The National University Library (BNU) in Strasbourg is, by the size of its heritage collections, the second most important library in France, and the most important in the field of higher education and research. Various groups of documents are described as "heritage" collections:

  • pre-1920 publications: it is estimated that there are 1.1 million of these at the BNU;
  • manuscripts;
  • the Egyptology collections;
  • the iconographic and cartographic collections;
  • the collections of coins and medals;
  • special collections.

Items in these collections may not be removed from the library, and specific conditions may be placed on their consultation.

The BNU began building up its documentary heritage as soon as it was founded in 1871, thanks to the very extensive movement of solidarity called into play by the appeal launched in the press, after the Strasbourg libraries were destroyed by fire in August 1870, by Karl August Barack and to the substantial purchases made by the library. Since the BNU's collections only began to be constituted in 1871, they do not reflect the historical strata of cultural and scientific activity in Strasbourg and Alsace over the years, as is the case in other major libraries. Nevertheless, the effort made to reconstitute the old wide-ranging collection took the form of the acquisition not only of individual items but more importantly of entire collections. A significant example of this is the purchase in 1871 of the library of the Strasbourg printer and bookseller François Charles Heitz.

The BNU, formerly the Kaiserliche Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek (imperial university and regional library), includes the collections of scientific documentation of the old imperial university of Strasbourg, which covered every major area of knowledge. These collections represented an ensemble unique in France, constituting a snapshot of research in Germany in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the golden age of science. As a result of the widespread destruction caused by the conflicts of the twentieth century, many items in these German collections are now to be found nowhere else but in Strasbourg.

The BNU's heritage collections are enriched each year by purchases, gifts, and deposits of documents and entire collections. Its policy for acquiring heritage items focuses on four major areas:

  • the retrospective acquisition of documents with a direct connection with Alsace: Alsatian manuscripts, books published in Alsace (including incunabula), posters for events that took place in Alsace, portraits of Alsatian characters, etc;
  • safeguarding the Alsatian heritage for future generations: manuscripts of contemporary Alsatian authors, and artists' works;
  • enriching the existing historical collections, on a more ad hoc basis;
  • enriching the BNU's area of excellence.

Most recent heritage acquisitions

In addition to its ordinary acquisitions of contemporary items, the BNU also acquires a number of heritage documents that correspond to its missions, in order to supplement its existing collections: Alsace and works printed in Alsace from the sixteenth century to date, iconography and cartography, European issues, etc. We present here a number of our most remarkable recent acquisitions.


Old collections

Allioux, P.-H., Fréchet, G., Littler, G. Martinez, M. Strasbourg – Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire. In: Patrimoine des bibliothèques de France, Alsace - Franche-Comté, vol. 4. Paris, 1995, p. 158-179. (Offprint on sale at the BNU).

Chanoine Drioton's Egyptology collection

The Drioton collection was acquired by the BNU in 1961 using the compensation received after the Second World War. Etienne Drioton (1889-1961) was Director General of the Egyptian Antiquities Department (1936-1952), and subsequently taught at the Collège de France (1957-1961). The works in his collection are kept in the Joffre Room and were catalogued on index cards in the second half of the 1960s.

Charles Oulmont

Charles Oulmont (1883-1984) was born in Mulhouse. He taught at the Sorbonne, and was a musician, an art critic and historian, and a collector and author of literary and dramatic works. His taste in art showed a preference for the eighteenth century, and he was more particularly interested in furniture creators. Under the auspices of the Fondation de France, he founded the Centre d'Aide aux Artistes, which later became the Charles Oulmont Foundation.

The Arthur de Gobineau collection

The library acquired the Gobineau collection when it was put up for sale in 1903. The literary oeuvre of Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), together with a good number of items of his furniture, his Oriental collections, and his collections of works of art, was directed towards the imperial university library in Strasbourg by Ludwig Schemann, a professor in Freiburg-im-Brisgau who had been in charge of the Gobineau-Vereinigung since 1889.

Archives of the De Turckheim family

The De Turckheim family's collection is a deposit made from 1998 onwards by Francis de Turckheim. It comprises the family, administrative and professional archives of various members of the family since the sixteenth century, together with those of a number of families and individuals connected with the family, including the Hennenberg, Brunck, Schoenemann and De Dietrich families.
The collection comprises about 29 000 archive documents and 307 printed works (books, etc).


