Warburg’s new acquisitions had, of course, always an inner coherence, but there were many tentative and personal excrescences which might be undesirable in an institution destined for a wider public.
The first and most urgent task in stabilizing the Library seemed, there­fore, to ‘normalize’ Warburg’s system as it was in 1920 by enlarging it here, cutting it down there. No existing system of classification would apply because this was a Library destined for the study of the history of civilization seen from a specific angle. It was to contain the essential ma­terials and present them in such sub-divisions as to guide the student to books and ideas with which he was not familiar. It seemed dangerous to do this in too rigid a form, and in collaboration with Miss Bing, the new assistant, a form was chosen which seemed so flexible that the system could at any moment be changed – at least in smaller sections – without too much difficulty. In consequence it will never be as easy to find a book in the Warburg Library as in a collection which is arranged according to alpha­bet and numbers; the price one has to pay is high – but the books remain a body of living thought as Warburg had planned.

Da Fritz Saxl, The history of Warburg’s (1886-1944), in E. H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg. An intellectual biography,  The Warburg Institute – University of London, 1970.

Pubblicato da aubreymcfato

Digital librarian, former president of Wikimedia Italia.


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