Originally there was no intention of creating a numismatic collection at the imperial library. The sale of the very extensive collection of a person in Colmar was the determining factor in its creation in 1873. At the beginning of the century, the City of Strasbourg, which owned a substantial collection, deposited the 14 000 items it contained with the library. The entire numismatic collection at the BNU currently contains 39 000 coins, medals and other items in coin form.


At the outset, the library was responsible for the general cartographic collections necessary for academic geographical work. At present, however, all the attention is on maps of Alsace, from every period. The general collection contains 40 000 items, and has stopped growing, except for the purchase of general atlases and works on the history of cartography. The Alsace-related collection contains about 4 000 items, the oldest of which date back to the sixteenth century.


The BNU's iconographic collections are substantial and varied. They fall into two main groups - the general collection, and the Alsace-related collection. The general collection comprises a set of 25 000 portraits of famous people from all over Europe, and major photographic sets (including a collection of 22 000 French postcards by Father Ottmann, received in 2007, and a collection of drawings and engravings relating to the city of Nuremberg).

Works printed in Alsace in the 16th century

From the outset, the library assumed the task of attempting to reconstitute a complete collection of all the works printed in Alsace. Not only incunabula and the books printed in the sixteenth century, but also - of course - the entire subsequent production of Alsace-related material. Sixteenth-century Alsatian books are kept in a reserve, with the pressmark R. In 1937, the bibliographer François Ritter published an initial catalogue entitled Répertoire Bibliographique des Livres Imprimés en Alsace aux 15e et 16e Siècles (bibliographical list of books printed in Alsace in the 15th and 16th centuries). The first section covered the incunabula known at the time.


Strasbourg can claim to be one of the cradles of printing: Gutenberg lived here while he worked on his invention. In the fifteenth century, Strasbourg was one of the first towns where books were printed. The BNU is able to witness to this energy in the service of the circulation of knowledge, with a collection of some 2 098 incunabula that continues to expand depending on the possibilities for purchases and deposits. The catalogue for the collection was produced in 1998 by the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Renaissance (Centre d'Etudes Supérieures de la Renaissance), and constitutes volumes XIII, 1-2 of the Catalogues Régionaux des Incunables des Bibliothèques Publiques de France (regional catalogues of incunabula in public libraries), by Françoise Zehnacker.


The BNU owns a collection of manuscripts containing about 6 900 documents. The collection was reconstituted after the disastrous fire in 1870, which destroyed one of Alsace's most famous manuscripts, the Hortus Deliciarum by Herrade de Landsberg. It will never be possible to remedy this loss, of course, but it was nevertheless the reason for the arrival in Strasbourg of a collection of extremely interesting manuscripts, which currently form the core of the library's most valuable collections. Some of the manuscripts are relatively famous, including the exemplar of the mystic autobiography of the monk Henri Suso (fourteenth century), and tracings of the Hortus Deliciarum made before the fire by a number of specialists, which make it possible to imagine what the lost treasure was like. There are about 700 manuscripts from the medieval period.


The presence of an Egyptology Institute at Strasbourg University meant that, from the outset, the BNU needed to constitute an Egyptology collection. Apart from the participation, and indeed the management, of the German Papyrus Cartel, the library's curators acquired collections of important documents in the field of Egyptology and took part in research carried out by academics. The papyrology collections held by the BNU are very eloquent witness to this.


In additional to its substantial collections of papyruses, the BHU also houses a number of collections of ancient items on other media. Above all there is a very large collection of ostraca, comprising 4 958 documents mostly written on fragments of terracotta, but also on limestone and on bone. The collection is arranged by language or script:


The collection of ancient documents, the main group of which comprises papyruses, but which also includes a very large number of other media, was built up starting in 1899 on the initiative of two professors at the University of Strasbourg - Wilhelm Spiegelberg and Richard Reitzenstein. It was subsequently developed by the Germany Papyrus Cartel, which was managed by the library from 1912 to 1914. The First World War put an end to further growth of the collection.

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